Saturday, March 28, 2009
Not done yet...saving the best for last. I'm excited I finally get to upload it.
This is perhaps one of the most beautiful and profound photographs I've ever taken.
I was in a jeep in Corbett National Park, India and I spotted some pugmarks in the dirt as we were driving by. I had the driver stop and back up to get a closer look. They were from a female and were fairly recent. The driver got out of the jeep to examine them more closely.
Now...there has been a photo I've wanted to create for some time, but have not had a good opportunity; being in tiger country afforded me a couple chances to capture this image from my dreams, but park rules state that tourists aren't allow to exit the vehicles, which was crucial if I was to get the photo. I motioned to the driver that I wanted to get out of the jeep and he didn't seem to care. I jumped out of the jeep with camera in hand and my heart was racing (a combination of excitement and nervousness as there could have been a tiger close by). I ran up to the pugmark and did something that would leave the driver momentarily confused - I removed my shoe and my sock from my left foot. I judged the best place to make my move and then stepped firmly into the dirt beside the pugmark. I lifted my foot and beamed at the result...
There it was...our footprints in the dirt side-by-side, illuminated by a beam of morning sunlight which had found its way past the mountains and trees, sticks and leaves. It was an image that made my heart sing - I finally had an image that could speak to my relationship with tigers and the natural world.
Years ago, I chose my email "HeWhoWalksWithTigers" based on the idea that the fate of the tiger and of myself are inextricably linked, just as all things in the natural world are linked in deep, interdependent relationships. It has become a metaphor to describe the path in life I chose to take and in this image, it has taken physical form in a simple, but meaningful symbol...one I've wanted to depict for a long time. There is also a greater context I wanted to communicate. Without the tiger, in ancient cultures considered the guardian of the forest, the forest system begins to break down. The presence of tigers have been linked to the preservation of bamboo, fuel wood, timber, honey, medicine and other products that directly or indirectly help thousands of people earn a living. This is in addition to ecological services such as protection of topsoil and the retention of groundwater. If we cannot save the tiger, how can we save ourselves?
We breathe the same air and drink the same water - all the efforts we have made to distinguish ourselves from creatures like tigers have betrayed this fundamental truth: humans and wildlife all walk the same path, rely on the same natural world, on the same earth. Our fates are shared.
The photograph is not going to win any sort of awards for photography, but it is deeply meaningful to me. I was extremely lucky too...this was the last pugmark I saw in India. It is the best souvenir I could get. I don't think I'll ever be able to take a photo quite like this one.
I will probably never know the tigress that left this pugmark, but I hold hope she is still out there surviving. I may not be in Corbett right now, but I walk with her...her and all tigers, leaving pugmarks in the sands of time.
Friday, March 27, 2009
As the sun began to set on my adventures in India, I took the time to reflect on what I have seen. It was certainly a time of personal growth and wonder. However, I couldn’t help but think about whether or not the places I had visited or the tigers I had seen were going to remain for much longer. In particular, I thought a lot about a dream I had when I was first starting to pursue tiger conservation. It occurred a few years ago, and this dream has haunted me ever since (among others, but that’s another set of writings).
The dream began with me stepping out of a car in the parking lot of a large white building. What struck me first was that I was an older gentleman, perhaps in my 50s or 60s; my hair was gray and despite the nice looking brown jacket I was wearing, I had let myself go a little bit. It must have been a busy day at this white building because I had to park quite far away. After making my way into the building, I immediately knew what it was: it was a museum.
This museum was quite beautiful, with plenty of natural light shining in from its many windows. It had plenty of open space and had what looked like a column of floors extending several storeys and allowing visitors to overlook the museum via a central balcony. It was comfortably designed, clean, sharp and ultra-modern. As I toured the museum, I happened across something which would render unto me sadness unlike anything I’ve ever felt.
I came across a video screen with an interactive display...and a dead, stuffed tiger. The films that were being featured depicted older footage of tigers in the wild. They also showed footage of death and destruction: tigers were being shot, cut open, and their forests were being destroyed. Each of the clips that played had the same message at the end in haunting red text: the wild tiger was extinct. Other species seemed to be on the way out too and the display acted as a warning.
