Where The Wild Things Are
A young Columbia University student’s musings while on assignment as a freelance writer-photographer in Nagarahole.
Photo: Shaaz Jung.
We rush past rows of imperial teak trees, barely dodging their ochre barks in our pursuit of the deer’s hauntingly shrill alarm calls. Bark after bark burst right and left from the underbrush. Where could he be? The calls swarm over us like the cicada chorus heard at Kabini’s dusk. We try to focus on everything we imagine could be just out of sight, our eyes searching, our faces contorting with excitement at every cruel imitation of the tiger’s pelt that form and instantly dissolve with the passing reeds and brambles. Flashes of orange and hints of stripes constantly tease my eyes. I turn my attention to the road in front. A flash of bronze lingers too long. It’s him. “Tiger!” I shout. The jeep slams to a halt. I see a snarling jaw and a kingly gaze emerging from the thickets. I am transfixed; my camera dangles idly by my side. But he, not caring for the shaking creatures in front of him, turns down the path. We are left paralysed until the barks of fleeing deer wake us from our awed stupor and we immediately give chase!
This was exactly what I had in mind when I first thought of spending part of my gap year in a national park to research wildlife and tiger conservation. On safari, every sense tingles with excitement as you scan each little leaf, each horizontal branch that’s in front of you in search of rare and magnificent animals. With Indian safaris, you won’t see as many big ticket predators as on the African savannah, but each one you see is so much more special. The rarity of sightings increases the thrill of the chase! The joy I experienced while watching a leopard casually sashay past our lone vehicle, acting as though we weren’t there, was a contrast to African safaris, where jeeps crowd and corral the animals together.
Nagarahole National Park in southern India was the perfect place for me to carry out my research. The landscape of Kabini is enough to send you home with a sense of awe and incredulity. The British Raj used the land to create teak plantations that form soaring regiments that langurs and macaques today play in. The whole forest bursts with activity and sound. What better way to get enthused about studying wildlife than by seeing the majesty of the tiger or the cunning of the leopard first-hand.
Nagarahole reportedly has the largest prey density of any national park in India, with each square kilometre having just under 9,000 kg. of meat or more to satisfy its lucky predators. To put that into perspective, that’s enough food to sustain two fully grown male tigers for a year. All in one square kilometre! Such vast numbers of prey means that predator co-existence is high as competition for food does not drive them to aggressively carve out very large territories. The result: a predator density that leaves tourists ‘entertained’ throughout the year. I myself, during my three-week stay, saw six tigers, four leopards and a wild dog across 20 separate sightings.
However, the abundance of sightings isn’t the only reason why I chose Nagarahole. This wilderness is an exemplary model for sustainable conservation. The park sits in a belt of national parks and wildlife reserves that together comprise the largest Protected Area in India, supporting around 500 tigers, more than enough to prevent in-breeding and the threat of disease.
This number is very likely to increase. Renowned conservationist Dr. Ullas Karanth suggests that tiger numbers are directly linked to prey numbers. For the past two decades he has devoted his life to preventing the loss of prey through hunting, agriculture and cattle-grazing. Dr. Karanth is also responsible for introducing the modern method of tracking tigers in India through camera traps. Earlier, tiger numbers were determined by counting and analysing pugmarks. The unreliability of this technique was partially responsible for the Sariska National Park disaster where poachers wiped out the park’s entire tiger population, even while the authorities kept up the charade of a healthy park for years before coming clean.
Photo: Vimal S. Nair/Entry - Sanctuary Wildlife Photography Awards 2014.
A NATURALIST IN THE FUTURE?
I carried out my research at Orange County Resort, Kabini. The trip was daunting at first as I knew no Hindi! As I bounced and bumped over the small dirt roads that leads to the rustic eco-resort, I fretted over everything: where would I stay? What would it be like? What would they expect from me? My apprehension was only heightened when, upon arrival, I was greeted by a woman who was under the impression I was there to write a book. Was I in too deep? My fears were soon allayed when I walked into my room and met my roommate Ravi, a talented engineer who grew up only 15 km. away. Despite neither of us knowing the other’s language well, we frequently laughed and became friends. He was amazed that I liked the vegetarian Indian food so much! And he taught me all the finer points of Indian Premier League cricket. Ravi’s cheerfulness was matched by all the staff at Orange County, who made me feel part of the team. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever laughed or smiled so much.
What I loved was how appreciative the whole community was of the surrounds in which they were located. I’d be walking along a path and see someone investigating an interesting snake, or I’d talk to one of the naturalists in the morning, who had spent all night researching snail reproduction because a guest had asked him about it. When we returned from safari everyone crowded around asking: “What did you see?” “How was it?” When I managed to capture a decent image of something as common as a deer, they would encourage me enthusiastically. My notebook is covered with the scribbles of everyone’s e-mail addresses so I can send them their favourite pictures.
Wildlife safaris combine the fast-paced adrenaline of the chase with the serene calm of the forest. That’s why I love them. Seeking the most beautiful wildlife in the world got me hooked on the safari way of life. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll end up a naturalist!
FACT FILE: NAGARAHOLE NATIONAL PARK, KARNATAKA
Straddling the lush districts of Kodagu and Mysore , this 643 sq. km. protected area is separated from the Bandipur National Park by the Kabini reservoir. Though, in the days of yore, it was the hunting grounds of royalty from the Wodeyar dynasty, today it is an integral part of Project Tiger. The park is known for its exceptional leopard and elephant sightings.
The closest rail heads are at Mysore and Nanjangud. The nearest airport is in Bengaluru that is 224 km. away.
Orange County: www.orangecounty.in/kabini-resorts/
Green Valley Resort: www.greenvalleyresort.in
Red Earth Kabini: www.redearthkabini.in
All the above lodges hold Eco Pug accreditation from Travel Operators for Tigers and are respectively certified as ‘Outstanding Practice’, ‘Good Practice’ and ‘Quality Practice’ accommodation providers.
Arjun Srivathsa of the Wildlife Conservation Society - India says, ”Visitors to Nagarahole can choose to stay in the Forest Department guest houses or the dormitories located near the Nagarahole Range Office. Visitors will have to book the place a month in advance, but it is great for backpackers on a shoestring budget. Those looking to spend some time in the lap of luxury can opt for the high-end resorts on the Kabini side. Visitors can go for both, forest drives as well as boat rides in the Kabini reservoir. The third option is to stay in one of the many lovely homestays in Coorg, only about a half hour’s drive from Nagarahole.”
Author: Alex Swanson, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 4, February 2015.