Trunk call to tiger land

In Nepal's Chitwan National Park, Isabel Wolff sets off on elephant back in search of the elusive Bengal tiger
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WE STEPPED gingerly into the waiting canoe, donned the proffered life-jackets and were soon being ferried across the monsoon-swollen waters of the Narayani River. Behind us were the Himalayas, before us the jungle of the Chitwan National Park where we hoped to come face to face with the elusive Bengal tiger. In the humid stillness of the early Nepalese afternoon, the only sounds were the slapping of the water against the sides of the boat, and the occasional shriek of a distant egret. As we drew close to the opposite bank we squinted in disbelief. Coming towards us along the shore, moving langorously, as if in slow motion, were four Indian elephants, their trunks raised in greeting. This is how all journeys to Temple Tiger Wildlife Camp begin.

There are several camps in Chitwan, Nepal's oldest national park, but Temple Tiger is the newest of these and is a challenge to the better-known Tiger Tops which until now has had a monopoly. Opened four years ago, Temple Tiger is situated on a high plateau above the Narayani and is screened all around by deciduous riverine forest which is home to 400 species of birds and more than 100 mammals. The star attraction is the Bengal tiger, whose numbers have risen in recent years now that Chitwan is patrolled by the army and soldiers are empowered to shoot poachers on sight. The park is impenetrable by vehicle, so our four-mile journey to Temple Tiger would be on elephant back.

We scrambled on to the beach, where porters took our bags, threaded them swiftly through wooden poles and headed off on foot into the jungle. Then, at a shrill command from their mahouts, the elephants knelt down on the pebble-strewn sand and we clambered up their whiskery backs on to the cushioned howdahs. We giggled and grimaced with apprehension as our mounts lurched to their feet then rocked and swayed along the shore. Then they turned sharply inland, weaving through a vast meadow of rhino grass, well over 10ft high. Here the air was thick with silvery fluff which floated into ears and eyes. As they walked, the elephants ripped into the vegetation with their pink freckled trunks, chewing constantly, eructating regularly and leaving in their wake trails of pale green dung the size of oranges.

We peered into the dense undergrowth; no tigers, not so much as a single stripe, just a scattering of large yellow butterflies and the occasional frog. Five minutes into our safari and we were already quite accustomed to the gentle undulation of our steeds. "It's like riding on a huge shire horse, side-saddle," whispered my companion. The mahouts were silent, too, directing the animals not with shouts, which would alert the wildlife, but with pressure from their bare feet on the backs of either ear. We had been told what to look out for - Asian rhino, sloth, spotted deer and monkey. All we could hear was the crunching of grass underfoot and the squelchy sploshing of huge feet through the muddy post-monsoon puddles.

Dismounting at Temple Tiger, deep in the jungle, we were shown to our tents, rather colonial affairs with twin wooden beds, mosquito nets and separate dressing rooms. They also have en-suite bamboo bathrooms where, by some miracle, the toilets flush and the water runs hot and cold. I seemed to be sharing mine with a number of large but apparently harmless black spiders.

Supper was in the thatched roundhouse built in the local Tharu style, like a pagoda. We ate our curry by candlelight - there is no electricity in the camp in order to avoid laying cable through the forest. A kerosene lamp burned outside each tent to warn away animals.

Early the next day we set off on our early- morning jungle ride. This time mounting the elephants was a somewhat more dignified affair. We climbed up the steps of a high wooden platform, the elephants reversed against it, and we stepped neatly on to the howdah as comfortably as if we were getting into a Ford Sierra. Then we set off, weaving through the mist- covered jungle on our mobile observation platform. We watched the elephant behind us stepping carefully over the rough terrain, forging shallow rivers, sinking elbow deep in mud at times, but never once losing her footing as her four passengers swayed gently on her back. "Elephants are much more careful when they are carrying visitors," said the resident naturalist, Loknath Wasti, who was accompanying us. "When they are just walking along with the mahout, they tend to crash along any old how. But they are so careful when they're carrying tourists."

