Tales of the tiger: searching for big cats in India’s wildest state

To travel across Madhya Pradesh is to taste India’s untamed heartland, where national parks teem with wildlife and stories of Bengal tigers are on everyone’s lips. An expert in the art of stealth and secrecy, however, it’s a beast that proves hard to seek

Thursday, 2 April 2020,
By Charlotte Wigram-Evans
A fully-grown male Bengal tiger can reach 12ft from nose to tail.
A fully-grown male Bengal tiger can reach 12ft from nose to tail.
Photograph by Getty

He must be joking. The tiny wooden structure looks like little more than a shed, balanced on the cliff’s edge with a 500ft drop in place of a porch and 40sq miles of jungle for a garden. But no. Ramavtaar is gesturing emphatically towards the hut, happiness etched in the lines around his eyes, a smile clear beneath his balaclava. I find myself leaning forwards in the safari truck, waiting for his tale.

Ramavtaar used to call this cabin home. He began patrol work in Madhya Pradesh’s Bandhavgarh National Park when he was 19, using the watch-post as a base from which to protect the park. More than 45 years on, he guides rather than guards, but when the monsoon hits and the reserve closes to tourists, he returns to this hut, deep in the heart of the jungle.

“I prefer tigers for neighbours,” he shrugs, pointing out fresh tracks in the roadside. Each paw is saucer-sized and I stare, awestruck, as Ramavtaar reminisces about a time when a 500lb beast leapt from a thicket, snatching the scarf from around his neck before melting back into the bush. “Perhaps he was cold,” he chortles. “I can move so silently through the forest that people call me ‘the ghost’, but nothing is stealthier than the tiger.”

A cold winter dawn is breaking on Bandhavgarh: blood-red stains are seeping into the sky and, all around us, wildlife is stirring. Babblers begin the morning’s symphony, white-bellied minivets adding their short, sharp burst to the tune. Soon the canopy’s orchestra is in full swing, with quails cooing and rollers calling — Mother Nature conducting a wild jungle song.

This is India’s untamed heartland, where the looming, pine-crested Satpura Range dissolves into Kanha’s grasslands to the east and the dense forests of Bandhavgarh to the north. There are 11 national parks in Madhya Pradesh, more than any other Indian state, and these pockets of wilderness are fiercely protected, their flora and fauna wonderfully diverse.

We turn away from the watch-post and rattle up another rocky peak. Bamboo thickets become denser, and the eyes of unknown creatures follow us from the undergrowth before the track spits us out at an ancient stone ruin. Piece by piece, nature is devouring the structure, the once-mighty columns cracked and crumbling, the floor subsiding and slick with moss.

This palace was once a holiday home with a very different purpose, a place from which the maharajas of Madhya Pradesh could stalk big cats. Although it hasn’t been inhabited since the 14th century, Bandhavgarh was used as a hunting ground as recently as the 1960s.

Local folklore has long deemed the killing of tigers auspicious — a display of strength and dedication to Shiva, god of destruction. The creatures were almost completely wiped out in Bandhavgarh, with numbers falling to as low as 11 by some counts, and it wasn’t until 1968, when the last maharaja of Rewa became racked with guilt over killing a pregnant tigress, that the park was gifted to the Indian government.

The reclusive sloth bear is normally seen alone. Their long, powerful claws make short work of termite nests, pulling apart the rock-hard mounds before sucking out the bugs within.
Photograph by Getty

Bandhavgargh now has a healthy population of 79 tigers, and its remarkable success story has been mirrored across the state, including in Kanha National Park — my next stop. The reserve served as Rudyard Kipling’s inspiration for The Jungle Book and, on our first drive, I spot a sloth bear. He ambles slow and soft-footed past the car, long black hair gleaming, eyes the colour of coal, with a comical white muzzle as though he’s broken into a larder and helped himself to some cream.

