31 January 2011

January Galavanting

Eish, it's been a while. The last couple of weeks have been madness. I finished at WWF almost exactly two weeks ago. Not long after that I rushed off to Jaipur to volunteer at the Jaipur Literature Festival run by Teamwork Productions (yes I'm advertising a little). My family's been going for a couple of years plus my mom works with Teamwork so I'd been hearing about it for a long time. It's a huge festival and it's built a great reputation for itself in the last few years. I was put in charge of the book signing area - madness. But all the chaos aside, every evening there were music performances and lots of chilling with friends who were there. All in all, a full week of hard work and moderate partying - exhausting. 

Once it was over on Tuesday night, Cara and I made a last minute plan to take a detour on the way home and go to Ranthambore National Park since we were so close. It's a really smooth journey from Jaipur to there; the nearest town, Sawai Madhopur is only around 20min driving distance from the park, although I suppose that's not really a good thing for the park. The plan was to go there, do 3 safaris, and go back to Delhi. The first afternoon drive wasn't too eventful in terms of wildlife, though our company was HIGHLY amusing, serious characters. Not necessarily a good thing but I'll rant about that later.

Before I say anything more about the safaris, I have to say that Ranthambore is my new favourite reserve in India. It's such a stunning place with such amazing landscapes, and the Ranthambore Fort and the associated architecture you see around the park makes it so unique. Had to find this picture off of google to show how beautiful the original fort gate near the entrance of the reserve is and the fact that it's thrown in the middle of these sheer cliffs and forest with a little stream running along the road and the odd palm and banyan trees thrown in:

And there's apparently this also, I wish we'd seen it:

Anyway, back to the game drives - initially they weren't too eventful. I've mentioned this before in a post about my experience at Corbett National Park earlier in the holidays, Back in the Homeland - what's always most exciting for me (after tiger sightings of course) is being in Indian forests. The landscapes are so different from what I know of African safaris, so is the wildlife, that more than anything, it's a learning experience. I'm completely out of my element in my own country's nature reserves. It's humbling though. Here's a few of Cara's pictures from the drives:

sambar deer

baby langur feeding
rose-ringed parakeets
indian tree pie
male sambar deer
And those are just the non-exciting photos. Drive 2 onwards is when the tiger sightings (stress on the plural) start. Having spent enough time with Cara, I've realised I have a tourist mindset when I go to a park in India - seeing a tiger is the priority. Much like the Big 5 are here in Africa. In my defence, it's the conservationist in me and not the tourist that's constantly craving for a sight of those stripes in the bush and I can't control it just yet. Judging by the fact that two years ago, I cried when I saw my first wild tiger, I think it'll be a while before the novelty wears off. There's absolutely nothing in the world that compares to seeing this majestic, iconic, endangered animal in the wild, in its natural habitat. Even if it's a far off glimpse of a flicking tail, I promise it just makes your heart race. There isn't an animal on the planet more awe-inspiring than the tiger. And that comes with the fact that there are only some 3200 of them left in the world, making it an even more touching experience to see one of 1411 of your country's national animal in the wild, in a tiger reserve. I'm getting a bit repetitive here, but I had to stress that it's not just another tourist attraction to tick off your list, it's life changing, for me at least. And now that I've built them up enough, we saw one tiger on the second drive and two on the third and last (possibly a leopard also but it was impossible to spot even with binocs so I'm not sure I even saw it). One thing I loved about the tiger spotting on the drives, something I've never really experienced much of before, is the amount that you rely on alarm calls to tell you if there's tigers around. Prior to our sightings there must've been at least 5 false alarms where we would sit and wait for almost 15 minutes just staring into the bush looking for movement while listening intently to alarm calls of spotted deer 'chital', langurs and peacocks. Sometimes it felt like some kind of con the guides use to get you excited about seeing a tiger, but sure enough it works beautifully and it's what led us to tiger 1 :) Of course there's also good old tracking that led us to tiger 2. And pure luck for tiger 3.

