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Tracking Lions and Tigers in Game Parks of Asia

March 16, 1986|ARNIE WEISSMANN | Weissmann is an Austin, Tex., free-lance writer.

KATMANDU, Nepal — Something exciting had happened--we could see it in their walk and gestures while they were still a quarter-mile away. We assumed they had seen a tiger.

"Tiger?" someone shouted as they approached.

"Rhino!" came the answer. "It charged us. We spent half an hour in the trees."

Not wanting to spend even half a minute in the trees, my wife and I followed our friends' trail the next day with apprehension into the jungle of Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park.

The game parks of Asia--the only travel destination this side of Oz where one can see lions and tigers and bears--hold as much adventure, mystery and beauty as their African counterparts. We soon became absorbed by the otherworldly atmosphere of Nepal's terai.

Beautiful Deer

From the security of an observation tower we watched as a great Indian one-horned rhino and her calf grazed calmly in an open field near a herd of chital, whose spotted hide and tremendous antlers make it one of the most beautiful deer in the world.

Somewhere in the jungle a sambar deer barked its alarm call, signaling that a predator was in the vicinity, and the chital, holding tight formation, dashed off in the opposite direction.

We continued our exploration on foot. Wild peacocks shrieked and flapped noisily into tree cover as we approached; beautiful green parrots hurried by, and a flock of painted storks, as magnificent as their name implies, rested in the upper branches of sissoo trees.

A family of black-faced langur monkeys followed at a respectful distance, but the only sign of the big cats whose territory we were in, and which we especially wanted to see, was fresh leopard pug marks in the soft dust of a Land Rover truck.

Time Well Spent

More patience is required from a visitor in the parks of India and Nepal than in the African game reserves, but the time is well spent. The large herds crossing the open savanna grasslands of Kenya and Tanzania provide ideal conditions for viewing prey and predator alike, but the major attractions in Asian parks are often solitary animals who prefer a cover of thick forest and are likely seen only at dawn or dusk.

Also, the parks of the Indian subcontinent have lower fees and are easily accessible by public transportation. As in the African parks, one can find hyenas, jackals, wild dogs, antelope, lions, buffaloes, elephants, monkeys, crocodiles and a splendid assortment of large and colorful birds. As a bonus, Asia offers some species not found anywhere else, most notably the tiger.

India, with 44 parks and sanctuaries open to tourists, is at a critical point in the development of its nature reserves as it struggles to make up for a history of neglect. Big game hunting during the period of the British raj was shameful: One 19th-Century hunter recorded 300 lion kills, 50 of them in the area of modern Delhi.

Only 200 Asiatic lions are left in the wild, and all are concentrated in the Gir Forest northwest of Bombay. The last three Indian cheetahs were shot in 1948, and the tiger population was reduced from 50,000 at the turn of the century to 1,827 in 1972.

The situation was at its worst immediately after India's independence. As the fledgling government was struggling with the awesome social problems following partition, conservation was simply ignored. Poaching of rhinos, tigers, lions and leopards almost eliminated them.

Super Success Story

But tourists recently visiting Corbett National Park, about 200 miles northeast of Delhi, saw tigers on park-sponsored elephant rides every morning and evening for 26 days in a row. Their "luck" was the result of a concerted effort by the central and state governments, in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund and other environmental groups, to get the tiger off the endangered species list.

Its success over the past 11 years has been remarkable. Through proper park management in the areas designated to be tiger reserves, the tiger population has reached more than 3,000.

Corbett Park has the highest density of tigers of any park and also holds large herds of Asiatic elephants, which are more intelligent but slightly smaller than their African cousins. Leopards, sloth bears and six varieties of deer also inhabit the area.

The Uttar Pradesh State Tourist Office sponsors three-day tours to Corbett from Delhi for about $50, which includes transportation by bus, elephant rides, park fees and lodging. (For information, write to Tourist Officer, UP Government, Chandalok Building, 36 Janpath, New Delhi 110001, India.)

Night rides on a spotlight-equipped minibus are a feature of Rajasthan's Sariska National Park, whose dry terrain is more similar to west Texas than to the jungle settings in which one expects to find tigers.

The rides start at dusk, and on the evening we visited we saw scores of deer and peacocks, as well as several wild hogs before the sun set.

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