Waiting For The Tiger

Features Issue 115 May, 2011
Text by Kapil Bisht / Photo: ECS Media

The elusine Royal Bengal Tiger is one of the most sought after animal in the world. In an ironic twist of its fate, the king of the jungle finds itself waited upon by visitors from across the globe.

Aforeigner is staying here and he has already seen two tigers,” said Tulasi, a guide at the Bardia Adventure Resort. In one sentence he had bloated my expectations of Bardia National Park. He sounded as though spotting a tiger in Bardia was more a thing of will than chance. I had gotten off my bike and fallen straight into that psychological bog that claims almost all visitors to a jungle. Tulasi had gently nudged me into it.

That evening Tulasi and I walked to the park headquarters. We were standing under the big wooden gateway, watching an orphaned Blue bull calf cavorting around, when two men arrived from the direction of the jungle. “How did it go, Lewis?” inquired Tulasi. Lewis was the guy who had already seen the tiger. “It was okay. We saw two rhinos,” replied Lewis. He clearly did not care much about what he saw, which was the envy of the entire area ever since word had spread about his good fortune. Guides spread word of tiger sightings with the same eagerness and pride as hunters who had killed a tiger did in the old days. You saw a tiger; all of Bardia heard of it.

Tulasi suggested a visit to the Tharu Museum. Of all the numerous objects of the Tharus, from the fishing nets to the intricate jewelry, I particularly liked the statuettes of deities in the museum. Thread was wound around these miniature figures. This is believed to keep the deity from leaving the altar. These gods, although seemingly held against their will, are believed to protect the household. After watching the lethargic marsh crocodiles and gharials, whom an artist could have used in an exhibition to symbolize indifference and immobility, at the crocodile breeding center, we returned to the resort.

After dinner Lewis and I sat around a fire. The tiger didn’t seem to have aroused in him the same excitement and thrill as the spider in his hut—a replica Tharu house made of mud with thatched roofing. “I love the spider in my hut. Last night a mouse entered the empty packet of potato chips I had left on the floor and made a noise for a long time,” he told me. His yarn on Bardia, I am sure, will feature the rustlings of a mouse inside a packet than the roar of a tiger. He liked Bardia for its quaintness, for the archaic way of life people still lived here. (The morning he arrived in the resort, the entire village was up at 4 a.m. to ward off a rogue elephant that had wandered near the village at night.) “This place is like what Scotland was 150 years ago,” he remarked, munching on a pan cake. He snickered thinking how it had taken him 18 hours to get there from Pokhara when his flight from Kathmandu to Scotland would only be 17 hours. He had seen two tigers and half-a-dozen rhinoceroses in two days. Although he would have been just as happy if he hadn’t seen anything other than the spider and the mouse, his success became a benchmark. Sighting the tiger had become an obsession. Tulasi considered it his duty.

 Early next morning – early by my own standards, not of the jungle’s – I climbed the resort’s iron machan. It had been the envy of the neighboring resorts for sometime because in the past a leopard could be seen regularly from there at night. This had got the resort a mention in the Lonely Planet book. In the distance, along the dew-carpeted grass beside an irrigation canal, two fowl were grazing blissfully. A chef from Kathmandu, who had come to train the resort’s cook, proclaimed they were jungle fowl. The agility they were displaying, he said, could never be matched by domestic fowl. I tip-toed to the pair, and discovered that they were chickens.

Although Tulasi was a wonderful guide, upholding the principle of ‘client safety first’ thoroughly, he was nonetheless afflicted with the same disease that is common amongst all guides. Guides, I soon learned, dwell on the past. Whenever we saw a footprint on the sandy trail beside the river or on the bank, Tulasi would bend down, examine it, and proclaim, ‘If only we had been here an hour ago, we’d have seen the tiger.’ Or we would be passing through a place when he’d begin to reminisce. “Last year I was guiding some Westerners, and we saw a tiger and her two cubs exactly in this spot.” It turned out that we were almost always a few minutes late in arriving at a place through which an animal had recently passed.

