Dr. David W. Tonkyn
Tigers for Tigers: An Intern’s Look Back
Amy Hastie Samples
B.S. Environmental and Natural Resources, 2004
As I sat on the cold bench of the open-aired Jeep waiting in line to enter the gates of Bandhavgarh National Park, a shiver ran through my body. I wondered if it was the chill of the pre-dawn hour or the adrenaline of knowing I was about to enter one of the greatest remaining home-ranges for wild Bengal tigers. How could I be so lucky as to spend three months in this majestic place?
As a member and then President of the Tigers for Tigers club at Clemson University I helped arrange the first Cubs for Cubs visits to local primary schools. We developed activities to build an understanding of tigers as a species – more than just our University’s beloved mascot – but a wild, endangered animal that warranted our attention. In my senior year Dr. David Tonkyn, our club’s faculty advisor, introduced a course on Indian Biodiversity and Conservation that I enrolled in to learn more about the culture, ecology and geography of India as a tiger-range country. The course included a spring break trip to India, though early on Dr. Tonkyn mentioned his vision to one day send a naturalist intern to one of the tiger park lodges we would visit. As the semester progressed, I pondered: “Why not me? I could be that naturalist intern.”
I was one of just four students in the first graduating class of the Environmental and Natural Resources program in May 2004, and I began working with Dr. Tonkyn and with Louis Bregger, Director of International Student Programs at Clemson, to spend several months at the Bandhavgarh Jungle Lodge as a naturalist intern. I packed some educational materials, a Hindi phrase book, a laptop, a blank journal, a camera, and more clothes than I needed and set off with the blessing of my admirably supportive parents.
The lodge is situated at the edge of the vast Bandhavgarh National Park. As a naturalist intern, I had the privilege of traveling into the park almost every day with tourists from all over the world, all hoping for a tiger sighting. One of the highlights was to serve as the resident naturalist for the second Clemson expedition to the park! Often my role was to serve as “translator” for how the hectic park system worked and to remind visitors that there are a number of species in the park that are crucial to the ecosystem as a whole (i.e., “I know you want to see a tiger, but please see all of the other components that make this system a viable place for tigers to live”). For instance, that impressive sambar deer with the full rack of antlers may be tomorrow’s fresh kill for the tiger. The dry deciduous forest and variable topography provide ample cover while marshy ponds provide sustenance and prime hunting opportunities. The park is also home to other spectacular wildlife: leopards, sloth bear, chital, mongoose, gray langurs, and a host of birds including the crested serpent eagle, red jungle fowl, kingfisher and nearly luminescent Indian roller.
I was humbled not only to spot tigers, but also to become familiar with their lineages, with characters reminiscent of the human experience: an old loner male, a fiercely protective female, cubs who found trouble but were diligently rescued by their mother. The storylines could also grow dark: loss of a familiar tiger to a poacher, erratic behavior after we tourists got too close. The storyline became more textured as I learned how the local people value the tiger as a vital wild animal alongside the pragmatic recognition that tigers lure tourists and their wallets to a rural area. This juxtaposed with the presence of mind that they are living alongside an apex predator, with increasing occurrences of human-wildlife conflict.
In my time at the lodge, I built unlikely friendships with guests and staff, updated an ecology display, developed information packs for guest rooms, made a few beds, learned some Hindi, had many conversations about conservation issues over cups of chai, and discussed with my Clemson colleagues how we could best support the community such as through supporting health clinics. In case the balance isn’t clear, I’m positive I gained so much more than I gave in this experience, and am so appreciative of the opportunity.
This early field experience grounds my dedication to environmental conservation. It also provided me with adventurous tales to share with my two young daughters, the older of whom has commented: “Mommy saw a tiger!” when we come across one in a book. Now with a master’s degree and a start on a career in this discipline, on my desk I keep a photo from Bandhavgarh that reminds me of the wild places we must protect – for the inhabitants and for ourselves.
(Copyright Amy Sample 2014)
Amy serving as the resident naturalist for the second class about to enter Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve.
Elephants love a bath after a hard day's work.
Sometimes you don't have to look for tigers, they come to you!
T4T stickers were common on jeeps in Kanha and Bandhavgarh Tiger reserves, for all visitors to see.