sign in a cave in Laos

20 August 2008

Chasing tigers and elephants - Star

Saturday July 17, 2004
Chasing tigers and elephants

By Liz Price

Tiger, tiger burning bright
In the middle of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
– from The Tiger, by William Blake (1757-1827)

EVER since my first visit to Asia two decades ago, it has been my ambition to see a wild elephant, and, even more than that, a tiger in the wild.

As I spent months backpacking around India, I visited several nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries. I went to the Jim Corbett National Park where many people managed to see tigers. Indeed the day I arrived, a group of European visitors had just seen a mother tiger with cubs in the morning. This got my hopes up, and I eagerly went in search the next day. I saw nothing.

There were small reptiles, many species of birds, several types of deer, but no tigers. Those feline creatures were certainly elusive. This was the first national park in India, situated in the north of Uttar Pradesh, 300km from Delhi. It was here that Project Tiger was launched 30 years ago with the aim of saving the tiger from extinction. Had they suddenly became extinct on the eve of my visit?

I didn’t even see any wild elephants there, and the park is actually known for its elephants. Where were they all?

I had the choice of doing an elephant safari, which meant riding an elephant in order to spot other wildlife, but opted to do a jeep safari, in the hope that I would cover more terrain. I did, but it was unsuccessful and I was unlucky.

Later on my Indian travels, I went to the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, the world’s largest delta and mangrove swamp, and the world’s largest estuarine sanctuary, situated 130km from Calcutta in West Bengal. There are an estimated 270 Royal Bengal tigers in the wildlife sanctuary, so I had high hopes. Many of these tigers are man-eaters. They are prone to attacking humans for food, and the locals resort to wearing masks on the back of their heads when working in their fields, in an attempt to put off the tigers.

The tigers usually become man-eaters due to the lack of other suitable prey in the area. There are an average of 40 maulings a year here.

I spent several days in the park, accompanied by armed officers. I slept in remote huts, climbed up watchtowers, sat up overnight. But nothing. Even a dead goat tied to the lower branches of a tree as bait didn’t attract any striped visitors. The Sunderbans is home to spotted deer, wild pigs, monkeys, herons, kingfishers and eagles, and although I saw most of those creatures, the 270 tigers were in hiding.

In Nepal I went to the Royal Chittwan Reserve. This park is noted for its one horned rhino, but it also has tigers. I did a safari on elephant-back to go animal-spotting. Yes I saw the rhinos, which was really wonderful and exciting. But once again, the tigers were conspicuous by their absence.

So I moved on to Thailand, and saw neither of the large mammals I was seeking in the wild. Next stop – Malaysia. I knew Malaysia still had wild tiger and elephant populations, but sightings were not particularly common. I backpacked around Malaysia for two months, and saw neither creature in the wild. I travelled on to Indonesia, knowing I wouldn’t see those creatures there either. In Australia I saw wild camels, but of course no elephants or tigers. I had seen scores of wild elephants in Africa, but my desire was to see the Asian or Indian elephant.

I returned to Malaysia and spent some time doing voluntary projects with WWF Malaysia. This involved camping out in the jungle for days on end, up to 10 days at a time. We saw virtually every creature that lives in Malaysia, except for the rhino and . . . yes, you guessed it, the tiger and elephant.

My closest sighting was in Kelantan when I was on a caving trip. The scientist in the group, Dr Dionysius Sharma (Dino) spotted elephant AND tiger footprints right outside a cave. I was so excited because this was my closest to sighting either of these creatures. There was one print of each, and they were quite fresh. We went into the cave, which emerged on the other side of the hill, where we found mouse-deer, tapir and pig tracks, and more excitingly, three or four fresh elephant footprints.

We decided to go animal spotting that night. We set up camp a safe distance away in some rubber trees, then returned to the area to wait. When I heard a noise, I was convinced it was an elephant, until Dino told me it was a frog. Oh well, try again! We stayed there for several hours, but saw nothing. Once again those pachyderms were not going to show themselves to me.

Over the years I made several trips to Taman Negara, staying up to a month at a time. I spent several nights trekking with one of the rangers, Mat Zin, but we didn’t see what I was looking for – although I did have a nose-to-nose encounter with a large, bird-eating spider which was dangling from a tree. Zin told me that it was very rare for even the rangers to see tigers nowadays. They occasionally see the tracks but not the actual animal.

It was getting frustrating.

I did a lot of trekking alone, and stayed in the hides. I was lucky, and saw the “rarer” mammals such as the tapir and even a panther on one occasion. And I saw elephant footprints and even took photos as evidence. And then Lady Luck smiled on me. I trekked out to the caves in the Kepayang area in Perak, and slept overnight in Gua Kepayang Besar.

Actually I didn’t sleep, as it was the most terrifying night of my life. I was all alone. Firstly, I was startled by lights flashing above my head, until I realised they were merely fireflies, and then I laughed at myself for being so stupid. But after I had settled down to sleep I was disconcerted to hear scuffling and rustling noises close by. I kept shining my torch but could see nothing. The noises continued, and my fears mounted, and then I saw them – porcupine going about their normal nights business, totally unfazed by my presence.

I decided they were quite cute and nothing to worry about. But I still couldn’t sleep.

Outside there was the sound of snuffling and movement and branches cracking. No way was I going out to find out what was there, and I spent the rest of the night restlessly tossing and turning as if I was on a bed of nettles.

As soon as the sun came up, I packed my bags, not wishing to spend a moment longer there than I had to. As I left the cave I walked straight into a pile of fresh, still steaming, elephant dung. That would explain the sound of cracking branches during the night.

I set off on my trek, and about 30 minutes later I suddenly realised there was a large grey form ahead of me. My mind was still unsettled after my scary night and I was still rubbing sleep from my eyes. I wondered what was ahead of me in the gloom of the forest. And then I realised it was the donor of the steaming dung left outside the cave. Eureka! I had found my elephant.

But I am ashamed to say that I ran away. I was so on edge, with nerves as taut as violin strings, that as soon as I saw the creature, I turned tail and quietly hurried away. My mind was telling me stories of how elephants sometimes attack humans, and because I was all alone, I wasn’t prepared to stay and find out. Once I was a safe distance away, I really regretted my action, as I hadn’t even stopped to take a photograph. But better safe than sorry.

Since then, I have been lucky enough to see the wild elephants in the Kinabatangan area of Sabah. I saw a total of about 15, and was able to get very close indeed to some of them. And it was exciting to learn, a month after my visit, that these elephants have been declared to be a new, distinct subspecies, the Pygmy elephant. Originally it was thought they were a member of the Asian elephant group. I was fortunate to have seen them, as not all visitors to that area are so lucky.

So finally, I have seen the Asian elephant and its cousin the Pygmy elephant in the wild. I have seen the African elephant in its natural surroundings. And I’ve ridden the tamed Indian elephant. All that remains now is to track down that elusive tiger . . .

No comments:

Post a Comment