Tiger woods

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2008, 12:00am

'Last week a tigress attacked two men at Dhikala. This time of the year is very risky,' says our guide, Shammi.

It's not exactly the chocolates-by-the-bed welcome one might have hoped for at one of Asia's prime safari destinations, but then Corbett National Park, in the state of Uttarakhand, in northern India, has always been more about the creatures than the comforts.

Established in 1936, India's first national park remains one of the country's great wildernesses. It is home to more than 50 species of mammal, including about 85 leopards and 600 elephants, and 600 species of bird. But one creature overshadows all others: the tiger.

According to the latest national census of the big cats, India has an estimated 1,400 tigers, of which almost 10 per cent are in Corbett. Despite the numbers, however, Corbett is far from being the country's most reliable tiger-sighting destination. The dense sal forest, with its thick undergrowth of lantana, means only about 10 per cent of visitors see a tiger.

To improve the chances of glimpsing Corbett's feline star, it's best to come in the last week of the season, in the glare of summer, just days before the monsoon is due to strike. It's a time when the forest has died back, waterholes are scarce and grass cover is minimal after winter burn-offs. But there are disadvantages: days of more than 40 degrees Celsius and, this year, a rather troubling tigress and her four cubs.

A week before our visit, the tigress seized a Dhikala worker by the throat as he opened the door to his room. Another man was clawed across the chest. Both men survived and, for the moment, the cat has been allowed to turn Dhikala, the major visitor centre, into her private fiefdom.

Guests are under virtual night curfew, confined to a barracks-like room. In the bathroom, cold water pours from a pipe in vague imitation of a shower and a ceiling fan turns only when electricity bothers to flow. The phrase 'luxury safari' is about as distant as Africa.

No walking is allowed in the park, except to a watchtower near Dhikala, and even this has been closed because the tigress has been attacking vehicles nearby.

It is at dawn or through the late afternoon that guests stir, journeying out from Dhikala on the backs of elephants or in open-top Jeeps. The five 'safari elephants' are normally in high demand but visitor numbers are low because the dormitory accommodation, with its outhouse toilets, has been closed due to the potential for attack.

'There's something big creeping around there. Start the engine,' squeaks Dave, a jittery Englishman, from the back of a Jeep. What startled him, though, turns out to be langur monkeys high in the forest canopy.

Within minutes of leaving Dhikala, we come across a herd of elephants grazing on the sweeping grassland. Among them are a dozen babies, wrestling, chasing, playfully boisterous. The largest female in the herd advances on the Jeep, agitated. Shammi steps on the accelerator and speeds away as the elephant gives chase.

While patrolling the edge of the grassland, having passed langurs, rhesus macaques, sambar deer, spotted deer, jackals and wild boar, Shammi spots pug marks - as tiger footprints are called - on the road. It rained through the night and morning, which means the tiger could have been here only in the past hour. We suddenly feel watched and Dave frets about the possibility of the Jeep stalling, turning us into canned meat.

We follow the pug marks until a herd of spotted deer sprint from the forest, almost taking the Jeep with them. A lone stag stands a twitchy watch. Shammi switches off the engine and we wait. Were the deer spooked by a tiger?

The silence is soon broken by a loud English voice.

'Oh, I wouldn't mind a photo of that stag,' Dave says, announcing our presence and annoying everyone.

Back at Dhikala for breakfast, the inevitable stocktaking of sightings begins. One lucky group did spot a tiger; in fact, they saw two.

That evening we clamber aboard an elephant and lope back out through the grassland. Entering the forest, the elephants graze on the cannabis that grows freely and naturally through the park. Near a fresh kill, beside an artificial water hole, we come across the pug marks of a pair of year-old tiger cubs. The elephant blasts a note of displeasure. It has smelled the cubs; they are still here. The reluctant elephant is urged through the cannabis, trying to flush the tigers out, but they elude us.

That night, we must elude them. Soon after we finish dinner, the tigress and her cubs appear outside the restaurant, although unseen by guests, and we are hurried into our rooms.

For two days life follows this pattern: tiger teases on safari and tiger threatens in camp. By the final night it seems clear that, although the park's tigers have undoubtedly seen me, I won't be seeing them. I've come so far to see a tiger but the only creature that has tried to attack me was a rhesus macaque. (I was sitting between it and a discarded chapati.)

On the final morning, the tigress brings us something of a gift. By the river, about 50 metres below Dhikala, she's made a kill and is prowling through the grass, staring up the hill, watching us watching her, as the cubs tear at the carcass. I look closely at the remains, but they aren't those of Dave; he is here, as excited as a chimpanzee. They may be at a safe distance, but at last I've seen my tigers.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Delhi. A train operates between Delhi and the town of Ramnagar, at the park's edge. Jeeps are easily arranged (about 500 rupees/HK$100 per three-hour safari) in Ramnagar.

Where to stay: a morning ballot for rooms, which cost about 1,200 rupees a night, is conducted at the Project Tiger office in Ramnagar. The eastern edge of the park is lined with safari resorts but there are rules limiting the amount of time you can spend in the reserve and where you can travel.