If you thought sighting tigers was directly proportional to how lucky you were, think again. Now spotting the big cat is predicated on how well linked you are. At least at the Bandhavgarh tiger reserve, the law of the jungle has been rewritten.
The new field director is said to have altered rules to suit the tiger. In my view, the amended norms are tailor-made for VIPs and those with the right connections.
Under the revised system, routes have been fixed for the entire morning safari. To be sure, routes were assigned to visitors earlier too. But midway through the morning outing, they were allowed to venture to any part of the forest where a tiger sighting had taken place.
Another change pertains to afternoon safaris. Now, these trips are also route-bound compared to the previous no-restriction jaunts. Fresh curbs have been put on tiger shows (elephant-back close encounters with the striped feline) too. Tigers on the hunt and while eating their kill, as well as tigresses with cubs are strictly out of bounds. As a result of the tightening up, chances of viewing the tiger have become significantly slimmer for tourists who pay through their hats to gain access to the park.
Had the authorities been enforcing the new norms in earnest, one would have put up with them for the sake of the big cat. But for all the clamping down, VIPs continue to have a free run of the place with their all-route permits.
An instance of this blatant discrimination was on display during my trip to the reserve over a January weekend. Even as other tourists were brusquely informed that no tiger shows were being held that day, a top industrialist (he is embroiled in a bitter court battle with his elder brother) and his family were spotted tracking big cats astride a pachyderm. From their vantage point, they must surely have had some good sightings. The next day, too, they zipped ahead of our four-wheel drive Gypsys (forest speed limits be damned) with the field director in tow, playing the subservient jungle guide!
Many others had pulled strings to bend rules. An ex-warden's family was busy boasting how they had witnessed on elephant-back a big male tiger gorging on a buffalo. Weren't such sightings banned?
Some guys (in high places) and their near and dear ones have all the luck. For us commoners, tigers might well be extinct at Bandhavgarh.