Riverside Seats
As soon as we crossed the river and entered the jungle on our first morning, Tulasi gave me a run through on the safety measures to be adopted when confronted by different animals. “If we come face-to-face with an elephant, we run, not straight but in a meandering manner. If it’s a rhino in front of us, we climb up or rush down steep embankments. If we meet a tiger, we maintain eye contact and walk backwards,” he advised. I wondered what’d happen if we met an elephant in a grassland devoid of trees, if the rhino charged at us where there were no embankments. I wasn’t too sure the tiger would like the eye contact. These were unsettling thoughts, but they also added to the excitement.

Walking between grass ten feet high we arrived at Baagh Machan, a 40-foot wooden tower on the bank of a river. The site on which the tower stood had formerly been one of the favorite haunts of the park’s tigers. Ironically, tiger sightings had gone down after the construction of the machan, which it was hoped would provide visitors with a good view. We were late and the chances of seeing a tiger were even slimmer in the late morning. So after a brief stop atop the machan we headed along the river to the other “good spots”.

The nearest of these spots from the machan was a little up river. It was a spot on the edge of the high river bank, leveled by the rumps of many hopefuls that had sat there waiting for animals to show up. Overhanging branches from the trees screened the viewers from the potential sights. This spot was already occupied by two clients and a guide when we got there. Quietly, we took our place beside the trio. The field guide, Birds of Nepal, with its colorful cover lay on the sand, abandoned in preference to the empty little beach and the river in front of us. We began our wait for the tiger.

For about 30 minutes we watched the area before us. A kingfisher in a fallen tree beside us dived into the shallow water intermittently, producing a deep sound that was amplified in the silence. We gazed at the beach in same manner as he did at the water. Occasionally we would raise the binoculars to our eyes, only to realize that the distant object was just driftwood. Tulasi decided to wait in another spot further up the river. We took our leave, flashing smiles and wishing each other luck with raised thumbs.

As we walked along the stream Tulasi showed me where Lewis had seen the tigers. He also showed me numerous pug marks on the sand. A herd of spotted deer ran up the high bank in front of us. How mundane they looked when one was out to see a tiger!

We came to a bend in the river. In the distance, where the river slightly straightened, I saw a yellow figure on the bank. Without using the binoculars Tulasi told me it wasn’t a tiger. “A tiger is huge, very long,” he said. We spent all afternoon beneath a tree on the river bank. In that time it was only deer that came out to the river.

Big Sightings
We reasoned that our first day in the jungle had started too late. The next morning we entered the jungle at first light. Like regular theatre-goers we took our cold seats on the sand, and began the day’s wait for the actors to appear.

Sensing the spot was not going to yield anything on that morning, Tulasi decided to go further up river, to the place where the previous day we had seen spotted deer. We were walking along the sandy bank when toward our left a school of four smooth-coated otters scampered down into the water. They hadn’t seen me and I decided to get closer to the water while they were still under it. I moved quickly to the edge of my bank and waited for them to surface. A little later an otter broke the surface. The first thing he saw was my face, which must have frightened him, for he dove into the water again. He must have communicated the frightening image to his friends underwater; none of them surfaced. I saw them emerge on the opposite bank at the same spot from which they entered the water. They turned around just before entering the jungle to look at us, allowing me to photograph them.

We reached the watch post under the tree and took our seats. We had been there for 30 minutes when a large brown figure with a streak of white appeared about two hundred meters up river from us. It was a wild elephant. Soon several more elephants appeared, descended clumsily on to the river.

The first elephant came to a standstill in the middle of the river. His white tusks stood out in the hazy morning. Mothers with babies at their knees crossed the river and waited on the other side. A slow procession started to unfold before us. One after the other elephants of all sizes, ranging from babies to adolescents, started wading across the river. Their legs worked like mighty oars against the water. In the middle of the river the tusker stood, fulfilling his duty as the herd’s guardian, waiting patiently for everyone to cross.   

The herd vanished into the thick jungle across the river. Tulasi and I were thrilled. The wait started all over again. Tulasi, who doubled as a priest to the resort’s little shrine, was on a fast. I had decided that I wouldn’t return to the resort for lunch either, dedicating the entire day to the elusive tiger. Although Tulasi was pleased at my having seen the elephant herd, he conceded that the chances of seeing the big cat had gone with the appearance of the big beasts. He was annoyed at the behavior of the two mahouts from another resort that had arrived in the area a little after the wild herd. They had been talking loudly. It was a solecism. “How can one expect to see a tiger when there’s so much noise?” he asked. Around mid-day we moved further up to another waiting place.

