The thing that attracted me to the national park called Land Between the Lakes, on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, was the chance to see bald eagles. Scratch that: the thing that really attracted me there was a previous time I had visited, almost twenty years ago. I remember an almost surreal beauty then, especially at dusk as the mist and herons hovered above the lakes -- really, wide stretches of river -- that run on either side of this long finger of land.
Nevertheless, this time the eagles were a definite draw. Several of these magnificent birds spend the winter here, and the park rangers organize trips out to see them. The last such trip for this winter was on February 19. I signed up on the phone, and was pointing my whole trip towards making it there to see the eagles.
Turned out I had some car trouble in North Carolina, so I could not reach Land Between the Lakes by February 19. So much for the eagles. But two days later, I was there. It was evening, so I saw again the mist and herons rising from the lake. Slept in my tent through a below-freezing night sparkling with stars, woke up at dawn and warmed myself with a shower, and then I was ready ... not for eagles, but for bison.
Give up one American icon, I always say, and find another.
Kentucky and Tennessee used to be one vast stretch of grassland, or prairie. Until as recently as a couple of hundred years ago, thousands of bison (the animals that are also referred to, if incorrectly, as "buffalo") inhabited the prairie. They would swim across the rivers and graze on the grass here. As the signs in the park tell me, the animals
- "... etched their tracks into the gentle hills between the rivers. ... [T]hunderous migrations of bison and elk eroded paths that many of our current highways follow today."
The white man forced the native people out of these areas, drove them further west. And the buffalo slaughter began. The animals were a fabulous way to get all kinds of goodies:
- "[They] provided an abundant supply of meat. Hides and bones were used to fashion clothing, robes, blankets and tools. Buffalo were also killed for their market value. Traders made handsome profits selling tongue and tallow, meat and hides."
Yes: a portion of the Land Between the Lakes park is set aside as an "Elk and Bison Prairie". It has been consciously nurtured to be the way prairies used to be in the time of the large bison herds, and it is now home to 32 bison and 63 elk. (There is a smaller herd in a smaller range in the south of the park).
So on this sunny morning, I drive slowly into the prairie. Signs urge me to stay in the car if the animals approach within 200 feet, because while they may appear tame (and slow) -- which they do -- they are really wild, unpredictable and dangerous. I'm not looking to test the veracity of that, so I stay in the car. Round a curve and across a small stream, I am suddenly in the middle of 28 of the 32 bison. Some no more than ten feet from my driver's side window. Almost near enough to reach out and touch.
It is surprisingly soothing, being here. When I turn off my engine and my ears get tuned to the quiet, all I can hear are occasional birds -- no bald eagles -- and the gentle munching of these bovines as they graze. It strikes me that I could listen all day to that sound. It grows on me by the minute.
As often happens at moments like this, my thoughts begin to wander. The closest parallel to the bison that I can think of in India is the tiger: another handsome animal emblematic of a country, steeped in its history, hunted to near extinction for its commercial value.
Our acclaimed Project Tiger programme is credited with having raised tiger numbers nearly three-fold in two decades: to about 3000 in the late 1990s. Yet of late, people have raised serious doubts about that number. At least one park known to have had tigers, Sariska in Rajasthan, has lost all its animals to poaching. Others have two-digit counts of the animal.
What are we doing wrong in India, you wonder. Could it be as simple as this: that most people don't see any stake in, any interest in, the preservation of the tiger? That therefore, maybe the tiger doesn't seem more real than just a symbol?
Here at Land Between the Lakes, the bison is very real indeed. Not only can you see them, you can actually wander among them, get as close as I did. Being ten feet away forces you to comprehend the meaning of the drop in their numbers from the millions to just two; and the subsequent rise to the thousands.
I realize the tiger is a different animal, that it would not be possible to do the same with it as they do with bison. Yet I wonder: with some imagination, surely there must be a way to involve more people with the tiger, so that more of us see this majestic animal as worth preserving?
Surely we will not let this Indian icon dwindle into oblivion?
Ahead of me, one of the bison crosses the road slowly. For the first time, I notice its tiny eyes. I could swear he is watching me. As intently as I am watching him.