I lingered around the display for some time and watched as groups of schoolchildren walked by with casual interest. I remember holding back tears as I watched this new generation, now growing up in a world without the tiger.
I had failed. I was now a pathetic old man: alone, defeated, and bereft of purpose... I had experienced an overwhelming sense of emptiness and was living a life that no longer had meaning. I was left limping through the remaining days of my life, a ruined relic of a lost cause.
It was a dream that depicted a possible future and for has stuck with me. Occasionally my mind will wander and those terrible feelings come creeping back. I’ve wondered if that is to be my fate. The longest time, it was the only glimpse of a possible future I’ve ever had...that is, until I journeyed into the realm of the tiger.
My quest through the forests of India, seeing tigers and taking in the sights and smells, was an incredible experience I will remember for the rest of my life. By the end, I didn’t want to leave. However, before I left, I had another dream...a new dream.
This dream was far different. I wasn’t walking across fields of concrete or in the echoing halls of manmade structures, nor was I alone. I was fit and happy. I was in the forest, surrounded by those sights and smells I had fallen in love with. I was a watchful guardian. As a setting sun coloured the forests aflame and cast shadows among the trees, I walked towards a humble house to retire for the evening. I paused before entering upon hearing a wonderful sound: it was the sound of a tiger’s roars somewhere in forest, staking claim to its kingdom.
I had succeeded. The tiger retained its place in this world. I would spend the rest of my days with those I love, watching over the tiger’s kingdom...an eternal, emerald jewel that would serve as a living testament to those who dedicated their lives to protecting the most incredible of our natural heritage.
I no longer dwell on the painful prospects of that first dream. Rather, I have departed India with a new dream...one I will fight to achieve.
This is the beginning...
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Sorry, but there is no big story associated with this photo.
It was my last day at Corbett tiger park in India and I decided to take a river stroll. I noticed there were plenty of smooth rocks of a wide range of sizes, which gave me an idea.
The Canadian Inuit, who reside in the far north have historically used stone structures called "inukshuks' as landmarks. Inukshukgallery.com states:
The Inuit make inuksuit in different forms for a variety of purposes: as navigation or directional aids, to mark a place of respect or memorial for a beloved person, or to indicate migration routes or places where fish can be found. Other similar stone structures were objects of veneration, signifying places of power or the abode of spirits. Although most inuksuit appear singly, sometimes they are arranged in sequences spanning great distances or are grouped to mark a specific place....
The traditional meaning of the inukshuk is "Someone was here" or "You are on the right path."
The inukshuk has since been adopted as part of a symbol of Canada and in particular, the multiculturalism that we are proud of. I decided to make my own landmark as a statement of my Canadian presence so I constructed a stone avatar by the riverbank and baptized it with the cool river's water, which originated somewhere in the distant Himalayas.
I beamed at my Indian inukshuk and eventually departed, leaving my stony doppelganger to watch over the land of tigers.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
A cloud of dust erupts from behind a speeding jeep, whose occupants caught wind of a tiger in the area.
Those traveling to go on a tiger safari will note very quickly that it pays to keep your eyes and ears open. Tigers will leave pugmarks along the dusty road and when a tiger stirs in the forest, a cacophony of alarm calls shortly follows. These are the signs that will lead you to a tiger, though be prepared to take a spill if you aren’t paying attention – the mention of a nearby tiger will beget the roar of engines and your vehicle will take off like a shot whether or not you are ready.
These are some of the most exciting times on safari. You careen dangerously down bumpy forest roads, leaving trails of dust behind you while the forest air whips across your face. All the while, your heart pounds against your chest and adrenaline rushes through your veins. You hang on for dear life, hoping that sharp corner ahead doesn’t send you flying. A smile creases your lips... this is adventure.
Friday, March 20, 2009
During my travels in India, I came across an individual who said something which would later play a role in defining my reflections on the trip. I was at Ranthambore, sitting by a fire with other tourists and out of the conversations a man said, “India has the best and worst the world has to offer”. That statement resonated with me. If you ever find yourself traveling around seeing the natural places remaining in India, you will understand too.