Tulasi gently shook me. I had been asleep on the sand (we took turns sleeping), and the cautious manner in which he woke me and signaled with a finger on his lips to be quiet had led me to believe that a tiger was nearby. I got up, trying to make as little noise as possible, and peering through the branches of tree to where Tulasi was pointing, saw a Sambar doe. She seemed to be admiring the reflection of her shapely body on the mirror-like water. She was beautiful, but the fact that I had expected a tiger in her stead undermined the scene’s aesthetic value.

A little later her partner appeared. He was a handsome stag. The pair had hardly spent a few minutes together, when in the distance two figures, one tall, one short, appeared. The deer’s ears opened up like little radars. They stiffened their necks to look at the approaching figures. As the figures got closer the deer saw that they were the eternal party-spoilers, and ran into cover. The figures were the guide and client duo we had met earlier in the morning. We decided to return with them. On hearing of our elephant sighting the diminutive guide proposed we head straight into the patch of forest the elephants had gone into. Tulasi refused straight away. Seniority and common sense prevailed, and we walked along the river to the machan. 

The Last Herd
The day’s events were awe-inspiring; everyone we met in the jungle, and later in the evening in the resort, was impressed. Tulasi and I broke our fasts. We also decided to break the routine of entering the jungle. The next morning we decided to go to see the Black Buck.

After a rough hour on motorbike I was standing before a board that read ‘Black Buck Conservation Area’. That board, I was soon to learn, served not only to inform visitors but to make the whole area more credible. A school was on a picnic. A tractor was plowing a patch of land. A cart track ran between an expanse of grassland and tilled land. The area on either side of this track was the conservation area.

We spotted a herd in the distance. As we moved towards it, I noticed that ahead of us a group of children were running straight towards the herd. I feared they would frighten the animals. To my surprise and relief the Black Buck turned out to be tolerant to human presence. In fact, they were flirtatious—inviting advances and yet always maintaining a distance. This distance is the slimmest I’ve seen any wild animal keep from humans. It is small wonder that these animals have gone extinct from all over Nepal except in Bardia’s Khairapur. Black Bucks have had too much faith in people and kept too little a distance from them for too long.

I returned from the trip less enchanted from their beauty, which is unmatched by any herbivore of the Terai, and more amazed by the setting.

Misty Curtains
We were back in our hideout by the river the next morning. Although smaller creatures were already going about their daily activities, the morning was suspended and silent; even the place seemed to be expecting something big to appear. In this quiet surrounding, to which we supplied the expectant air, sounds played tricks: dewdrops falling on leaves sounded like an approaching animal’s footsteps. Looking out from the window created by the foliage on to the river I thought that the stage we had given the tiger to make an appearance in was minimal. Mist hung over the river, greatly reducing visibility. It added a dramatic effect to our wait.

The next evening we almost ran headlong into drama. Tulasi and I were walking along the trail in the jungle on the river’s bank when suddenly Tulasi stopped. He whispered to ask me if I could hear something. I listened carefully and from not very far away ahead of us came the sound of cracking. The sound was getting louder and whatever was making the sound was coming towards us. Tulasi told me it was an elephant. We stood and listened for as long as we could before turning back to the machan.

From the machan we saw a domesticated elephant carrying tourists move into the area where we’d heard the sounds. It then turned around and left abruptly. The reason for the domestic elephant’s hasty retreat soon became clear. From behind the trees a large elephant appeared, flapping its enormous ears. It was getting dark and after watching the lone tusker for a while we alighted from the machan. My last day in Bardia ended.

We had come as close to an elephant as Tulasi would have allowed. The tiger, judging from the pugmarks we saw, remained just out of reach. Tulasi was disappointed that the star of the arena hadn’t put in an appearance. He offered me a rain check. “Come in the spring,” he said, as though the weather was behind our not seeing a tiger, “you’ll surely see a tiger then.”

