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India From North to South
Off on a Safari, Where the Stripes Are the Stars

Summer brings some 500 Asian elephants to the Kabini River in what naturalists say is the biggest congregation of the beasts on the continent. (Orange County Resorts & Hotels)

By Shoba Narayan
Special to The Washington Post

Sunday, March 22, 2009; Page F01
Our convoy set off at dawn — 5:37 a.m., to be precise — into the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India. Toting binoculars and cameras, wearing hooded jackets and gloves, and carrying a thermos of hot masala chai, we were searching for that most elusive of creatures, Panthera tigris tigris, also known as the Bengal tiger.

Green parrots screeched overhead. A peacock took flight in hues of purple, startlingly graceful for a bird so big. Spotted deer skittered away. Indian gaur (bison) looked up inquiringly as we whizzed past in our four-wheel-drive vehicles. Monkeys chattered as they swung through the trees. The sun rose. An hour passed, then two.

Nothing quite equals the sight of a tiger in the wild. It isn’t the frenzied excitement of a rock concert or the whooping delight of a last-minute touchdown. It is quietly overwhelming, if that makes sense. Breath becomes shallow, hair stands on end and skin gets goose bumps.

My encounter began as most do, with pugmarks, or footprints, by the dirt road. Still in the vehicle, we followed the tracks, aided by the alarm calls of birds and monkeys, racing hither and thither through the undergrowth. Then we saw her, a tigress stretched out in the sun after feasting on a fresh kill. We stopped at a distance, not wanting to scare her away: a nonsensical construct, really, for tigers are “apex predators” that fear nothing but guns. Ranthambore’s craggy terrain makes it a good place to sight these secretive, solitary, nocturnal beasts.

We edged closer. Cat eyes, both arrogant and dismissive, took stock of us, eyes that could mesmerize a man. Her name was Malliga, the guide said. Or was it Maya? I wasn’t paying attention. Look at the stripe behind her ear, the guide said. Notice the break. That’s how we identify her.

There are 32 tigers in Ranthambore, give or take. This erstwhile hunting reserve of the maharajah of Jaipur is now a wildlife refuge, playing host to wild dogs, jackals, sloth bears and various species of deer. Under the auspices of Project Tiger, it is also a haven for the biggest member of the big cats (the other three are the lion, jaguar and leopard), all of which are distinguished from small cats by their ability to roar.

An American couple and I were enjoying the wilderness from a most luxurious vantage point, Aman-i-Khas, the Indian outpost of the lavish Aman resorts.

My tent at Aman-i-Khas, on the outskirts of the park, was about the size of my one-bedroom apartment in New York. Bigger, actually. An open, loftlike space, it was furnished in natural-color canvas and leather with every creature comfort you wouldn’t think to ask for. The heated beds, for instance, offered a warm respite after the cold jungle. Each tent had a “batman” who appeared when we rang and conjured up our desires.

And I felt absurdly happy because of an additional amenity: The laundry service was free, or rather, it was included in Aman-i-Khas’s stratospheric rates. One of my pet peeves is luxury hotels that charge $1,000 a night and then nickel-and-dime you over peanuts in the mini bar or items of laundry. At Aman, you could throw your dirty clothes into the bamboo basket and they would be returned that evening, pressed and perfumed, in time for the game drive. And there was no mini bar in the tent. You could drink the house wine free or pay extra for specialty brands.

Next to Aman-i-Khas are two boutique hotels run by local Indian families. One afternoon I walked down to Khem Villas, run by Goverdhan “Groovy” Singh Rathore and his wife, Usha. Khem Villas is a little more than a year old and made Conde Nast Traveler’s Hot List in 2007. At $400 a night for room and board, it isn’t cheap, but it is roughly half of what the Aman group charges.

Rathore grew up in Ranthambore. His father, Fateh Singh Rathore, was the original Tiger Man of Ranthambore, having been involved with Project Tiger from the beginning. The senior Rathore still lives nearby and works to protect the tiger’s habitat from encroachment by nearby villagers. He has leased his land to the uber-luxe Oberoi Vanyavilas, another tented camp down the road.

At all the resorts, most guests go on every dawn and dusk game drive to maximize their chance of seeing a tiger. A tiger in the wild looks different from the ones you see on Discovery Channel. Ours was massive, weighing almost 300 pounds and over six feet long. Wildlife conservationists use the term “charismatic megafauna” to describe animals that have great play in popular imagination. The tiger is a charismatic megafauna, as are the giant panda, blue whale and Asian elephant. Humans, by contrast, are not.
Project Tiger began in 1972 with $1 million in funding from the World Wildlife Fund and the blessing of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It has generally been lauded as one of the most successful conservation attempts in the world, bringing the tiger back from the brink of extinction. There are about 1,400 tigers in India, according to a 2008 census, spread among 28 tiger reserves, most of which are in North India. The reserves aren’t immune to poachers, though. Sariska in Gujarat, for instance, has no tigers left. Ranthambore, Kanha and Pench are success stories, with significant tiger populations.