In my experiences in the protected areas where tigers roam, I was in paradise. The sights, sounds and smells made me feel at home. Aside from human presence, everything about being in these places was incredible. Seeing a tiger was the peak of it all...the epitome of the raw wildness and sublime beauty of nature (or, in the words of Dante, “The art of God”). Indeed, I was immersed in a dreamscape where the energy of life itself surged forth in vivid color, light and fragrance unlike anything mankind could ever render. Time seemed to not even exist, but for the daily passing of the sun and the air seemed so pure that often I was lost simply in the act of breathing. This was Eden, but we had kicked ourselves out.
When traveling between protected areas into human settlements and cities, the places of my dreams became distant worlds. Vivid color gave way to pale grays obscured by dust and pollution, which stung the eyes and made it difficult to breathe. The sounds of the wild were silenced by roar of engines, car horns, blaring music, and people yelling. The timeless slow-motion of nature was overtaken by the hectic rapidity of city-life. Yet life here in these places, rather than surging forth, felt subdued, suppressed and corrupt, limping forth just trying to get by. For every 5-star hotel, posh restaurant, or hi-tech electronics shop amidst the crumbling streets, masses of poverty-stricken beggars were never far from view. It was a soul-crushing juxtaposition. The vast inequality, the desperate and pitiful struggles of seemingly endless numbers of families, the filth, the pollution, the despair and the apathy...it rendered a sadness which lingered in my heart like the hazy air that so often obscured the sun. My experience in India will always be tainted by this. This is not what life is supposed to be and I felt damned to be a part of it.
There are moments where we as individuals reflect on our lives and question if we are walking the right path. I had grown up largely within a “modern” suburban environment, cushioned from both the ills of poverty and the sublime beauty of raw nature. Somewhere in the time when I was discovering tigers and pursuing higher learning at university, I began to widen my perspective. It was only when I visited India that I could truly appreciate the divide I saw before me. When I could see the man-man reality of the city right next to the small pockets of India’s remaining forests, I began to wonder, “Is this the way we should live...the way we are meant to live? What are we heading towards?”
The Eden’s of the Earth are being swallowed up by the way we are living. We are not only laying waste to the last remaining bastions of life itself, but many of our own species are left behind in the process, struggling to survive while the rich thrive. We seek to separate ourselves completely from nature, yet it is nature upon which we depend. Where will this take us? Can we turn back? Can we bring the realms of man and nature, these distant worlds, back together and can we create a world where fortune favours all instead of the few?
If life in the wilds I visited was life in balance, then the places in between were the epitome of life out of balance.
In India, I saw the best and the worst this world has to offer.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
A sambar quenches its thirst upon a pond in Ranthambore and looks upon a world of shimmering gold, gilded by a setting sun. The light of the day retreats into the west and the cool of night steals in silently. Will this be the sambar’s last sunset? Will it escape the maw, tooth and claw? Will the night be cast in crimson?
The beautiful precariousness of life, the lingering spectre of death...it is the law written upon the land, the whispers in the wind, the rune of scar and stripe.
Cherish life and those moments of sublime wonder...lest the sun that sets before you is the last you will see.
Monday, March 16, 2009
The sun rises upon Ranthambore, casting golden light upon an ancient fort. The deep blue of night is subdued, but lingers as mist rises from a lake as smooth as glass. Birds call in the trees to herald the coming of a new day and life stirs once more in these ancient lands...
...yet tranquility remains...ever present, ever pervasive. It is the timeless silence of the rising sun. It is the dew upon the leaf. It is the fragrance of the air. It is the bird floating in the wind. It is the tiger gliding through the trees.
It is life.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
After visiting Bandhavgarh and not seeing a tiger, I was quite ready to disembark in search of greater opportunities at the famed tiger reserve, Ranthambore. I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Ranthambore is one of the most popular tiger tourist destinations in the entire world and my first thought was that it would be far too crowded to be an enjoyable experience. My experiences in the other parks quickly showed me just how disrespectful and unruly people can be when a tiger makes an appearance – it bothered me to no end, as I believe there is a code of conduct one should observe when visiting the home of wild animals and especially when viewing tigers. Naturally, I was a bit worried.