The herd vanished into the thick jungle across the river. Tulasi and I were thrilled. The wait started all over again. Tulasi, who doubled as a priest to the resort’s little shrine, was on a fast. I had decided that I wouldn’t return to the resort for lunch either, dedicating the entire day to the elusive tiger.

Bardia National Park
Bardia National Park, with an area of 968 sq. km., is the largest protected area in Nepal’s Terai. It was established under the name of Royal Karnali Wildlife Reserve, which was changed to Bardia Wildlife Reserve in 1982. The reserve was turned into a national park in 1988, and given its present-day name.

‘Bardia’, which is the Tharu word for herdsmen, remains one of the most unspoiled wilderness areas in Nepal. It was only the sturdy Tharus that dared to settle in this region when it was still infamous for being a hive of malaria. Tulasi told me about a saying from the days when Bardia was scourged by malaria, which portrays what the civil servants in Kathmandu thought of it. ‘In Bardia,’ the saying goes, ‘a month’s rice as well as that for use in the post-death rites can be bought with a rupee’. The belief was that anyone from outside the region that came to live there would not outlast his month’s ration of rice.

What was hazardous for humans has always remained a haven for wildlife. Diverse topographical features, which include the Churia Hills and the Bhabar, a low-lying, semi-arid region, have resulted in a multitude of vegetation: Sal forests, grasslands known as phanta, and riverine forests constitute the park. These features of Bardia have helped shelter endangered species like the Royal Bengal Tiger and Asian elephant. The One-horned Rhinoceros was introduced to the park from Chitwan, and has proved a success story. Other rare species include the Asiatic Wild Dog, Smooth-coated Otter, Blue bull (Nilgai), Black buck, and Swamp deer (Barasingha).

Bardia’s landscape is often touted as one of the most picturesque in Asia. This claim is sure to have been made, as guides in Bardia will testify, with special reference to the Babai Valley. Named after the Babai River, which flows through it, this area is known for its secluded pockets of grasslands. Visitors have to attain special permits from the park administration to enter the Babai Valley.

Bardia is no longer the feared backwater it once was. A rupee can hardly get you anything today in Bardia, but a visit will give you an experience to last a lifetime.

Activities Galore
Walking is just one way to explore Bardia. Numerous rivers, the most prominent being Karnali, flow through or skirt the national park. These waterways can be explored leisurely on a raft. A rafting trip is one of the best ways to see elusive species such as the marsh crocodile and gharial. The biggest attraction of rafting is the possibility of getting a glimpse of the Gangetic dolphin, only a handful of which are known to exist in these rivers.  

Bardia is one of the richest areas of Nepal in terms of birds. Its total of 426 species of birds is almost half of the total number of birds found in Nepal. Bird watchers in Bardia have an opportunity to see birds like the Great Hornbill, Sarus Crane, Bengal Florican, Lesser Florican, Black-bellied Tern, Pallas’s Fish Eagle, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, Painted Stork, Black-necked Stork, and Lesser Adjutant. Bardia’s birds include 11 globally threatened species and half of Nepal’s near-threatened species. The community forests near Thakurdwara, where most of the resorts are situated, offer great bird watching.

There are numerous Tharu villages in the park’s buffer zone. These villages, made up mostly of mud-and-thatch huts, are examples of a sustainable lifestyle, which the Tharus have led for generations. The intricate ties of the Tharus to their surroundings are manifest in their household objects and daily activities. The Tharu Museum at the park headquarters also showcases Tharu culture in great detail. Tharu cultural shows are also organized by resorts at the guests’ request.

The rivers of Bardia offer some of the best fishing in Nepal. One of the world’s most prized freshwater catch, the Mahaseer, is found here. (For more on angling in the Karnali River see Chasing The Dream in ECS Nepal’s July 2009 issue.)

The writer is yet to see a tiger in the wild. He can be reached at papercloudtree@hotmail.com. For a stay in Bardia, he recommends the Bardia Adventure Resort, which caters to those who want to spend time in luxury or in the company of a mouse. For more information see www.bardia-adventure.com. For booking call 084-696335 or email at bar_bardia@wlink.com.np. The writer relied on Important Bird Areas In Nepal (Baral and Inskipp, 2005) for information on Bardia’s wildlife.