I chose to visit Ranthambore because it has the infrastructure in place for luxury tourism. There are several five-star properties, including Aman-i-Khas, Oberoi, Khem Villas and its neighbor, the Sher Bagh, where Priyanka Gandhi — India’s Caroline Kennedy, if you will — was vacationing with her family when I visited. These game lodges offer the solace of luxury amid the stark wilderness of Rajasthan.

* * *

If Rajasthan is extreme climes and desert vegetation, South India is tropical. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve straddles the area where three states — Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu — meet and covers about 5,500 square kilometers. That’s about the size of Rhode Island: not huge, but in populous India, a pretty vast area to set aside just for wildlife, which probably is why UNESCO is considering making it a World Heritage Site to help promote its preservation.

I drove five hours from Bangalore, the closest airport, to the Orange County Resort in Kabini for my tryst with a giant pachyderm, another charismatic megafauna: the Asian elephant. In the summer, when the water holes in the jungle dry up, the great elephant migration begins. Come May, some 500 of them make their way to the banks of the Kabini River, forming what naturalists say is the biggest congregation of elephants in Asia.

I chose to stay at Orange County for two reasons: It is fairly new, and it offers a level of luxury comparable to that of the safari lodges of North India. With thatch roofs and adobe-style mud walls modeled after the huts of the honey-gathering Kuruba tribes that populate the region, Orange County’s inaptly named Pool Huts blend into the land. Inside, the accommodation is more mansion than hut, with a separate living room, bedroom and bathroom (with tub and shower) and an aquamarine-blue indoor whirlpool bath or pool. The bamboo furniture and rustic-chic furnishings add to the organic feel of the place. The buffet meals (good Indian food and complicated Continental food) are included in the $400 daily price.

Most naturalists concur that South Indian preserves such as Nagarhole National Park and the publicly accessible 55-acre Kabini area adjacent to it are better managed than the ones in the north. They also are farther from China, a relative advantage when it comes to poaching for tusks and tiger parts. Much of the core area is off-limits to tourists; entry is controlled by the number of vehicles that are allowed to enter the park each day. Those are all good things for the wildlife.

The jungle is an exercise in patience; it deals with visitors on its terms, revealing its secrets only when it chooses. During my safari, I saw hundreds of deer, a family of boars with the youngest trotting after the mother, a sloth bear sniffing its way through the undergrowth, and countless birds and monkeys, but no tiger or elephant. That perhaps is the difference between the jungle and the zoo: no guarantees. That night, I drowned my sorrows in mediocre local Big Banyan wine.

I was luckier the next morning on a boat safari through the backwaters of the Kabini River. Mist rose from the water, making the landscape look like a Japanese painting. Ospreys roosted on branches, white egrets poked around the bank for worms, a Brahminy kite circled above, and pond herons skimmed the surface.

An hour later, we saw a tusker right by the water. Our speedboat raced to the far bank, and the driver cut the engine as we got close. The elephant was busy eating. His long tusks were almost intertwined as he methodically tore off green bamboo stalks and stuffed them into his pink mouth to chew awhile before swallowing. Elephants have big molars and poor eyesight. Each day they need to consume about 350 pounds of grass and about 40 gallons of water. Of the pachyderms (the word means “thick skin”; the other members of the group are the rhino and hippo), elephants are the most interesting and, I dare say, the most intelligent. They follow a matriarchal system, and bulls in sexual must can trumpet all they want, but the female decides most things, including when to mate and where to take the herd.

To watch a herd of elephants is magical. One emerges from the bushes, then another and another, and sometimes a calf. The phrase “amble majestically” seems like an oxymoron but is perfectly apt for these gentle vegetarian giants.

Wildlife safaris in India are on the cusp of exploding. Last year, the Taj hotel group teamed with the Conservation Corporation of Africa (CC Africa) to set up several safari lodges offering a world-class experience — for world-class prices, I might add. That said, Indian wildlife can be experienced at multiple price points. For every Taj CC Africa, there is a Jungle Lodges, which charges less than $100 per person for a safari experience that is midway between sybaritic and slumming.

What makes these safari lodges worthwhile is the incredible array of birds, beasts, flowers and foliage that make up the Indian jungle, those both familiar (thanks to “The Jungle Book”) and eerily primitive. That, after all, is why we seek to experience wildlife: because it takes us back to the time when mastodons roamed the earth, because it peels back the layers of evolution and allows us to reach back to our souls, both as a species and as an individual. —

Shoba Narayan is a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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