Sunday, March 7, 2010

Curtain of Camouflage

by Shyamala Rao

We had booked a three day stay at the Safari Lodge nestled at the edge of the Bandipur National Forest in the state of Karnataka in South India. Safari rides were scheduled twice a day for about 2 hours apiece. It was hot and dusty, with dried out vegetation everywhere. The trees, grass, shrubs were all uniformly brown and kindling dry. Every ride was “shake, rattle and roll” time. The vehicles were noisy beyond belief and they spewed out foul smelling vapors. The diesel filled fumes intermingled with the red dust of the forest floor rose up like a shroud and draped over us. With each breath our throats got more parched and dry.

In the forest we were treated to a surfeit of birds and animals. Peacocks and wild cockerel dotted the entire landscape. There were wild boar, looking and acting quite mild, macaques galore gamboling freely, sambar and chital leapt and frolicked and then settled down to graze contentedly, gaur at a distance, munching peaceably and seemingly unperturbed. As for the elephants, there were several large herds and we watched their browsing and their play. We had not spotted any of the big cats.

Off we went, with camera, sunscreen and hat in hand, into the depths of this dry and dusty forest in the Western Ghats. As we entered the park we were greeted with the darting flashes of iridescence, the usual welcoming committee, the male cockerels with their arching tail feathers and male peacocks with their straight long tail feathers, strutting their stuff and the females shrouded in their muted colors, sienna and umber, stayed by the sidelines and watched with nonchalance. We saw some elephants at a distance as we hurtled along and approached a pond.

The truck came to a stop and there in the murky water was a tiger swimming and cooling off from the heat. Unhurriedly the tiger climbed out of the water and stood by the water’s edge, looked around as he shook off the water from his fur. He was gorgeous, glistening in his Halloween colors. Slowly, leisurely he walked towards the shrubs and as we watched he simply disappeared into the forest. We stared long and hard and couldn’t see any signs of him. He was totally hidden in the thorn forest of Bandipur. One moment we could see this gorgeous big cat, his muscles rippling as he walked away, clad in his incomparable black and orange coat with their singular stripes and the next moment he was no longer visible. It was as if the curtain of camouflage had come down, the show was over and we, the audience were left bereft.

It had been an awesome experience, my first glimpse of a tiger in the wild, living free and unfettered, in territory that he had conquered on his own and has established as his home. He was the progeny of a line that went back 2 million years and every one of his ancestors had lived free in the wild. He placed his life on the line every single day of his life, from other tigers that might seek to displace him and from poachers and villagers who might entertain malevolent intentions towards him. He lived his solitary existence, hunting only to feed himself, engaging in no gratuitous killing, patrolling his territory and living his life as he was meant to do, just as each of his ancestors had done. He required a modest territory with vegetation, a source of fresh water, plentiful prey, and privacy. I was overwhelmed by the privilege that had been granted me. I had been permitted to enter his territory, his home, his space and observe him for a few moments. As he eased back into the forest he took with him his entire history, brave and proud descendant of a species that goes back to the Pleistocene era.

In 1973 there were 1400 tigers remaining in India. Project Tiger was established to help improve habitats and provide protection to this animal. In the 1990s the numbers increased to 3500. By 2007 the numbers were down to 1411 and today it is probably lower still. The drastic decline is reported as being to be due to illegal poaching.

So we are at the brink of extinction. Surely this ought not to be allowed to happen. These glorious, adaptable, strong, brave and independent animals are being besieged by man’s needs. It is humans that have laid these burdens on these big cats and it seems to me that which we have wrought, we ought to be the ones to relieve and rectify. I trust and believe we can do so.

Shyamala Rao is a guest blogger on Art for Conservation. She is a wildlife artist living and working in San Antonio, Texas where she is a practicing psychiatrist. Her interest in wildlife was stimulated by a visit to the Serengeti in 2007 and since then she has been putting her feelings about animals onto canvas. She has just begun writing about conservation issues and hopes that by writing and painting she can do her part in helping conserve the glorious diversity of species on this planet.

This post was excerpted from the full article which can be found on her
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