Thursday, January 13, 2011

The hunt for tigers Part I

The global tiger population is estimated to be somewhere between 1,200 and 1,800 and the word is that if you’re going to see a tiger anywhere in the wild in India, Ranthambore NP is the place it’s going to happen. Ranthambore’s tigers are famously indifferent to the tourists’ clicking cameras and the roar of the fleet of jeeps which carry tourists in and out of the park twice daily. The park’s reputation for being India’s premier tiger viewing park is in marked contrast to its neighbour, Sariska NP. In 2003 Sariska’s tiger population was estimated at 28 but a mere 2 years later they had all but vanished. Apparently a famed local taxidermist - clearly confusing himself with a toxicologist - operating in tandem with corrupt wardens orchestrated a mass poisoning, in the process completely eliminating the park’s tiger population. Unfortunately for India’s tiger population this seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

I have done many things on this trip that I’d never done before - diving, white water rafting and telling tuk-tuk drivers in 10 different countries exactly where they can shove their vehicles, to name but a few - but until Ranthambore I’d never been on a safari before and, in typically Indian style, it was a unique experience. In an unusual example of efficiency, it’s possible to book your seats on the jeep (6-seaters but impossible to secure a seat due to demand - they‘re smaller and quieter) or canters (noisy 20-seaters) online, when the website works that is. When I check there are only some seats left on the canters but whatever gets me in is good for me.

Pick-up in the morning is at the Department of Forestry which is some 300m from my hotel. On arrival there you’re supposed to register and pick up your boarding pass but, as ever, there’s no information on where you should queue and, once you’ve managed to figure that out, you have to go looking for your guide whose name is written on your pass. Not easy at 6.30am and in complete darkness. On top of this I’m told, once I’ve managed to find the guide, that our driver will not be reporting for work today. Eventually we do manage to find a driver somewhere and we’re away.

What I haven’t mentioned thus far and what was to be the main feature of the morning was the fog - “very unseasonal” our guide assured us but, regardless, unseasonal fog is as difficult to peer through as the seasonal variety. I imagine it’s difficult spotting tigers in a large national park in bright and clear conditions, but when the entire area is enveloped by a wicked freezing fog which has reduced visibility to about 5 metres, then the task becomes closer to impossible than the improbable I’d hoped for when I booked my trip here.

On entry into the park it’s immediately apparent that there’s about as much chance of seeing a tiger in these conditions as there is of our guide saying something informative or interesting. He spends the two hours we have in the park telling us whenever we near a herd of deer that “Here are some deer”. Nice work if you can get it. In short, we came, we looked, we saw fog and we went home. I could embellish this particular adventure with tales of what I saw along the way but I saw nothing but fog. Lots of fucking fog. By the morning’s conclusion I imagined the park’s tiger population peering down from the heights, toasting marshmallows and warming their claws on an open fire, laughing in Far Side-esque style at the freezing idiots lost in the fog in the jeeps below.

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