*This is Part 2 of a 4 part series documenting my often-frustrating but nonetheless amusing encounters with tourists while participating in wildlife safaris in four of India’s tiger reserves. There may be subtle references to Part 1 in this post.
A similar series of bizarre encounters with wild tourists followed when I arrived at Bandipur Tiger Reserve in early July for fieldwork. Bandipur, which was first established in 1941 and brought under the purview of Project Tiger in 1973 as one of the original nine Project Tiger reserves, is a crucial part of the Western Ghats conservation landscape. It is part of an uninterrupted link between the forests of the Western Ghats with those of the Eastern Ghats, along with Wayanad (in Kerala), Nagarahole (Karnataka), Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary (Karnataka), Mudumalai (Tamil Nadu), and Sathyamangalam (Tamil Nadu). It also adjoins the M.M. Hills and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuaries in Karnataka. This landscape is crucial for the conservation of large endemic fauna including the tiger, the Asian elephant, and the Indian leopard. Bandipur was the most visited tiger reserve in Karnataka between 2005 and 2015, with an annual average visitation of 76867 tourists (Bandipur Forest Department). The tiger density in this park is 10.28 tigers/100 sq. km (2014 NTCA Tiger Assessment), and Bandipur has a total area of 872 sq. km (core area) and 584 sq. km (buffer zone) (ENVIS). 20 percent of the core area is used for tourism, while the remaining area is set aside only for wildlife (NTCA*). The park vegetation falls in the category of tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forest.
As our team had non-Indians as well as Indians, we decided to take a safari in Bandipur, one of India’s premier tiger reserves. I was extremely excited. Bandipur is famous for its charismatic megafauna, including elephants, Indian bison (gaur), tigers, leopards, and wild dogs (dholes). So it was with eager anticipation that I paid for my safari ticket and climbed aboard the rickety green forest department safari bus, along with a crowd of tourists, all of whom were Indian except for our team members.
That was when things began to go downhill. The bus driver hadn’t even arrived yet but nearly every passenger was engaged in a verbal battle with at least one other person on that damned bus. Three college boys were arguing about their chances of seeing a nilgai (virtually zero, given the landscape), a family of twelve was shouting at the elderly matriarch to pass the potato chips, and a young child with his parents kept up a high-pitched wailing noise, sounding eerily similar to an ambulance in a traffic jam in Mumbai.
I was already close to boiling point when the bus driver hopped into the vehicle and gunned the engine. My hopes of seeing any wildlife other than the tamest and most human-savvy of deer were rapidly fading with every passing moment. A few beautiful birds were perched on trees, but our driver was fixated on finding his tourists nothing less than the big three – the tiger, the elephant, and the leopard. Birds, deer, and gaur were just not exciting enough for his tastes. At one point, I forced the driver to halt the
vehicle so that I could photograph a gorgeous black-rumped flameback woodpecker just by the side of the dirt road. The man, and the entire busload of pesky tourists, hurled abuses at the park, the bird, me, and the gods in equal proportions as I leveled my camera lens and snapped a few brisk shots of the beautiful bird. My enthusiasm was hardly dampened by the energetic hissing of a young man behind me, who later clarified that his hisses were meant to signal to me to stop holding up the safari.
The bus driver soon became weary of constantly turning around and hissing at us to be silent. He threw his hands up in the air, shook his head, and then concentrated on his task – navigating a busload of tourists through a tiger reserve and getting them their money’s worth of wildlife sightings. He hurtled past anything smaller than a gaur (although we only sighted one small herd of these large bovines) without even switching gears. We swerved around trees and bounced through ditches, the tires flinging up mud all around. Suddenly, the drive braked the vehicle, sending us flying around the back of the bus. Everyone began shouting angrily, but he pointed out of the window and, with an air of extreme satisfaction, said “elephant.”
That effectively snared everyone’s attention, including mine. As one body, we all pressed against the windows on the left side of the bus. Children were screeching that they wanted to see the elephant, the college boys were trying to locate the elephant in their selfie cameras, and an old lady in a fluorescent sari tried waving the end of the cloth out of the bus to attract the pachyderm (a terrible idea – please never try this!). But I couldn’t see the elephant at all! I peered over and around craning heads, trying to locate the animal. Finally, I squeezed my way over to the bus driver and asked him to point me towards the elephant. He clucked his tongue impatiently and pointed to a dense patch of trees.
All we could see was the rotund grey backside of an elephant.
The driver couldn’t have been prouder of himself. “I have found you an elephant,” he announced to the bus at large, and then gunned the engine, pulling away before the irritated busload of tourists could demand their money back. After all, no one had remembered to specify that the elephant had to be fully visible, had they?