I arrived on Christmas Eve (December 24th) before noon. After a lengthy train-ride, I was eager to unpack, unwind and enjoy an afternoon to myself. However, I was surprised to here that an afternoon safari was going to be departing and I had the opportunity to join. The temptation was too much to resist and soon after arriving, I was boarding a large canter, which could accommodate more than 20 people.
The excitement of the safari was diminished somewhat by anxiety toward the others in the canter. Most of my safari’s were private affairs and all around me were chatty tourists who surely would not be as quiet as myself. However, after weeks of very little contact and conversation with English speakers, I began to relax and enjoy the experience. A couple of casual conversations made me feel I was among friends, which was a welcomed change.
After entering the park, I could understand why Ranthambore was so popular. Though we only toured a small part of the park, I was absolutely stunned with the natural beauty that was before me. As the evening approached, the other tourists were becoming anxious to see a tiger. Though some apparently didn’t get the memo that tiger’s don’t appear for people on a whim, I was becoming anxious as well. However, this was somewhat subdued knowing I was only on the first of many safari’s to come.
We traversed the winding roads and came upon a park staff member. It didn’t take long for me to realize, as he was talking to the driver, that he knew something. The staff member entered the canter and began to give the driver directions. It seemed that he knew there was a tiger in the area. The lines upon the man’s face told me he had a wealth of experience and knowing he was using it for our benefit made my excitement grow.
We turned a corner and sure enough, we came across another canter who had found two tigers. I immediately leaped to my feet, as did the others in the canter. Unfortunately, I was in the back of the canter and my view was obscured by trees and a legion of tourists vying for a view. I was able to hang myself out the side of the canter and snap a few blurry shots a tiger taking a drink. I was able to see the other tiger as well.
Tigers are solitary and normally do not associate with each other. These two tigers were male, which made it even more bizarre. However, these tigers were sub-adult siblings who seemed to be entering the twilight hours of their family. Their mother was nowhere to be seen and it is quite possible the process of the family break-up had already begun.
I was frustrated. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t position myself to get a good view of the tigers. However, for reasons completely unknown to me, the driver came to the back of the canter, grabbed me by the arm, parted the crowd and placed me in the front of the canter with a fantastic view and part of the canter’s frame to stabilize my shots. I was completely taken off guard and the other tourists seemed to be as confused as I was, but unlike them, I wasn’t complaining. Simultaneously, one of the tigers had gotten up, moved closer and had laid down in a gap between the branches of a tree that had been obscuring everyone’s view.
As I discovered in my last encounter with a tiger, the effects of experiencing a wild tiger wasn’t diminishing, but actually increasing. The adrenaline was pumping, the world around me melted away yet again, my heart was hammering against my ribcage and this time I was even having trouble standing straight. Again...this wasn’t out of fear, but out of awe. The tiger had taken hold of me yet again.
The tiger which had decided to venture closer to us was maintaining a wary eye, but wasn’t bothered. As a result, I was able to take a wealth of photographs. It wasn’t until another canter arrived, with tourists screaming in excitement that the tiger decided to retreat. It was a rude arrival that left a bad taste everyone’s mouth and the new arrivals, in addition to being disappointed, found themselves the target of dozens of angry stares.
After the excitement died down, it was time to relax again. The sun began its evening decent and spirits were high among the other tourists. The fading sunlight painted the landscape with brilliant golden hues and people were eager to share their photos with each other. The night played host to campfires amidst the cold, conversation among strangers from all over the world and a sky filled with stars.
I began to think about the experiences of the day. Traveling to and from the park showed me just how unpleasant the situation is for the park. Ranthambore is famous for its tigers, but the long-term persistence of these animals is in question. The reserve is an ecological island amidst a human dominated landscape. Not far from the reserve is a major city and surrounding the park is farmland as far as the eye can see. Though this tiger tolerated our presence, the people outside the park are often not as friendly. He will eventually have to find his own territory and with very little land in the park to spare, he might venture outside the park into a nothing landscape and come into conflict with people.
