Driving through the state of Madhya Pradesh, in the heart of Indian tiger country, it was difficult to reconcile the tranquil scenes flashing past my window with nonstop reports about the animal’s slide toward extinction. Tigers, it seemed, were the topic of the moment. As I set off from New Delhi on a six-day safari, global specialists were converging to discuss how many of the world’s largest felines are left, and how best to save them. With so many vested interests resting on the creature’s survival (it’s estimated that just six of India’s tiger reserves are worth US$1.2 billion to the Indian economy), it’s hard to know whose version of reality to believe.
On the one hand, the World Wildlife Fund and Global Tiger Forum claim the worldwide population has risen by 22 per cent since 2010, to 3,890. On the other, in spite of investment of about US$500 million since the start of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi’s Project Tiger in 1973—when nine tiger reserves were created and dozens of camps built—global tiger populations have plummeted. Since 1993, numbers worldwide have halved, and in the past 80 years, three of the nine subspecies have become extinct from habitats including Indonesia and Central Asia.
In India, where two-thirds—or about 2,200— of the world’s tigers live, in and around 49 reserves, there is grounds for cautious optimism, with one study recording an increase of 30 per cent in numbers between 2010 and 2014. Having been on five tiger safaris in India in the past decade, I wanted to see if there was any perceptible improvement in terms of the numbers that were visible and the protection they were being given. Along the road from Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur Airport to Bandhavgarh National Park, where more than 60 cats roam through 1,11,000 acres of forest, it was clear the species is a big part of local identity. I noticed their image everywhere: on a packet of cookies bought at a stall, sculpted on an arch, painted on a village temple. I was also informed of a discouraging report stating that 19 tiger deaths had been recorded in Madhya Pradesh in the first half of 2016 (almost half of all Indian tiger deaths in that period).
As I’ve learned over the years, there’s nothing straightforward about conservation in India, and with so much conflicting information in my head, I was relieved to arrive at Samode Safari Lodge, on Bandhavgarh National Park’s periphery. Built by descendants of the royal family of Samode, the camp’s colonial-style interiors are reminiscent of an African safari camp, with whirring bamboo fans and elegant tea-planter’s chairs. My room was designed in the style of local farmhouses: roughly rendered in mud and decorated with naive, nature-inspired bas-reliefs and murals. Outside, there was a tub for starlit baths and, on lamplit communal patios, trays laid with spicy fried okra, flame-grilled prawns, and fresh coal-baked roti.
There wasn’t much time to sit around feasting, though. Bandhavgarh park authorities allow visitors to take three- and four-hour safaris twice a day, starting around 5.45 am and 2.30 pm. While that does leave a little time for a midday massage or a swim, I spent most of my days in a safari jeep in the company of my guide, Anshuman Shah. He warned me right at the start of our first drive that not every guest sees a tiger. “Most people staying three nights should see one,” he said as we made our way to the park gates. “A group from Canada recently saw eleven in four days. It’s a question of luck: being in the right place at the right time.”
A decade ago, Bandhavgarh’s roads used to be clogged with cars full of colourfully-clad passengers who would spill out, often yelling into their cell phones. Today, only a limited number of registered 4 x4s are allowed into each zone, radios and phones are banned, and a park guide has to accompany every vehicle. The experience is far more peaceful and organised—not dissimilar to a safari in a popular park in Africa— even if visitors all still want the same thing “Just tiger, tiger, tiger,” as Ramkripal Ram, our park guide, put it. But cat sightings that day weren’t good. After spending four hours in the morning and three that evening listening, watching, and tracking, we returned, slightly dispirited, to camp.
The next day, I was assured, we would have more time, since the hotel had secured one of only five 12-hour, US$750 permits issued every day: a popular move by Bandhavgarh’s authorities. “You will see a tiger before you leave, I am sure,” Shah told me. In fact, I saw not just one magnificent cat on my full-day safari, but two. When, mid-morning, we ascended a hill to find a male cub lying languidly on a shaded sandstone rock, I was so thrilled my eyes welled up. Banbayi, a handsome 18-month-old, is seen regularly in this area, Shah said. From his supine position, the cub occasionally looked up at us as we examined him through binoculars, trying to memorise every detail: the long white whiskers; the striped tail that flicked every now and then to dislodge a fly; the muscles that rippled beneath his taut, light-orange hide as he slowly padded off into the long grass to the accompaniment of hooting langurs.
Our second sighting evoked a different emotion. After lunch, we spotted an eight-year-old tigress, Pattya, slinking into a bamboo thicket to rest. Keen to see her properly, we decided to sit and wait for her to re-emerge. By the time she padded out, two hours later, another 18 safari vehicles had lined up beside us, as well as two open-topped buses of schoolchildren. Thanks to the presence of park officials, the crowd was remarkably quiet. Nonetheless, the scene was more zoo than safari, and the striped star of the show was clearly aware of her audience. After performing a quick turn—drinking delicately from a water hole, rolling like a kitten in the sand— she took a final look at the crowd and vanished. And with the evening performance over, the cat paparazzi dispersed in clouds of dust, leaving us to make our way back to camp, as the red ball of the sun sank below the tree line.
It’s a sad truth that, were the tiger a less beautiful creature, its future might be more secure. But the glorious Shere Khan archetype of The Jungle Book is in the unenviable position of being not only the beast that most tourists want to photograph, but the one poachers most want to capture for use in Chinese medicine. It is wanted both dead and alive. The fact that there are any still in existence is in part thanks to Project Tiger, and in part thanks to a handful of enlightened state leaders, said hotelier Jaisal Singh. Singh, a co-founder of Sujan Luxury, a chain of high-end Indian camps and hotels, spent much of his life studying tigers with his uncle, the well-known conservationist Valmik Thapar.
He told me that in states such as Maharashtra and Rajasthan, chief ministers have diligently implemented conservation policies. These have included programmes to turn poachers into gamekeepers, the launch of responsible-tourism organisations that link public and private companies (a pilot project of privately-run nature reserves is underway in Maharashtra), and schemes to compensate villagers if they or their livestock are harmed by a tiger. What they are up against, though, is an exploding human population that increasingly encroaches on forests, creating man-animal conflicts. “India has one and a quarter billion people, with goodness knows how many cows and goats that need land to feed on,” Singh said. Another problem is that forests are run by individual states—whose local bureaucrats make their own rules.
The central government spent US$57 million on the issue in 2015 but, according to Singh, “no matter how much money is pumped into tiger conservation, it gets sucked up by bureaucracy. Until you have a national strategy, nothing will happen.” Most conservationists agree that, under current prime minister Narendra Modi, there is little sign of positive change at a national level. Last year, Modi’s government not only cut funding for the environment by 25 per cent, and support for tiger protection by 15 per cent, but fast-tracked projects that could have disastrous environmental consequences.
These include a river diversion that will submerge nearly a third of the Panna Tiger Reserve and the expansion of a country road along the Pench Tiger Reserve into a four-lane highway. And despite signing an international agreement promising to protect tigers and their dwindling environment, the country currently loses an average of 333 acres of forest a day, which partially explains why the creatures now occupy just 7 per cent of their original habitat. As Julian Matthews from Travel Operators for Tigers explains: “Now less than two per cent of India is protected, far less than is needed for the tiger’s ecological security. Forests are being decimated for pasture and charcoal. So tigers are increasingly forced to live off cattle, which further worsens man-animal conflict.”