Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright

Land of Spices

In the mountain range that surrounds Kumily, Kerala, temperatures soar in the day, but plummet at night, making a warm blanket and a hot shower seem less of a luxury and more of a necessity. The cool temperatures are actually a relief after months of humidity and heat on the sweltering west coast of south India.

Tea and spices form the backbone of the local economy, and surrounding hills are verdant with tea bushes and aromatic plants forming the backbone of a spice trade that traces a lineage in centuries: cardoman, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and dozens of others.

But Kumily also boasts a lineage of tigers that are said to haunt the nearby, more-than-700-square kilometer wildlife sanctuary of Periyar. Local officials claim a population of 35 to 45 of the majestic beasts, so I set off with a few new friends yesterday morning in anticipation of an intimate encounter with the animal that symbolizes my very life - my 1974 birthdate falling in the Chinese zodiac's year of the tiger.

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright

In the forest of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

We set off at dawn to meet our guide at the sanctuary ranger station, where we were faced with the several dozen other intrepid tourists eager for a taste of the exotic. As groups of 5-7 camera and binocular touting Europeans set off at short intervals into the so called "tourist zone" of the park, I began to realize that I might be harbouring unrealistically high expectations...

But off we went, into a lush but obviously highly trafficked forest echoing with the mating call of the black monkey. And the monkey is pretty much where the romance of this safari stops, as this powerfully-lunged simian was not nearly outshone by our subsequent encounters with a pig (yeah!), a chicken (yeah) and caterpillar (yes, a caterpillar - yeah!).

Now in all honesty I never expected to see a tiger, but had harboured faint hopes of a wild elephant or two, or maybe a herd of bison or Sambar deer - all dashed, of course, as this reserve is surely the Disneyland of all wildlife reserves in India. Hundreds of package tourists a day pass through its gate and add to the labyrinth of tracks and cacaphony of morning noise that ensures no tiger in its right mind would come close.

The Big Picture?
But what about India's other wildlife reserves? Less accessible tracts of land only visited by adventure tourists that make it a priority to visit the wild outdoors rather than an after-thought on a crowded itinerary.

I am sad to say that it is not a pretty picture, with USA Today reporting that "India's population of royal Bengal tigers is half of what it was just five years ago, and only about 1,400 remain in the wild, according to a new study." (Feb 13, 2008)

A sobering fact, pointing to yet another of the most majestic species on our planet that does not stand a chance against the tide of modernization and globalization that is sweeping it away - the Polar and Panda Bears being other examples that come to mind...

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