“He’s after gooseberries,” says Uday, one of the park’s naturalists. “It’s that time of year. He’ll then move onto black plums and, in August, when the monsoon hits, it’ll be termite time.”  I look past Baloo, out across the vast expanse of rippling grassland, punctuated by termite towers rising 6ft tall. Kanha’s topography couldn’t be more different to Bandhavgarh, its steep ridges replaced with open plains where barasingha deer glance up from their breakfasts, startled, as we rumble past. Light reflecting off their antlers glows halo-like, and groups of grey langurs sit like fat old men around their feet, bellies out, legs splayed, basking in the sun.

“Where you find monkeys, you find deer,” Uday tells me. “They’re the scouts of the wilderness, and the tigers’ mortal enemy.”

Grey langurs are the scouts of the wilderness and the tigers’ mortal enemy.

I watch as a large male closes his eyes and gives his crotch a good itch. It doesn’t scream lookout, but before I can comment, Uday pulls the car to a skidding stop and examines an ebony tree. Deep slashes run like open wounds up its trunk — the work of a tiger marking its territory.

“The dominant male in this area is very protective,” he says, stroking the scarred tree. “Last year, he killed two trespassing cats and ate their bodies.”
Suppressing a shiver, I listen as Uday recounts a comical tale of trundling after his father through Kanha’s bush as a boy, plastic binoculars hanging from his neck, a book on birds clutched in his hands. Images of tiger hunting tiger linger in my imagination, but I remind myself it’s something to be thankful for. These territory disputes come about as a result of rising population numbers — this is survival of the fittest.
 
Wild and wondrous

The cry echoes sharp and urgent through the canopy. It bounces off the oak trees and reverberates through the underbrush, setting hairs on the back of my neck tingling and goosebumps running up
my arms.

“Tiger,” Vineith hisses. “Up ahead. The langurs have sounded the alarm.”

Until now, the tiger has stalked my travels from the shadows, existing tantalisingly in paw prints, claw marks and local’s tales, but when I see one for myself, stories evaporate and all I can do is stare, transfixed by the flames that seem to ripple up his flank, the eyes that promise infinite patience and the muscular limbs so versed in the art of stealth and surprise.

We’re in Satpura National Park, where Vineith works as a naturalist, and the magnificent nine-month-old male is less than 50 metres away. He sits perfectly still in the long grass, watching us as we watch him. Then, an eternity later, or 10 minutes, or somewhere inbetween, he yawns an enormous, exaggerated yawn. “You’re boring me,” he seems to say, and, stretching luxuriously, turns and slinks out of sight.

India’s wildlife is extraordinary and diverse, but it’s the Bengal tiger that truly defines this country, ever-present in its art, architecture and religious symbolism. However, for the Gond tribe, living in villages on the fringes of Madhya Pradesh’s forests, it’s also an animal that has a huge impact on day-to-day life. The hope of glimpsing a tiger draws travellers to India from across the globe and, as the tourism industry grows, many Gonds now work as guards or guides — like Ramavtaar —  or in safari lodges close to the parks. For centuries, they’ve coexisted harmoniously with the jungle, harbouring an innate knowledge of the plants and animals with which they share this space. “It’s their forest,” Vineith says simply.

The homes of Madhya Pradesh's Gond tribe are traditionally blue and white with sloping, red-tiled roofs.
Photograph by Charlotte Wigram-Evans

This is the final stop on my tour of India’s wild, wondrous heartland, and as we leave the park, it becomes apparent that Vineith’s love of the wilderness is matched only by his desire to become a racing driver. The jeep launches over bumps and flies across potholes, passing the Gond’s squat blue-and-white houses in spiralling plumes of dust and sand.

I’m invited for lunch in one of these homes the following day, the smoky aubergine chulha, creamy daal, catfish curry and warm, fresh-baked bati (dough balls) all spiced with centuries of tradition. Beyond the garden, a small boy laughs as he rolls a tyre down a dusty path, women raise water from a stone well and farmers sit on stilted platforms to protect their crop from boar, bears and deer, their cattle from big cats on the prowl.

For Madhya Pradesh’s Gond tribe, the wild isn’t something viewed from the comfort and safety of a safari truck. It’s a reality, a force to respect and to reckon with. When I head into the jungle for the last time, it’s on foot and, suddenly, the trees seem taller, the air closer and the possibility of coming face-to-face with a tiger is spine-tinglingly real.

