In Search of Wildlife in Northern India

Lions, leopards and tigers once roamed Punjab, a province in Northern India, and at least one tour operator tries to convince visitors that they still do. Correspondent Philip Reeves goes on a nighttime safari in search of game.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Ever been on one of those vacations where they promise much more than they deliver? NPR's Philip Reeves has. He's just returned from a safari in one of the more unlikely parts of India. He sent us this postcard.

PHILIP REEVES: The North Indian state of Punjab is known for many splendid things. You'd be hard pressed to find a tastier plate of tandoori chicken. There are some fine Sikh temples. Yet no where's perfect. Very few people, for example, would argue that this relatively prosperous and progressive is where you'd go to explore the jungles for big game. It's a pretty enough place - a flat, lush sweep of well-organized farmland that runs up to the foothills of the Himalayas and abuts the Pakistan border. But the leopards and tigers that once prowled this terrain have long ago been supplanted by factories and tractors, by neat farms full of chickens and plodding water buffalo, and of course by people, some 24 millions of them. Which is why the scene that played out here the other night was in retrospect so bizarre.

(Soundbite of tractor)

REEVES: It was well after midnight. A large yellow moon had taken up position low in the sky. A battered farm tractor was lurching along a mud lane through a dense patch of woodland. The tractor was towing an even more battered open-topped jeep which had broken down after getting stuck in an enormous puddle created by the monsoon rains. In the back of this jeep sat three baffled Westerners - me, my wife, and my 11-year-old daughter. Beside us stood a young man with an enormous spotlight on a swivel, the sort you might find illuminating the perimeter of Guantanamo prison. He was eagerly scanning the surrounding grasses and clumps of trees. He was our point man.

We'd come here for a weekend, lured at considerable expense to a nearby hotel by an intriguing Internet site promising to a privately owned forest of a couple of thousand acres packed with interesting forms of life. We were to be taken on a nighttime safari. Yes, that's what they said. They specifically said safari, that magic word which conjures up flamingos and giraffes, zebra and roaming herds of wildebeest.

Even at the best of times, Punjab has never had flamingos, though according to a survey of its wild mammals at the end of the 19th century, it did once have an impressive stock of other exotic life, much of which is no longer to be found. This included the hairy-armed bat, the cheetah and a mammal that traveled the north Indian plains under the nom de guerre of the little hairy-footed gerbil.

As the night dragged we'd have been satisfied by a glimpse of any living beast apart from the hotel dog that dutifully padded along behind our tractor. We lumbered through the darkness staring into the gloom until our eyeballs dried up. Yet the undergrowth, most of which seemed to comprise cannabis plants, yielded nothing.

Where in fact are the animals, I eventually asked the man with the spotlight. He appeared to be anticipating this question. In broken English he explained that we probably wouldn't actually see any animals, not in full profile, but we should look out for their eyes. In time we did see some eyes, several pairs in fact, glinting defiantly from the undergrowth a few hundred yards away. It was impossible to say which species they belonged to. My theory is that they were attached to people, though there are deer and monkey in these parts. And I'm told also owls.

In the end, did it matter? India's on the rise, its tourist industry included. We returned to our bed $20 the poorer, but strangely satisfied by a night in which optimism and salesmanship triumphed over reality. In Punjab those qualities are paying dividends, despite the conspicuous absence of the little hair-footed gerbil.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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