Dr. David W. Tonkyn
Copyright, Alex Rubin & Sarah Steedman (2014)
Searching for Stripes
Alex Rubin, Biological Sciences ‘17
Sarah Steedman, Biological Sciences ‘17
The iconic college spring break is one of crazy partying on a beach with thousands of other drunk college students. There’s a whole culture surrounding the infamous spring break experience filled with embarrassing pictures, cheap t-shirts, and crazy stories. So how did we end up spending our first spring break as a college students in India studying wildlife and conservation? We were asking ourselves that same question as we tried to sleep on a train traveling to central India at two in the morning with a small group of students.
The trip was part of a class we took whose purpose was to study the immense biodiversity, conservation practices, and culture of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Specifically, we were there in a hopeful attempt to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s most endangered predators: the tiger. Our class was led by Dr. David Tonkyn, a professor at Clemson University in the Department of Biological Sciences. Dr. Tonkyn has led students to India since 2004; this was his tenth consecutive trip. This trip was also tied to Clemson’s own tiger conservation club, Tigers for Tigers (est. 1997). It made sense that the tiger was the focal point of our trip because of Clemson University’s close relationship with tigers in regards to both our mascot and our unique dedication to saving the wild tiger, of which only an estimated 3,200 remain.
The trip itself was a fast-paced adventure as we tried to cram thousands of miles, hundreds of species, and an immensely diverse culture into our one week break from classes. We arrived in at the New Delhi airport via Frankfurt at around midnight but didn’t leave the airport until almost three in the morning due to customs, immigration, and general confusion caused by jetlag. Upon leaving the airport we went straight to a hotel and around four hours later we were getting on a bus to tour the city. New Delhi is it’s own particular type of jungle with any and all types of transportations going in all directions all at once. General traffic laws seemed more like suggestions in the insane Delhi traffic but our driver skillfully weaved our bulky bus in out of traffic like a needle in thread. The traffic matched how our bodies felt as the previous 24 hours of sleepless travel caught up with us but it didn’t stop us from seeing the Indian Parliament, India Gate (a World War II memorial), the Jama Masjid mosque, the immense Red Fort, and a rickshaw ride through the streets of Old Delhi all before lunch. Our tour guide Harendra (Harry for short) then took us to the train station where our delayed train would take us to an even wilder part of the country.
The twelve-hour train ride was an experience to say the least, but it did give us time to recover from the almost nonstop pace we had been going at since leaving the United States. When our train arrived we made our way to the vans and then had a five-hour ride (India is big country) to our first destination, Pench National Park. After getting our things settled we headed straight into the park which immediately made all the long hours of travel worth it. That first evening in the park we saw more wildlife than you would ever see at a National Park in the US. We saw wild boar, herds of spotted deer, jackals, an endangered red wolf, Indian bison, peacocks, hanuman langurs, and a slough of beautifully colored birds.
On our second day at Pench we weren’t allowed to go into the park because the national festival of Holi was taking place. The festival is to celebrate the end of the harvest and involves throwing lots of colored vegetable dyes and water until everything and everyone is brightly colored. The celebrations get so lively that lots of places, including national parks, close down. So in lieu of riding around in the open air jeeps trying to spot a tiger, we opted for an early morning hike to take a look at the nearby village and surrounding countryside. Then in the afternoon we, along with our native Indian tour guides, had a small Holi celebration of our own. Afterwards we attempted to wash off the vegetable dyes but we all kept a slight purple tint in our hair and skin for the rest of the week.
The rest of our time at Pench we spent learning and identifying different plants and animals. Sadly, we never got to see any big cats while at the
park but we were told that tigers at Pench were very few (although their numbers are increasing). After finishing our stay at Pench, we drove six hours to Kanha National Park.
Within our first hour at Kanha, we went on a nature hike down to the Kanha River which forms part of the border of the park. From there we had a great view of the jungle and the walk was a much welcome relief after the cramped car ride. After our first night at the new lodge, we delved into the Kanha park for the first time. Within minutes of entering the park that morning, we came across the tracks of a female tiger. This was the first time any of us had seen even a trace of a tiger, so this discovery filled us all with excitement. Even though we didn’t see an actual tiger that day, this excitement carried over for the next few days.
Many of the initial trips into the park were spent seeing many of the animals we had become used to in Pench: peacocks, deer, monkeys, and various species of birds. We were appreciative towards any form of wildlife we saw while on the trip, but we were all itching to finally see a tiger in the wild, it was the major purpose for our trip after all. A couple close encounters with seeing the tigers made us more and more anxious with each failed opportunity. Many times, our guides would be able to locate the approximate location of a tiger (based on the alarm calls of nearby animals), but we would not be able to see it through the undergrowth. We were starting to get worried about our prospects of seeing an actual tiger.
On our third day in Kanha, we entered the park for our evening trip. Most of the trip was spent chasing the trail of a specific, elusive tiger. At least eight Jeeps surrounded one spot where the tiger was suspected to be. It was nearing the park’s closing time, and so the particular driver of my Jeep threw it into reverse and drove away from the spot. We drove for a few minutes down the path, the cool wind blowing as the sun set like a timer reminding us that time was almost up. Suddenly, we drove up to a smaller group of Jeeps parked in front of an area of brush. Everyone was speaking in hushed tones, and we could tell that something was going on. After speaking with a few of the other drivers, our suspicions were confirmed: there was a tiger right there, and we could see it.
This was it, this is what we had traveled all these thousands of miles to see. A wave of relief washed over us as we realized we would not be going home without having seen the magnificent beast. The big cat was sleeping when we came across him. The gathered crowd talked in hushed tones, silently snapping shots of the sleeping animal. Suddenly, his paws started moving and his tail started waving. The tiger flipped over from his resting position on his back to one on his stomach. We could now see his huge head and face. With our binoculars, it felt as though we were staring him straight in the eye. Never before had we felt such excitement and awe. We stayed there looking at him for as long as we could before driving away to exit before the park closed.
Before we knew it, we were faced with our last day in India. The end of the trip had seemed so far away at the beginning, but now it was here. We packed our bags and left Kanha, leaving the rural side of India at the same time. We were now headed to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. The monument was just as spectacular in person as it is in photographs. We walked through a dark gate before light flooded around us and the Taj Mahal came into view. Its brilliant white walls stood out against the blue sky backdrop. As we neared the monument, we noticed the intricacies of the artwork and architecture. The Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetrical from all angles and features artwork such as plant motifs and calligraphy. The designs were made from semiprecious stones set into the white stone. The Taj Mahal was, in a word, breathtaking.
We feel as though we can speak for everyone who went to India that spring break when we say that it was an eye-opening, life-changing experience. We were able to immerse ourselves in a culture entirely different from our own and meet people we otherwise never would have crossed paths with. The borders of our world were opened beyond the boundaries of our small Clemson community. The main purpose of our trip was extremely enlightening as well. Seeing tigers in their natural habitat fueled our passion for wanting to protect them. Our difficulty in seeing the tigers reflects just how much tigers are struggling to deal with the many threats, from poaching to habitat loss, they deal with as a species. We never felt more proud to be a Clemson tiger than when seeing our majestic mascot in the wild. It’s a feeling every clemson student, and indeed every person, should have the opportunity to experience. Sadly, unless something is done the tiger may go from being a symbol of pride and strength to one of an animal driven to extinction by human carelessness. Hopefully, that will not be the case but it can only be prevented through awareness that leads to action which was truly the ultimate goal of our trip and class.