I awoke this morning at 4:45 a.m. to the sounds of pouring rain outside of the Jaldapura Tourist Lodge, immediately fearing that our elephant safari this morning - slated to begin from inside the park at 6 a.m. - would be canceled. As the rain continued after our arrival in the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary
near the Hollong Lodge, close to the concrete steps from which the tourists hop into the baskets poised on the backs of the safari elephants, we sat and waited for the rain to abate. Finally, at about 7 a.m., the rain had ceased and we, having been awarded the earliest time slot to begin our safari, headed as the first tourist group off into the forest via elephant back.
The Indian couple who rode with us on our jeep safari yesterday afternoon, BK and his wife, also joined us on the elephant’s back. While I have done a number of different types of safaris, I had never been on an elephant safari. In fact, while I may have ridden on an elephant at some point at a zoo during my early childhood, I have no recollection of having done so. So for me this was an entirely new experience.
It took a few moments for me to get used to riding on the elephant’s back and not to worry about the complete lack of control I had over the animal’s actions - that was the job of the elephant handler, who rode in front of the passenger basket saddling the elephant’s giant neck. Gradually I relaxed and accepted that my safety was now in the charge of a domesticated safari elephant and enjoyed the ride.
As it had ceased to rain only a short time earlier, mud and puddles riddled the elephant’s pathways, and moisture and dew covered all of the vegetation and trees. To be sure, for the bulk of our safari, the terrain we traversed did not resemble the Serengeti
or some other savanna allowing for clear visibility. Nevertheless, even in the thick of the woodlands, we did see directly in front of our elephant a peacock and its chick as well as what I believe to be several muntjac
We traveled on paths first through the thick of the forest, crossing over a river in several points and up and down the river’s embankment, which on the back of an elephant was definitely an experience. Toward the end of the safari, we crossed into an area of grasslands in the relative vicinity of one of the observation towers we had visited yesterday afternoon and scanned the entire vicinity to look for any wildlife scampering about. Unsuccessful, we began to leave the grassland and as we crossed the river back into the thicket, to the immediate right of us - only about some 5 meters away - stood a partially submerged one horned rhinoceros
in the water. We gasped, and mouths open wide, we and the elephant simply stared at the rhino
, who in turn seemed to calmly stare back at us. The elephant seemed to have no reaction to the presence of the rhino
, and vice versa. This was one of those moments where the clock seemed to halt and time stands still. We watched intensely for several moments before our elephant continued to ford the small river (or large stream) and carry us back into the forest. About 20 minutes later, our elephant safari came to an end as we hopped off the elephant at the boarding station.
The elephant safari cost for the both of us less than the equivalent of US$8, including transport from our lodge outside the park some 30 minutes away, tickets, camera fees and all other incidentals. In addition to having been a a great experience, measured on a monetary scale, the elephant safari ranks as one of the best travel bargains obtained on the current trip. Given that the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary is literally right off the road leading toward the border with Bhutan, it definitely warrants a stop by anyone heading overland to Bhutan from India.
We returned to the Jaldapura Tourist Lodge and immediately booked through the tourist office - and upon their recommendation - a car and driver to take us to the nearby South Khairbairi Nature Park some 15 kilometers away. The South Khairbairi Nature Park has as its primary attractions a leopard rescue center and a tiger rescue center. We had little idea of what to expect during our visit, but figured that since we had a few hours before our afternoon jeep safari in the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, this would be well worth a look. After breakfast, we left at 10 a.m., arriving at our destination about half an hour later.
First we went to the leopard rescue center. As the first tourists of the day to arrive, the center remained shuttered and had an eerie abandoned feel to it. Upon our arrival, our driver ran over to a nearby building and summoned personnel. The attraction at the leopard rehabilitation center consists of riding in a rickety battered powered vehicle - think of a cross between a three-wheeled auto rickshaw, a golf cart and an 8 seater jeep - which drives on paths through a fenced in enclosure containing rescued leopards - currently 4. At the lodge the manager had likened this attraction to the SUV ride in the movie Jurassic Park. After seeing the state of the safari vehicle set to drive us around the sanctuary, I recalled how the SUV in Jurassic Park had also stalled in transit on its route and visualized us in a similar precarious position, but continued on nevertheless.
We putted through the vehicle trail in the sanctuary until we neared the part of the enclosure where the leopards apparently slept, and there in the vicinity we saw the sole male and one of the females. We observed them both in close proximity, not more than a meter away with respect to the male at one point. The vehicle had windows - only a small one of which could be opened to provide some air to the passengers. The window itself did not seem to be anything more than some clear type of thin plastic so I hope the leopards are continuously well fed. Given that the sun shone brightly and the air was thick, the inside of the small vehicle grew hot very quickly, so our session with the leopards at close range lasted only a few minutes.
Unfortunately, the tiger rescue center - which stated at the entrance that it provided a home for rescued circus tigers - did not provide any similar attraction. And as the tigers were not released in the wilderness enclosures designed for them, remaining instead in their small pens, we could only hear their load roars.
Make no doubt about it: if I am to ever go for a stroll in the woods here or anywhere in the Dooars or other nearby woodlands, I would definitely exercise caution. In the local paper this morning I read that yesterday in Mal an 8 year old girl had been fatally mauled by a leopard, after being dragged off in front of the girl’s mother on a tea plantation. Last month, a young boy on the same tea plantation suffered the same fate. During our drive yesterday, our bus took us through Mal, an area not far from here. Each year numerous people die from encounters with tigers and leopards. It is quite a wonder that given the interaction between humans, tigers and leopards here in West Bengal, any cats remain at all. I suppose this is quite a credit to the tolerance of the populace for its feline cohabitants.
This afternoon we again took a jeep safari through the Jaldapura Wildlife Sanctuary, tracing the exact same route as we took yesterday afternoon. A safari here is not like those I have done in Africa. The jeep tours apparently proceed along identical routes day after day and do not seem to actively pursue the wildlife for the view-mad photo snapping tourists they are guiding. I suspect this stems from the fact that these sanctuaries may have as their primary goal of conservation rather than revenue generation from tourism. Wildlife sanctuaries such as this one are one of many activities in this vast and diverse country, and hardly appear on most tourists itineraries. Safari tourism is therefore only of a minor importance from a macroeconomic vantage point. In the African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and others, however, safari tourism is one of the prime - if not THE prime - generator of revenues for much of the populace, and as such, the safaris are simply different.
Dinner will be served shortly. All of our meals here have been delicious and the portions very generous. I’m definitely looking forward to it. We made a great decision in opting to stop off in the Dooars en route to Bhutan for a side excursion. This has been a great change of pace for a couple of days, but it will also be fun to cross the border on foot into nearby Bhutan tomorrow and begin our adventure there.