It’s been many years since we visited Kenya, but I’ll always remember Jacob, our safari guide. He had what seemed an infallible system:
‘There are no elephants here!’ he would say, or ‘We will see no lions today’. Shortly afterwards, we would see the beast in question, usually in great numbers. Even at a place called Buffalo Springs, he told us no buffalo had been seen there in living memory. Ten minutes later, we all ran for the truck as a whole herd of them came down to drink.
It’s a pity it’s an art not easily acquired. In the Queensland rain forest, the guide said it was unlikely we’d see any cassowaries, for these beautiful, but sometimes deadly birds are rare and reclusive. He was right; we didn’t see any! I do have pictures of cassowaries taken at various zoos, but it’s nothing like the same as seeing… and hopefully photographing one in the wild.
Sometimes, there are sort of halfway houses; safari parks, reserves and the like. You can’t really claim your pictures as ‘taken in the wild’, for, usually, the animals are too sleek and well-fed. And, you often have trouble keeping feed-bins and such out of your picture, as we did at the Panda Research Station at Chengdu. This, however, is as close as most people get to seeing a panda in the wild. You’d need to journey far into the back-of-beyond and your visa will probably have expired by the time you see one.
True wildlife just doesn’t appear to order. We’d seen complaints on the ‘Rocky Mountaineer’ website that ‘ … we didn’t see any bears’. Some people don’t understand that ‘they’ don’t train bears to stand by the trackside and wave! In fact, during all our time in Alaska and Canada, we only had a fleeting glimpse of a handful of bears. In neither case were we quick enough with the camera to catch anything but a fuzzy picture of a bear’s backside as it disappeared into the undergrowth.
The lady in the coffee shop in Ketchikan did say she’d seen evidence of their passing in the road on her way to work that morning. I guess they don’t only do it in the woods!
We got luckier with the penguins in the Falkland Islands, but they don’t pose any real difficulty; they just stand around being penguins. Here, I was reminded of George Courtauld’s story about the sloth. He congratulated the guide on spotting it, and was told:
‘No problem! It was here yesterday!’
Our latest wildlife-spotting sortie was to the Ranthambore National Park, in India, to, hopefully, see tigers. This was once a hunting preserve of the Rajahs … even the Queen went shooting tigers here in the 1950s, with some success. Nowadays, though, the Park is committed to the preservation of tigers; since 1980, it’s been a National Park, where, according to a census in 2014, 62 of them still ranged. Some measure of protection for the tigers has been in place since 1955. I did wonder if, in the event we saw any, photographs of the tigers would be regarded as ‘taken in the wild’ and I was assured they would.
‘We never feed them’ said a ranger ‘They’re free to range as they please, and there are plenty of deer and other animals for them to feed on’
Certainly, the area of 392 square kilometres (150 square miles) is enough to sustain them. And, it’s big enough for the tigers to hide in if they don’t want to be seen. They certainly aren’t going to come out and pose for you.
As well as the tigers and the deer, the park is home to much wildlife. We saw many colourful birds, including peafowl, spotted deer, a black buck or nilgai and several monkeys. Also listed within the park are nearly 50 other species of wildlife, including sloth bears and marsh crocodiles. And cobras! I really don’t want to see one of those guys in the wild, though!
Our tour started early in the morning, boarding a robust, open-topped bus for a bone-shaking ride to the Park. The road was bumpy; the roads, or rather the tracks within the park were bumpier still. On the upside, we didn’t have any cows or other traffic to negotiate.
We had … or rather, the guide had … a good idea of where tigers; a mother and two cubs were. He worked this out by the actions of birds, monkeys and such, trying to avoid becoming the tiger’s breakfast. These are true wild animals, he said. The staff don’t feed them, but there were plenty of animals within the park for them to feed on. So, sightings could never be guaranteed.
We staked the area out for quite a while, but we didn’t see any. The guide said they were down in a narrow gully, but whether the bus couldn’t physically get down there, or we weren’t allowed to approach too closely, I don’t know. Probably both were factors?
We returned in the evening, but, again, had no luck spotting the tigers. However, we spent a considerable time watching a peacock displaying, and trying to attract a peahen … apparently, he wasn’t having much success, either!