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 $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 percent since 2010, to 3,890. On the other, in spite of investment of about $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 percent 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 111,000 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 naïve, nature-inspired bas-reliefs and murals. Outside, there was a tub for starlit baths and, on lamp lit 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 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. 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 colorfully clad passengers who would spill out, often yelling into their cell phones. Today, only a limited number of registered 4 x 4s 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 organized— 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, $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 memorize 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 reemerge. 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 Suján 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 programs to turn poachers into gamekeepers, the launch of responsible tourism organizations that link public and private companies (a pilot project of privately run nature reserves is under way 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 $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 percent, and support for tiger protection by 15 percent, 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 percent of their original habitat. As Julian Matthews from Travel Operators for Tigers explains: “Now less than two percent 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.”
A five-hour drive southwest of Bandhavgarh is Madhya Pradesh’s largest reserve, Kanha, one of the rare parks that’s regularly praised for its environmental policies as well as its frequent tiger sightings. The buffer zone surrounding this 232,000-acre wilderness is where my next host, tiger conservationist Belinda Wright, spends much of her time. Kipling Camp, set up by her parents in 1982, is neither smart nor sophisticated. But then, it was never meant to be. When Anne and Bob Wright first built a house here, it was to escape the social whirl of Kolkata's Tollygunge Club, which Bob managed. As more friends came to stay they constructed more guest cottages, and the property soon became one of India’s first wildlife camps.
Today the rustic, 15-bedroom homestead is the favored haunt of conservationists, bohemian aristocrats, and film stars looking to experience nature in an unspoiled, unfussy setting (Orlando Bloom recently spent Christmas there). The Wrights are hugely respected in India for their work in conservation: Anne was a founding trustee of Indira Gandhi’s Tiger Task Force; Belinda, a photographer and documentary maker, also founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India.
Belinda has devoted much of her life to saving the tiger, and being personally guided by her was a little like an entertaining excursion with a character from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Having lived in the area since she was a teenager, she knows every turn of the road, every tree. Entering the park 15 minutes after everyone else (“So much nicer once the dust has settled”), she regaled us with stories of camping in rural India, while pointing out species like an Indian paradise flycatcher and a rare barasingh deer, now making a comeback in the park. We even spotted a tigress and her cub slipping through long grass. Best of all, late one afternoon, Belinda walked me to the river with Tara, the rescue elephant she houses, and I spent an hour scrubbing her bristly hide as she contentedly wallowed and spurted water.
Seeing all these creatures together, I decided, is the real point of coming on a tiger safari. Because it is only when we understand how everything coexists in the tiger’s great ecological jigsaw puzzle—from the animals they rely on for survival to the men who prey on them—and return home to put pressure on governments and conservation groups, that there will be, as Belinda put it, “a ray of light at the end of the tunnel for this glorious animal.”
And there is some hope. Five years ago, I went on a tiger safari and came away totally disheartened, having seen not a single big cat, and been surrounded by noisy, disorganized cars. This time I saw four tigers, in parks that were clearly better managed, and stayed in camps run by impressively committed individuals. Seeing my first cat this time moved me deeply. Not only because of its extraordinary beauty, but because its future really is uncertain. If seeing one is on your bucket list, put it near the top.
The Details: What To Do in Madhya Pradesh, India
Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur airport is a 90-minute flight from New Delhi. Then it’s about a four-hour drive either south to Kanha National Park or northeast to Bandhavgarh National Park. (The road trip from one park to the other takes about five hours.) After completing a safari, fly out of Khajuraho Airport (instead of Jabalpur), about an hour north of Bandhavgarh, so you can see that area’s impressive temples.
Apply online for an (e-Tourist Visa) before traveling, and take a printout of the e-mailed visa confirmation with you. Passports must have two blank pages, be machine-readable, and be valid for at least 180 days after your arrival. Entry into national parks is arranged by lodges and tour operators.
Kipling Camp Spend time bathing with a rescued elephant or learning from a world-class bird-watcher here. Kanha; kiplingcamp.com; doubles from $328.
Samode Safari Lodge One of the region’s most polished camps, with knowledgeable guides and supremely comfortable rooms with private verandas. Bandhavgarh; samode.com; doubles from $1,002.
Banjaar Tola at Kanha National Park This Taj Safari Lodge has inventive cuisine and spacious, elegant, air-conditioned tents. tajsafaris.com; doubles from $650.
Butterfield & Robinson This outfitter can customize an itinerary that includes lodging, domestic flights, transfers, permits, visits to each tiger reserve, and an all-day pass into Bandhavgarh National Park, plus two days in New Delhi. butterfield.com; 10-day trips from $10,000 per person.