Hands up if you’ve ever seen a tiger.
I didn’t say in the wild – zoos count.
OK, hands down.
Now how about a barking deer?
So in theory, it should be much more exciting to see a barking deer.
That’s not exactly the case. I was lucky enough to see – well, hear – a barking deer in Bandhavgarh National Park. It was riveting, but for one reason only:
If you hear a barking deer in the wild, there’s likely to be a predator nearby.
In Bandhavgarh, there were two likely culprits causing the deer to bark.
One was a leopard.
The other was a tiger.
And none of us were there to see a leopard. (Though it would have been cool.) All of the gypsies (jeeps) on our route suddenly converged on the same spot, as close to the deer as possible. Just when things got dead silent, one gypsy would rev its engine and reverse, prompting several others to do the same. Every driver wanted to be the first to show their clients a tiger, even if it was a brief glimpse as it turned tail and ran.
“That’s a good way to scare off the tigers,” Kay whispered. “If they’re even there.”
Kay and her husband Satyendra run the eco-friendly Skay’s Camp, which is where we stayed for two nights in Bandhavgarh. I have never met two people who know more about tigers, and was glad we weren’t one of the gypsies with the roaring engines.
“It’s up to you,” Kay said. “We can stay or go, but we have to be out of the park by 10:30.”
Jared and I glanced at each other. It was nearly 9:45.
“Let’s go,” I said. “There are other tigers in the park.”
Our safari up until that point had been riveting, with or without a tiger. We’d seen a number of other animals, including a stork, langur monkeys, spotted deer, and jackals.
Officially, there are approximately 60 tigers in Bandhavgarh, but according to Kay and Satyendra, the real number is closer to 40. Due to poaching, deliberate poisoning, road deaths, and lack of land, India’s tiger population continues to dwindle.
Replenishing the tigers isn’t as easy as it sounds, due to corruption and cover-ups.
“Anyone abroad who gives money to tiger conservation in India is a fool,” Satyendra told us. He wasn’t being negative, just realistic. There’s no real way of tracing where the money goes, and not everyone wants to save the tigers – livestock and even a few villagers have even been attacked.
Not that you can blame the tigers. When your land is shrinking, your prey is insufficient, and carloads of people with cameras infringe on your territory twice a day, I’d want to claw someone up, too. Especially if they strayed onto my territory to collect wood.
It’s a tiger, people. Not a kitten. Exercise some caution.
Of course I came to Bandhavgarh to see a tiger, but I wasn’t under any illusions. At 6000 rupees ($120) per safari, we could only fit one into our budget. That allowed us four hours to spot a tiger – if they wanted to be spotted.
We’d seen some tiger footprints, called pugmarks (‘pug’ is the Hindi word for ‘foot’), earlier that day. They indicated that a mother and her two cubs had been following the road at some point during the night.
After departing from the chaos of the barking deer/alleged tiger site, Kay spotted something else.
“The male. He’s been here, look.”
Kay and our park-appointed guide quickly identified these pugmarks as belonging to a male, and they ascertained exactly which tiger he was. We followed the pugmarks for several kilometers down the road as they disappeared briefly, then returned.
“What a clever boy,” Kay exclaimed. “He’s taking the shortcuts.”
My heart was racing, detective-style. Were we going to see a tiger? Where was he? How close were we?
Abruptly, the footprints stopped.
“That’s it, then,” Kay sighed. “He’s gone off the road.”
I felt a little deflated, but not much. It was my first-ever safari of any kind, and I didn’t need to see a tiger to make it worthwhile. I knew they were out there somewhere, and that was enough.
As for the barking deer? If he was going ballistic over a tiger, no one in the park that day saw evidence of it.
Must have been a leopard.
We stayed at the lovely Skay’s camp, where accommodation includes insanely knowledgeable hosts, delicious meals and as much tea as you can drink. They don’t have a website, but you can get some more information here. For more details on the tigers of Bandhavgarh and the rest of India, check out Tiger Nation.