Seeing endangered species in their natural habitat is for me one of the the most thrilling experiences nature has to offer, because it’s so much a pleasure to see animals in the wild, but primarily because it is still possible to see these animals in the wild.
Doing so evokes Darwin’s summary invocation of nature’s beauty that famously appears at the end of On the Origin of Species,
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. [Darwin 1859]
Grandeur, majesty, beauty. What better words in the English language to describe, say, a lion in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, an elephant in Etosha, or a tiger in Bandhavgarh.
I have been lucky enough to have witnessed all three, and seen much more of the world’s wildlife besides, but every time the excitement and wonder is as new as the first and I am reduced to a giggling, butterfly-bellied, googly-eyed kid.
The grandeur of these animals is in their gracefulness and serenity; thanks to their sculpting via natural selection, they are ultimately comfortable and at home, but the exaltation of them by us, mere humble observers, is only valid in perspective. For that, a certain distance is required, one that is measured not in miles nor homology, but in consciousness.
We know that we’re here. No buffalo knows it’s a buffalo, but we jolly well know that we’re members of Homo sapiens, and it’s the knowledge that we have and the can-do, our capacity to think ahead and to reflect and to evaluate and to evaluate our evaluations, and evaluate the grounds for our evaluations. [Dennett 1991 Consciousness Explained]
If nothing else, our consciousness lends us this perspective, a self-realisation of our place within nature. At least that’s the opportunity it affords us. Unfortunately, misinterpretation of this role leads to an aggrandisement of place devolving ourselves from nature. But that’s a different story.
The element that story does share with this is when human nature is so perverse as to seem not natural at all.
Now, as a preemptor, I know some of you are going to think I’m making a fuss about nothing, but the consequences are real and drastic and proven elsewhere, if left unchecked.
Here is what I’m on about; there has been an evolving style of safari experience in India. It is quite different to the African drive safari, no least as it revolves around seeing tigers in the wild, but also because it has become a single-minded, testosterone-driven, high-speed Grand Prix. In African nature reserves, the very low speed limits are strictly enforced, with large penalties for failure to observe them. This is, of course, intended to protect animals from both physical harm and also from fright. I have spent enough time in these places and worked alongside the wardens there to know the importance of this and to have witnessed the impact, literally, when speed limits are flouted. A collision with an animal mostly ends with only one outcome, the animal being put down, and regardless of the species and its rarity, it is always a sad waste, and never a pretty sight.
In contrast, the additional benefits of a relaxed amble through a park is that the safari experience can be a sublime commune with nature, as close a return to the wild as possible for most people. But, the version being meted out in India is more akin to a hurried commute through an inconveniently crowded landscape, a direct dash to the single objective, a view of the tiger.
Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh is no exception. The setting for Kipling’s Jungle Book, this incredibly rich and diverse woodland is astonishing: from the tallest Sal (Shorea rubusta), Saja (Terminalia tomentosa aka Crocodile Skin tree), Salai Guggal (Boswellia serrata aka Indian Frankincense), and Dhobin (Dalbergia lanceolaria) stands, thick clumps of bamboo (Bambuseae spp.) interspersed with Butea Gum (B. monosperma) and Kullu (Sterculia urens aka Indian Ghost) trees, to breathtaking vistas of densely wooded valley slopes and contrastingly sweeping open grasslands. In parts, the array and arrangement of plant life is reminiscent of Miombo (Brachystegia) woodlands in Zimbabwe, a cityscape of towering, equally-spaced spires. In others, it is an impenetrable weave of pirouetting tendrils, embracing branches and Strangling Vines (Ficus spp.).
In amongst all this botanical building there is, living, roaming, foraging and fighting for survival, an equally amazing diversity of animals: insects, birds, snakes, rodents, small and large antelope, and various canines – Sambar deer (Rusa unicolor), macaques (Macaca spp.), jungle rat, Collared Scops Owl (Otus lettia), and Barred Jungle Owlet (Glaucidium radiatum), Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus), Plum-headed Parakeet (Psittacula cyanocephala), Barking Deer (Muntiacus spp. aka Muntjac), Jackal (Canis spp.), and herds of Spotted Deer (Axis axis aka chital) scavenging beneath gangs of Hanuman Langurs (Semnopithecus spp.), and of course, the regal tiger (Panthera tigris).
Despite this cornucopia of biodiversity, the guides (one must accompany each vehicle, carrying between one and half-a-dozen or more visitors) make it quite clear that the star of the show is the tiger. They are willing to identify the other animals, but from entering the park, the guides are listening out for tell-tale alarm calls from birds, antelope and monkey, that help locate a tiger.
So, when all hell broke loose in a patch of jungle just below the ridge we were on, pedals were floored and it was a high-speed dash to the optimal site. Then it was simply a matter of waiting until a magnificent 12-foot long tigress seemed to appear out of nowhere, morphing from the long grass. But the finish line wasn’t reached yet. Now began the push-and-shove for pole position. Jeeps bridled bumper-to-bumper, cheek-to-cheek, drivers using all their skill to gain a fraction of an inch advantage over their colleagues.
The drivers are employees of the lodges where the visiting guests are staying. The guides are employees of the park and are allotted to each jeep upon its arrival at the entrance gate, and get to see a steady stream of visitors every day, all asking the same questions, all wanting to see tigers which the guides do their best to find, with differing degrees of enthusiasm. The emphasis is therefore very much on the drivers, to maintain good relationships with the park staff (they do because they all live locally and know each other socially), and follow their directions to get their guests to the tiger hotspots as quickly as possible (which they do with great gusto and manliness).
Then of course, when the tiger has been found and several jeeps have roared in from across the park (re-enacting the hunting scene from Jurassic Park II: The Lost World, where jeeps screech to a halt, rifles at the ready, except here they are long zoom-lens cameras raised for that killer shot), tensions mount and tempers flare, trying to win the best viewing position; a beautiful scene marred by an ugly game of big cat and mouse.
VIDEO: Large male tiger in Bandhavgarh.