I've just returned from the central plains of India in search of one of the most elusive and beautiful animals on the planet - the tiger!
After multiple flights and a 5-hour drive, I arrived at Mukki gate, Kanha National Park, home to over 160 tigers. This nature reserve is vast, but only 184 sq. km (or 20%) is accessible for tourism. Only 25 vehicles are allowed entry permits each day, so there are stringent barriers to prevent too much tourism inside the park.
Each morning around 4 am, I would start the day, arriving at the entrance to complete the paperwork and entering the park just before sunrise. On my first morning, we started the drive. The park is dominated by Sal trees (Shorea robusta), which are very tall with bark that's almost black; around the Sal forests are large open meadows, and outside the 'core zone' is the 'buffer zone' which is used by local farmers and has a mixture of landscapes, much is dominated by dry paddy fields, which looks like many small squares of dead grass. There are no barriers or fences around the park, so the tigers move as they wish and walk through the small villages most nights.
My first-morning drive was exhilarating; we entered Kanha as the sun rose, and a thick layer of fog reduced visibility to only 20ft. We passed through a meadow into one of the forested areas and stopped and turned the engine off. We were listening for alarm calls from one of the many species of deer. They only give the alarm call for tigers, leopards or giant snakes, so if you hear that call, you know one of those predators is lurking nearby. We hear the alarm!
Slowly, we drive along the track, looking deep into the forest for any sign of a tiger; my guide points out into the forest and sharply whispers, 'Tiger!'. I look but struggle to see anything at all.
I then look down to the verge of the road, see teeth and glowing eyes, and hear a low rumble. I told the guide to 'stop', but his better judgement knew that we were blocking this tiger's pathway across the road, and he was warning us to get out of the way.
We pull back, and a huge dominant male breaks from the undergrowth. My guide informs me this tiger is 'Pattewala', a male that moves between several of the park's different zones. He walks down the road straight towards us, and we carefully reverse to give the tiger the space it needs.
I'm full of adrenaline from the simple view of this animal, its beautiful markings, its sheer size and its proximity. I couldn't believe my eyes - a wild tiger was walking a few meters from me. He slinked back into the forest, and we made our way to the only place within the park where you can get out of the vehicle, the 'breakfast area'.
My other top sighting was of a female with two (18 months) cubs. She's called Dhawajhandi Female, DJ to those who see her often. Her official name is KTR T-27.
Tigers must reach age three and establish their own territory before being given an official name/code. Her two young cubs are the only survivors of the five born in this litter - dominant males often kill cubs that other male sires.
We came across the two cubs relaxing in the middle of the road and were lucky enough to spend around 30 minutes with them. What surprised me was how their behaviour mirrored our domestic cats practising their hunting skills. One would suddenly charge and play attack their sibling; this was an amazing display of behaviour and was an incredible joy to watch. The young female gave me lots of eye contact and provided awesome photographic opportunities.
I moved to my second National park - Bandhavgarh. Sadly, the weather changed, and I had a few days of rain, significantly changing the odds of seeing a tiger. They will find somewhere dry and won't move as much.
The park is extremely beautiful, even in the rain. This park has the Sal forests, meadows, and bamboo forest areas. Huge tabletop mountains dominate the horizon, and 2000-year-old temples and statues are hidden around the rock face.
We managed a young male and female (siblings) sighting in a heavy rainstorm. We also saw wild elephants and a myriad of birds and small animals.
As I left the park on my final night, all the cars stopped on the road. My mind jumped to another possible tiger sighting, but to my surprise, there was a huge (10-12ft) Indian rock python crossing the road!
Before I knew it, It was time to return to the U.K. On my long journey home, I reflected on my time in India; I went to see tigers and hoped to see one, but in ten days, I had been lucky enough to see eleven - vastly beyond my expectations!
What surprised me the most was how the tigers are part of the natural landscape; farmers encounter them on foot almost once a week! A house a few doors from my lodge had a tiger enter their home to kill their cow! True conflict between people and tigers is uncommon; maybe a few people a year are mauled or killed. This may sound frightening, but the tigers are understood to be a vital part of the local economy. In both lodges, I saw the telltale 'pug' marks (footprints) of tigers 100m from my bedroom door. This is normal life in 'Tigerland' and I loved every second of it!
Tigers are one of the planet's rarest mammals, with only 3,682 individuals known. The company I used was 'Tiger Safari India', whose vision is conservation through tourism. The money for my trip helps conserve the tigers by employing the guides, drivers and lodge staff. 80% of the hotel workers are from the local area, and over 1000 local people are directly involved in the conservation efforts throughout the year.