It was true. We watched as the elephant behind us, which was called Madhur Kali, daintily investigated the treacherous ground with the tip of her trunk before planting her foot on the muddy slope. Our elephant was called Champa Kali, or Jasmine Flower. Often we would find ourselves wobbling precariously on her back at 45 degrees to the ground. But, our guide assured us, elephants never fall over. "We only use females," Wasti continued, "because we find that they make much better workers."

"How long has the mahout worked with this elephant?" I asked him, gazing at the back of the elephant driver's grizzled head.

"Thirty years. If he dies, then his brother or his son must take his place and work with Jasmine Flower, because she is like a member of his family."

"Do you think we'll see a tiger?" I enquired, as a bead of sweat trickled down my shoulders into the small of my back.

"I don't know," he replied. "The grass is still very high after the monsoon, but they are certainly around here somewhere."

There are about 80 tigers in Chitwan, and until quite recently visitors were almost guaranteed a sighting, for the simple reason that they were baited. A goat or a buffalo calf would be tethered, its bleats would attract the tiger, and the tourists would be bused in to watch the inevitable result.

But in time the tigers became delinquent, dependent and refused to hunt. Worse, some became man-eaters, preying on cattle herders and shepherds. So four years ago tiger-baiting was banned and today tiger-spotting carries no guarantees.

"What are our chances?" I asked Loknath Wasti.

"About 30-40 per cent," he replied judiciously.

We came to a narrow strip of water, edged by tall reeds, perfect tiger terrain according to our guide. He told us that tiger like to be near water so that they can pounce on their prey when the animals come down to drink. The best time to see a tiger, he said, is just after they have made a kill. Tigers, it seems, are vampires, killing primarily for blood. They drink their fill then stagger around, intoxicated, for four or five hours at a stretch. At this point, said Wasti, the befuddled animal can be approached quite closely. Only later, when it has sobered up, does the glutted tiger come back to eat the meat. "If you find a half-eaten animal it is quite easy to tell whether the tiger was male or female," Wasti added. "Males tend to eat from the shoulder down, females from the tail up. Nobody really knows why."

Suddenly the mahout uttered something in a hoarse, urgent whisper and the elephant stopped dead in its tracks. Then it moved off the path and plunged deep into the undergrowth, trumpeting and harumphing as the mahout urged it on. We ducked as branches scraped our heads and leaves slapped against our faces. There was a rapid exchange in Hindi between naturalist and elephant-driver, and then Jasmine Flower moved off again.

"Tiger?" I enquired, flicking red ants off my legs.

"No, rhino," said Wasti.

"Where?"

"There."

Suddenly, from deep within the elephant's stomach came a sonourous drilling sound. We could feel the whole howdah vibrate and the noise permeate our stiffened bodies.

"Elephants don't like getting too close to rhino," Wasti whispered. "They're afraid of them, and they make this noise when they're scared and they want to complain."

The elephant grumbled again, and this time we heard another sound, like the dull thudding of a First World War machine gun. Fifteen feet away, almost obscured in the long grass, was two tons of armour-plated one-horned Asian rhino - and it was telling us to get lost. It held our gaze for a second, emitted another rapid volley of grunts, and then retreated into the trees. We had been extremely lucky, since these unicorns are rare.

The temperature was rising, and we turned back towards camp. A few hundred yards from Temple Tiger Wasti called a halt, staring intently at the wet ground which was criss-crossed with deer and elephant tracks. He directed our gaze to another set of prints, freshly made, the size of small dinner- plates and with distinctive pads and claws. There was a perceptible intake of breath and the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention. We eagerly scanned the surrounding bushes for black and orange stripes, but there was nothing to be seen.

That was to be as close as we came to encountering a tiger during our two-day stay in the Chitwan National Park - but frustrating though it was, nobody seemed to mind. The odds had been stacked against us. We had failed to bag a big cat, but going to Temple Tiger had been more than worth the risk. !

Comments