This is a king that is quickly finding he no longer has a kingdom and it is a situation that many tigers now face.
This was a friend I made at Bandhavgarh.
I was relaxing outside near my room at the resort in the afternoon while this female stray was hanging out nearby. She had settled near a crowd of people who seemed to have tolerated her presence. While I was reading a book the dog was suddenly attacked by another female, presumably out of fear for pups she was raising nearby. This poor dog was cornered and attacked, bitten in the leg. She made her way over to me and when the attacker followed I stepped in its way, preventing it from getting to the other dog. The attacker attempted numerous times to circumvent me, but she eventually saw it as a lost cause. She slowly walked away, occasionally checking to see if I was still there while the dog that was attacked was whimpering behind me.
It was probably unwise to come between two dogs in this way, but I often let emotion get the better of me. I checked on the dog that had been attacked and she was shaking. She didn't appear to be bleeding, but was quite frightened. She had laid down and was watching to see if the other female was going to come back. I pulled up a chair next to her and helped to keep watch as well. I read a book next to her and occasionally whispered words of reassurance while she slept. We spent a few hours together.
When the sun had set, I made my way back to my room. The dog I was with was clearly worried the other was going to come back and attack her again. I wanted to show her that things were okay so I walked in 20 ft increments to allow the dog to follow slowly and overcome her apprehension. When I got to my room, I stayed with her to make sure the other female was not around. When she was confident enough, she left and I went inside.
I hope I made her feel safe and cared for, if only for a few hours.
This was just one of the many stray dogs that are out there. One of the most heartbreaking parts of visiting India was seeing the astonishing number of strays – I must have seen 5 in my journeys that had died on the road after being hit by cars. It’s really difficult to fathom at such a scale...with such rampant poverty, animals suffer the injustices of inequality as well. Dogs may be man’s best friend, but often I doubt how much that means to them.
I would recommend anyone who is thinking of getting a pet to adopt from an animal shelter that takes in the animals that don’t have homes. There are so many creatures out there that need a kind soul and a forever home. Even though you might only be able to help one, that decision would mean the world to a dog like this one. For those with pets, please have them spayed or neutered to prevent unnecessary breeding.
Friday, March 13, 2009
After Kanha, it was off to Bandhavgarh.
While traveling through Bandhavgarh, it was often the tiger that was on my mind, but occasionally other creatures would capture my attention. I spotted this lone jackal on the road, who seemed to be quite jittery. This was completely understandable of course. After all, the jackal is not a large creature and must keep a lookout for tigers, leopards and other predators. You don’t often hear about them either, as it is the more charismatic creatures that get all the attention. I would have liked to have seen more of this individual, though after being spotted, it made a hasty retreat into the jungle.
Unfortunately, Bandhavgarh didn't yield any tiger sightings. Though I try to keep up with tiger news in India, the fact that Bandhavgarh has seen a catastrophic crash in tiger numbers of late was only discovered after I had visited.
However, despite not seeing a tiger, I still enjoyed myself.
The scenery of Bandhavgarh was breathtaking and my room was located right on the fringes of the park. As a result, I often heard alarm calls frighteningly close and on one occasion I heard a tiger roaring into the night less than 1km away. If that wasn't enough to make me slightly uncomfortable while reading outside my room at night, I was also informed that a man-eater was recently captured in the area 3 weeks previous to my arrival.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
This is a photograph of a barasingha or `swamp deer` near a grassland pond at Kanha National Park, India. Out of all the photos I took during my trip to India, few come close to capturing the real beauty that I have witnessed while looking for tigers. This is one of those few photographs.
It is one of those moments where everything seems to be connected: the water, the air, the earth, the plants, the birds and the beasts. It is one of those moments where you feel unity amongst all things resonating to the pulse of existence. It is a moment that brings you closer to life, enlightenment and the truth of it all...
