sign in a cave in Laos

8 June 2008

Chasing tigers and elephants - Brunei Times

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Chasing Bengal tigers and Indian elephants
Liz Price


Sunday, November 18, 2007

EVER since my first visit to Asia two decades ago, it has been my ambition to see a wild elephant, although this was lower on my list than to see a tiger in the wild. That was my priority, to see a wild tiger, unchained and uncaged. In India, I visited several nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries. I went to the Jim Corbett National Park where many people manage to see tigers. Indeed the day I arrived, a group of European visitors had seen a mother tigress with cubs. This got my hopes up, and I eagerly went in search the next day, and saw nothing. I saw 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, and is situated in the north of Uttar Pradesh, 300km from Delhi. It was here that Project Tiger was launched 30 years ago, aimed at saving the tiger from extinction. I was wondering if they suddenly became extinct on the eve of my visit.

I didn't even see any wild elephants in the Jim Corbett Park, and the park is 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 instead I 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 Kolkata 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 are working in their fields, in an attempt to scare the tigers away. The tigers have become man-eaters due to the lack of other suitable prey in the area. There is an average of 40 maulings a year.

I spent several days in this park, accompanied by armed officers. I slept in remote huts, climbed up watchtowers, sat up overnight. Nothing. Even a dead goat tied in 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 does also have 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.

I moved on to Thailand, and saw neither of my sought-after large mammals in the wild. The next destination was Malaysia. I knew Malaysia does have wild tiger and elephant populations, but sightings are 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. 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 up to 10 days at a time. We saw virtually every creature that lives in Malaysia, except for the rhino — and 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! This was my closest sighting to either of these creatures. There was one print of each, and quite fresh. We went into the cave and emerged on the other side of the hill, where we found mousedeer, tapir and pig paw marks, 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 and look for animals. I heard a noise and 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 and felines 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, but we didn't see what I was looking for. The ranger told me that it is very rare for even the rangers to see tigers nowadays. They occasionally see the tracks but not the actual animal.

I did a lot of trekking alone, and stayed in the hides. I was lucky, and saw the "rarer" mammals such as tapir and even a panther on one occasion. I saw elephant footprints and even took photos as evidence. Then my luck changed. I did a trek out to the caves in the Kepayang area, sleeping 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. I laughed at myself for being so stupid. But after I 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 night 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 on a bed of nettles. As soon as daylight broke through the trees 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 suddenly realised there was a large grey form ahead of me. Still unsettled after my scary night and rubbing sleep from my eyes, I wondered what was ahead of me in the gloom of the forest. 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 sway, I really regretted my action, as I hadn't even stopped to take a photograph.

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. 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.

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.

The Brunei Times


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