Sunday, March 12, 2006

Return to the Jungle

So there I was, drenched and shivering, clinging to my elephant’s saddle, and crashing through the Indian jungle in pursuit of a tiger…

This weekend I got to return to Corbett Tiger Reserve, as a chaperone for a 12th grade Environmental Science fieldtrip. They’d been studying national parks and conservation efforts and there was unused money in the fieldtrip budget. And since the teacher of the class is a man and 24 of the 28 students are girls, a female chaperone was required. My job consisted primarily of waking the girls up in the morning, herding them to the bus, and accompanying them on elephants and jeep safaris. I know, I know—it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

Corbett is a 7+ hour bus ride from Mussoorie so we left at the absolute crack of dawn Thursday morning. I had to get up at 3:30 am to make the bus. Arg! But that meant that everyone slept most of the way, which was good. We spent our first night at a Center for Eco-Tourism just outside of Ramnagar (the town on the outskirts of the park). They gave us a briefing on the park itself and took us to Choti Haldwani, a village that Jim Corbett owned during (and after) his lifetime. He purchased a large tract of land, then brought in families from the area and allowed them to live on plots, completely free of charge. Very cool.

The next morning we headed for the park and spent the day safari-ing around in jeeps and on elephants. We spent the night deep inside the park itself at a station called Dikala. Then the next day it was more safaris at dawn and then we headed back to the Eco-Tourism center and finally came home on Sunday.

There were 30 of us total, so we broke into five jeeps for the actual safaris. Being in a jeep with a bunch of 12th graders is hysterical. Half of them were on permanent excitement highs, and had to be reminded constantly that if they squealed at every deer they saw, no self-respecting tiger would come anywhere near. The other half were too tired from the trip and kept dozing off and hitting their heads on the jeep’s side-bars.

But back to the tiger. In the afternoon of the first day in the park, we had a chance to go on elephant safaris. We had to split the group into several smaller groups because there weren’t enough elephants at Dikala to go around. So I took 9 kids with me and we headed to another area where we mounted up on two elephants and struck out into the jungle. The fun thing about elephants is that they don’t have to stick to the established trails the way the jeeps do. We just meandered through the brush along the river, admiring Sambar deer and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over peacocks.

Then, with no warning whatsoever, we came through a patch of grass and there, in a small clearing, was a tiger, just lounging on the ground. WOAH! TIGER! Our elephant was in the lead and though we motioned frantically for the other to catch up, our feline vanished almost instantly into the underbrush. I was too awestruck to get off a picture, but one of the kids was quick on the draw and actually caught it on video. I’m hoping to procure a copy.

But the story doesn’t end there! We scoured the area for a bit, looking for the tiger, and then we heard it roaring across the river. I have no idea how it got to the other side without our noticing—you would think something bright orange would stand out in the greenery but you’d be wrong. In any case, our guide told us that it was mating season and our male tiger was calling for a mate. Which made him track-able. So, since we were on elephants, we just followed the sound of his calls. We splashed through the river and charged through the underbrush. By this point, it had started raining and we were all soaked and freezing but no one wanted to turn back.

Our elephant had previously been attacked by a tiger and he was none too keen on repeating the experience, so we could tell when we got close again because he got very agitated and our Mahut had to keep forcing him to go on. It was all very exciting. In the end, our elephant returned to the river bank, while the other ploughed deeper into the jungle, hoping to flush the tiger out and back across the river. The plan failed and we never caught sight of him again, but the second elephant happened upon him, giving the other group a glimpse.

So we all returned chilled but ecstatic to gloat about our trip to the other, less-fortunate, groups.


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