All is one.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Kanha National Park in India is beautiful in its own regard, but I came to the park to see a tiger and during my stay there were plenty of close calls; one instance, we could hear a tiger moving through the jungle just off the road, but it never ventured into sight and we were left merely with dust and dreams. There were many fresh pugmarks to be tracked in the early morning, but tigers were as elusive as ever in this forest.
I recall during one journey, my park guide had mentioned the prospect of riding an elephant. Elephants can be used to go where jeeps cannot so I responded favorably to the idea. Thinking this was something to happen much later, I was surprised when I was soon speeding in a jeep towards an elephant in the forest, standing by the road. Before I knew it, I was climbing onto the elephant and setting forth on a shaky journey into the deep forest. The surprises kept on coming as I realized that we weren`t just looking for a tiger, rather, we were heading towards a tiger that had already been found.
The mahout (elephant rider) stopped at a small clearing near a dry river bed. I was greeted by the sight of 3 other elephants surrounding a circle of thick brush. It didn`t take me long to figure out what was in that brush; as the elephants began to clear the cover, a deep and paralyzing din arose from the shadows. A tiger had uttered a long, terrifying growl in protest, though the other mahouts and their cohorts seemed unstirred. It was the heralding of a creature with incredible power: the lord of this land.
We circled around the brush and descended into the dry riverbed. I turned and looked into the shadows and found myself in close proximity to the tiger. The tiger seemed calm, despite the commotion and casually took in the sights as it lay in the bushes. After seeing numerous tigers already, I would have thought that the experience of seeing a tiger would somehow diminish; however, it was quite the opposite. The quickening pulse, the adrenaline and the dream-like fog was more intense. I was closer to the wild tiger than I ever was before...very close.
As I took in the spectacular creature before me, I began to quietly utter words of astonishment and wonder, like a prayer to a living god. Shortly after doing this something had piqued the tiger`s attention and it suddenly shed its air of apathy. Its gaze slowly, but intensely rose from the ground and found my eyes. Though I have known deep stares from tigers in zoos, this was something completely different. The tiger had eyes that literally seemed to burn, like simmering embers left over from the creation of the universe...and they were staring into me. Before taking this photograph, I froze for a moment, paralyzed. What power...
I suddenly became conscious of just how exposed I was. Though the elephant I was riding on was indeed quite tall, tigers have been known to leap the distance. Moreover, in descending into the dry riverbed, we had become almost level with the tiger, which could have very easily made a run and leapt onto the elephant`s back with no effort. My legs seemed horrifyingly vulnerable, dangling in front of the tiger like meat hanging in a butcher shop.
My heart continued racing as the tiger continued to stare; time no longer existed. The tiger seemed to know it was the ruler of this place and stared into me with what seemed like pride, power and dignity. In the dark of the deep forest, it was a life burning bright and being so close, it had set my heart on fire once more. Then, as suddenly as it started, it was over; the tiger seemed satisfied and casually looked away before closing its eyes. The mahout then signalled our departure and I soon found myself making the trek out of the tiger`s forest.
I unsteadily descended from the elephant into an awaiting jeep and looked at my hands: they were shaking. Now...I pride myself in being an individual with a strong spirit and am often calm in intense circumstances. There are few things that will rattle me, but this experience showed me that no matter how much time I have spent face to face with tigers in a zoo, it could never prepare me to come face to face with the dominating power of a wild tiger. My first meeting with a tiger left me in a similar state. It wasn`t a product of fear – ultimately, I didn`t feel any misfortune would befall me – rather, it was something different that caused those chills. Perhaps it is because I know the tiger well enough to know what feats of power it is capable of, perhaps it is my respect for ancient belief which associated it with the divine, perhaps it is simply because the tiger is an animal I respect more than any other... in any case, that tiger's gaze had pierced the innermost realms of my soul...
...what it saw is something only the tiger knows.
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
The park is extensive, spanning (940 km2) and one of the most beautiful places on earth. The forest shimmers an emerald green and in some places you would think you were in a tropical jungle.
I spent a lot of time in this park completely stunned by its beauty. I really could have stayed there forever...
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep...