IN the chilly darkness, I climb into the passenger seat of the open-top Tata 4x4, with binoculars, camera, hot-water bottle and blanket, for the dawn game drive. The birds are fully awake as the dry teak forest of Pench National Park emerges in the soft amber-pink light. We hear the single, punctuated note of a rutting stag; but no alarm calls yet from these sambar deer to alert us to the presence of our quarry – the Bengal tiger.
It was in this forest that Mowgli killed and skinned his nemesis, Shere Khan. Now the park in this still-poor state of Madhya Pradesh, central India, covers 758 sq km, yet only around 33 adult tigers exist here.
We are on the hunt for a mere glimpse of one, a rare moment of observing this powerful predator in its pristine habitat. There are now only around 3,200 tigers left in the wild anywhere in the world, fewer than the number living in captivity in the US.
After a fruitless, stop-start two-hour search, our naturalist safari guide, Yousef Rizvi cuts the engine while a mahout riding an adult elephant with a youngster amble past, each dragging a chain. Shortly afterwards we stop at a grassy clearing where almost 20 open-top 4x4s converge, forming an orderly arc on the grass. Now past 8am, the heat of the day is building. The Indian drivers mumble together in huddles; it’s unclear to me what we’re doing.
My companion on our drive, a paediatric surgeon from the US, Deborah Albert, tells me: “It’s a tiger show.” She explains that the tigers go to ground as the day heats up, so it becomes less likely that the vehicles, which are not permitted to venture off the tracks, will find one hiding or sleeping. But the elephants that are kept in the park can go off-road looking for them. Should the mahouts find a tiger, we will be taken to see it on elephant-back.
“I’d rather be out there looking for them than waiting around,” Deborah says. I nibble on sweet Indian bread for breakfast, but my enthusiasm has waned and I feel this pursuit has lost its magic. The romance of my journey suddenly seems like a circus, a futile pursuit of a rare cat in a giant safari park.
Suddenly the word goes around that the mahouts have found a tigress. The show is on, and everything happens in a rush. A petit young mahout is sitting atop our elephant and I barely have time to take it all in. I have long hankered after the experience of riding on an elephant – being so close to these great sociable herbivores, so iconic, so majestic and impressive. In a twist of fate, it’s the only way I will see a tiger today. I climb up the ladder into the creaking, green-painted wooden howdah and immediately we are off.
Now free of the vehicle, it’s just us and the sound of the animal’s great footsteps brushing the undergrowth aside. At the same time, I am fixated on the elephant’s wrinkled head, seeing its bristles up close poking from its thick, grey hide, its ears flapping in the heat. The young mahout controls it by speaking encouraging words but also tapping it on the head to with his ankus – a small hammer-and-spike combination. It seems a harsh tool – and another romantic notion is dashed – but the elephant’s head is clearly unmarked.
In a matter of minutes we have closed on the tigress. Disguised under a low canopy of dry, tangled lanterna twigs she is feasting on a large, fresh deer-like samba. It is just possible to make out the scene as it unfolds. We peer, excited and hushed, cameras whirring, over the elephant’s head, down upon on a huge and powerful animal who must feed her young every two days to ensure their survival.
Finally it dawns on me that if we, nature-loving visitors, want to turn up in a country and see tigers in the wild in just a few days, then this is how it is made possible. It is a privilege, which is dependent not only on expertly coordinated travel arrangements but also on the continued conservation of tigers and their habitat.
Returning to the vehicle, Yousef tells me that our tigress had hidden her five cubs while there was disturbance around her, knowing that she will have the rest of the day to make sure they feed well. And with only 1,411 Bengal tigers counted in the 2009 survey of all the national parks across India, I appreciate what a beautiful and rare creature she is.
AT A GLANCE | HOW TO GET THERE
Luxury travel specialist, Scott Dunn (www.scottdunn.com / 020 8682 5075) offers tailormade Taj Tiger Safari itineraries from £3,595 a person. The price includes one night at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, three nights at the Taj Baghvan lodge in Pench and two nights at Taj Banjaar Tola lodge in Kanha, on a fully inclusive basis, plus one final night at Taj West End Bangalore, return flights with British Airways (www.ba.com), internal flights and private transfers. For more information on visiting India see www.incredibleindia.org