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.
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.
In the Spotlight
The moon had not yet risen when we caught a tiger in the spotlight. He was on a steep bank leading down to a stream, but moved quickly behind a bush and refused to budge. We got a much clearer view of a leopard at a water hole, and even a pudgy porcupine as it waddled through a field.
Sariska has a government-run tourist bungalow adjacent to the park grounds, but it's hard to pass up the chance to stay at the beautifully landscaped Hotel Sariska Palace just across the road. It is a former maharajah's hunting lodge, and you can live like royalty for about $35 a night double including meals.
The Asiatic lion, once found throughout most of Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia and India--it is the lion of biblical Israel--is now found in the wild only at India's Sasan Gir National Park. Slightly smaller than the African lion and with a thinner mane, the Asiatic lion feeds on the plentiful nilgai, or "blue bull," an antelope that so resembles a cow that Hindus will not eat its meat.
If sitting by a water hole doesn't reward you with a chance to view these wonderful cats, you can always fall back on the "lion shows" that the park sponsors. A domestic animal is tethered (and screened from tourists) and, as if on cue, lions show up to investigate. This practice particularly seems to attract lionesses with cubs.
Leopards, chinkara antelope and wild boars also inhabit the park. Government-run bungalows and forest lodge accommodations are available.
Assam Parks Closed
Foreign tourists cannot see the great Indian one-horned rhino in India. Although there are 1,300 of them in Kaziranga National Park, the country's finest nature reserve, it and other parks with rhinos are in the state of Assam which, because of social unrest, is closed to foreigners. The Indian rhinoceros, weighing in at over two tons, is larger than the African varieties.
Fortunately, they are also in Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, which runs along India's north-central border. Chitwan is more commercial in its approach to tourism than most Indian parks and can be expensive to visit. But it can be seen on the cheap by going from Katmandu to the village of Sauraha via a combination of public buses and hitched rides with passing ox carts. In Sauraha are several "hut-els," huts that are rented for about $2 a night.
Quicker but costlier is a flight from Katmandu to Meghauli or Bharatpur (Nepal), where a jeep or elephant will be waiting to take you to a jungle lodge at $150-plus a night.
A Wealth of Birds
The birds of Asia are colorful and diverse, and one of the most famous bird sanctuaries in the world, Keoladeo Ghana, is near Bharatpur (India), an hour's drive from the Taj Mahal in Agra. Its shallow lakes, subdivided by a network of dikes and roads suitable for strolling, are home to more than 350 species of birds (one tree alone was reported to hold the nests of nine species). Three types of heron, four of egrets and three kinds of storks live on Keoladeo waters, but the pride of the park are its cranes.
In one flock I counted 78 saras cranes, whose cranberry-colored necks and heads and white bodies fringed in gray were reminiscent of a Japanese print as they fished, drank, danced and called out in unison.
Sixty of the rare Siberian cranes--there are only 400 in the wild--join the saras at the sanctuary every year from late December to March. Accommodations at the park are available in three government-run lodges and hotels in Bharatpur.
Cats Cooling Off
Mid-April through early June is extremely hot but is the best time to see big cats--they're more likely sitting in water holes as they seek relief from the heat. In late spring there are fewer tourists to intrude on your communion with nature, and accommodations are never a problem.
June through September is the monsoon season, and many parks become inaccessible as roads wash away. Winter is the best season to visit Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary, as migratory birds triple the number of species present.
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Indian-run tourist bungalows and forest lodges charge $6-$12 for basic but adequate double rooms (you may get nothing more than two beds and bare walls, but they are generally clean). A set Indian meal, choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian, is usually offered, although a few have limited menus of Indian food.
To reserve space at the former maharajah's hunting lodge near Sariska, write to Hotel Sariska Palace, Sariska District, Alwar, Rajasthan, India. Once known as the Shooting Box of the maharajahs of Alwar, this 100-year-old mansion offers a health club, billiards room and a watch tower from which you can photograph game. Continental and Indian cuisine is served in a beautifully furnished dining hall.
If you're willing to rough it to see Royal Chitwan in Nepal, you can stay at a village "hut-el" for about $2. Rooms are in small thatched huts containing only cots covered with mosquito nets. A few nearby restaurants serve Indian-style food (and a few surprises such as pancakes) at very reasonable prices.
At the opposite end of the scale are the private Chitwan jungle lodges. At Tiger Tops (LJA Inc., P.O. Box 19527, Portland, Ore. 97219), accommodations at the Jungle Lodge in comfortable twin-bedded rooms with solar-heated bathrooms and showers are $135 a night per person (add $60 for a single).
The cost includes jungle tours by elephant, Land Rover and canoe, transfers and meals (international, continental and Nepalese). Tiger Tops also runs a tented camp. Accommodations are in African-style safari tents, and meals are served around the campfire. The cost per person per night is $80, meals and transfer included.
In addition, Tiger Tops operates Tharu Village, modeled on the villages of the Tharu tribe. The rooms are similar to the Jungle Lodge, and Nepalese, Tharu and Western dishes are served in a communal dining area. Cost (transfer, meals, accommodation) is $70 a night.
Hotel Elephant Camp (Durbar Mar, P.O. Box 1281, Katmandu, Nepal) also offers jungle lodge, tented camp and village/hut facilities. They offer several packages that combine stays at various housings for $75-$90 a day; accommodations-only costs range from $40 to $60 a night per person. Continental and Indian meals are included with the package tours.
Jungle Safari Camp (GSA Office, Tamel, P.O. Box 1679, Katmandu, Nepal) also offers various packages. Inclusive costs for a two-day, one-night return trip from Katmandu (including elephant ride, canoeing and meals) is $130 per person; a three-day, two-night trip is $185 per person, and a three-day, two-night trip that includes rafting is $220.