tiger 1 - spotted as it was drinking water
tiger 2 - followed tracks all the way along the road until we got to this absolute beauty
tiger 3 - total fluke of a sighting, just in time to see him perfectly as he crossed the road
tiger 3 - marking his territory after crossing the road
Tigers 2 and 3 may have just made my life complete. Now while this has been quite the warm and fuzzy post, and as much as I fell in love with Ranthambore's landscapes and wildlife, every visit (at least from what I've seen) to a wildlife reserve in India and every big sighting is bittersweet. Sure you get to see India's natural beauty at its best, but the mood is always dampened by two things, 1) how threatened these habitats and their animals are and 2) the insensitivity of the common man/tourist in India. It feels like an almost taboo thing to say but there is absolutely no environmental sensitivity, let alone civic sense in the general public and until that changes, nothing will. For one, tourists that come to the reserves are tooooootally clueless about nature and only come to see "the tiger" to the extent that if they don't see a tiger they start complaining saying things like "there are no tigers here, it's all fake, all they have is deer and trees". I want to go on a rant and swear at this kind of behaviour but I keep that side of myself to a minimum on my blog :P But it's the same thing wherever you go. And when they do get their tigers, they have NO understanding whatsoever of the fact that you're supposed to stay freaking quiet. What's worse is that the guides and drivers seem to be in on it and the encourage the rowdiness. It's so embarassing to see. You want to take in this amazing moment of seeing the animal and not disturbing it, but everybody around you is shouting and screaming and all the vehicles seem to want to get as close to the animal as possible. The photos below capture some of the madness, but minus the noise. It's really unbelievable and there's nothing more angering, it makes me feel seriously violent.

It's things like this that started me off on my interest in seriously reforming the face of Indian ecotourism. It has such a long way to go, it's sad to see. The saddest thing is that it's actually SO easy to correct disgusting sights like these. All it takes is a few reserve rules, a quick briefing to the tourists, a little discipline and compliant guides. At some point I'm probably going to get told off for constantly comparing India and South Africa, but from what I've seen, South Africa has got a brilliant ecotourism model that India could seriously learn from and I hope we do take some lessons from them. One simple thing that I've seen at Mabula and a couple of other reserves is the controlled Big 5 sightings. For any sightings of a Big 5 animal, only 2 or 3 vehicles at a time are allowed on the sighting, all the rest have to wait in line at a standby point some 200 metres away from the sighting. It's SO simple and there's minimal disturbance caused. The only problem is that it's done via radio communication which they don't seem to believe in in Indian reserves, I'm not yet sure why. Anyway, proper ecotourism management practices is an area I'm really interested in and it's sad to see my own country be so pathetic at it. Another simple one like I said, is to brief the guests before leaving for the drive - simple rules like keep quiet, turn off your cellphone, don't feed the birds, don't get out of the car, don't stand up, jump around and cause a scene, respect the bush - easy way to ensure a civil safari. They also need a limit on how many vehicles/tourists enter the park at a time. It really doesn't have to be so difficult. Anyway, I won't rant anymore, I do love my country and people but not in these situations. I do have a nice thing to say about management of drives at Ranthambore, there was one system that I liked a lot. The park is divided into 5 ones, before every drive, the guides pick out a zone number randomly from a draw. If they pick out zone 3 for instance, they're given a vehicle that's clearly marked "Z3" and for that safari, they must stick to zone 3. It's a great way of ensuring that sightings don't get crowded by every vehicle in the reserve.

the crowd around tiger 3

Anyway, this brings my personal tally to four tiger reserves (Kanha, Sundarbans, Corbett, Ranthambore) and 8 wild tigers. I am happy :)

Thank you Cara for the most amazing trip - BEST idea and fantastic pictures. Go look at her blog!

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  1. I enjoyed reading some of your blogs.Your sensitive nature is actually required in your choosen line.Keep it up and work your way to suggesting steps for improving the eco systems.

  2. Thanks so much! I'm glad you liked them.
    I'm working on it :P