“A young male is just establishing his territory here,” Vineith says cheerfully. “He uses that grassland over there to stalk. Oh, and try to stick to the track — we have a good population of saw-scaled snakes here. They’re deadly, and one of the fastest striking reptiles in the world.”

Thankfully, no matter how much I scan the forest floor, I see only gnarled roots and dead leaves, and fungus growing in strange, supernatural shapes. We pause to examine a pile of fresh dung: “Spotted deer,” says Vineith. “See how it’s cylindrical? Sambar deer poo is round — tastes sweeter, too.”

Laughing a deep, chin-wobbling laugh, he strides on, the jungle swallowing him up in an instant. I linger behind, lost in wonder at this intricate ecosystem, my fingers brushing past coarse teak leaves and the silky smooth bark of a ghost tree. I peer at some speargrass swaying innocently in the afternoon breeze. Perhaps a tiger walked there this morning; perhaps he’s napping in there now; or perhaps he’s watching my every step, coveting my scarf, and contemplating his next move. 

Essentials 

Getting there & around
Various airlines offer direct flights to Delhi from Heathrow or Gatwick including Air India and British Airways. From there it’s a short two-hour hop onto Jabalpur, and the gateway to Madhya Pradesh’s national parks.
Average flight time: 14h
While it’s possibly to traverse Madhya Pradesh by train, hiring a driver will be the easiest way to see the state. Prices are around £500 a week, and cars can be organised through the Transport Department of the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation.
E: transportsectionbpl@mp.gov.in

When to go
October-February is dry, with temperatures around 25C (dropping to as low as 5C at night). By April, temperatures can get to 40C; this is the best time to see wildlife, as animals gather around waterholes to keep cool. Parks close during the monsoon, typically from July-September.

Places to stay
Kings Lodge, Bandhavgarh
Blending seamlessly into the bush, this lodge is beautifully designed, all dark wood and earthen tones. Lantern-lit pathways lead to the 18 cottages, where walls are hung with Gond artworks, and before dinner groups of dancers from local tribes will often come in to perform in an atmospheric, fire-lit courtyard. Environmental policies are admirable: waste water is collected in a pond for wildlife, and plastic is banned in the hotel which gives out metal bottles to guests to use throughout their stay. From £121 a night for a double room.

Courtyard House, Kanha
For those on a smaller budget still after a little luxury, Courtyard House is an excellent option. The hotel has the feel of a homestay, albeit one with a pool, fire pit and sun-drenched courtyard. There are only four rooms, meaning getting to know the other guests is a given and staff are relaxed and helpful. From £121 a night for a double room.

Forsyth Lodge, Satpura
This lodge is really special. Its eight rooms are enormous, pristine and exquisitely decorated, with several of them also featuring an upper level where guests can sleep outside under the stars. The changing nightly menu is delicious, inventive and locally sourced, and staff offer services like wake-up calls of fresh coffee and biscuits before a morning safari drive. Forsyth also organises for guests to have lunch at a local Gond home, nighttime and walking safaris, and there’s always the option of a three-day camping trip through the Satpura Mountains led by Vineith, the head naturalist. From £205 a night for a double room.

Hotel Kalchuri Residency, Jabalpur
Many travellers pass straight through Jabalpur to get to the parks, but it’s worth lingering at least a day in this bustling Indian city. Hotel Kalchuri Residency is a great base from which to explore, with a central location, good restaurant and pool to relax when the weather heats up. Ask staff at the hotel to help organise a trip to Jabalpur’s marble columns, where towering white cliffs rise either side of the holy Narmada river, and it’s possible to do a boat ride between them. From £35 a night for a double room.

More to do
Explore Madhya Pradesh's rich culture: the state has three UNESCO sites including the exquisitely carved Khajuraho temples and Sanchi, a beautiful Buddhist stupa, as well as the Bhimbetka rock shelters displaying paintings dating as far back as the Mesolithic Period. There are also enough palaces, forts, temples, mosques and stupas to satisfy the most ardent history buffs, while its capital, Bopal, is cosmopolitan and exciting, surrounded by enormous lakes that make for excellent day trips.

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