Stanley Johnson gets on his bike to save what's left of the tiger population — and has one of the best weeks of his life

TOFTigers is a charity whose aim is to save India’s remaining tigers by helping to ensure that “tiger tourism” ­benefits the people of the area as well as the animals.

Having signed up for the challenge some weeks earlier, I flew to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) from London last Saturday. Changing planes in ­Mumbai, I continued to Nagpur, a city which lies at the very heart of the Indian sub-continent.

A three-hour car journey through the state of Madhya Pradesh brought me to the Pench Tree Lodge, situated just outside the Pench Tiger Reserve.

At the lodge that evening, I met my fellow “challengers” for the first time.

There were ten of us altogether, five men and five women, mostly ­several decades younger than me.

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If they were daunted by the prospect of riding 112 miles over minor roads and rough forest tracks over three consecutive days, they did not show it.

Julian Matthews, the founder and moving spirit of TOFTigers, gave us a pep-talk, highlighting the tigers’ plight and dwindling numbers.

“At the beginning of the last ­century, there were around 100,000 tigers in India. By the time India gained its independence, in 1947, there were probably fewer than 50,000 tigers left in the country.

“If the tiger is to be saved, we can’t just rely on the tiger reserves and national parks which are under increasing pressure from expanding populations.”

The truth about tigers

97% of the world tiger population died in the last century

All remaining species are listed as endangered

3,890 wild ones left in the world

2,226 are in India

Julian went on to explain that between them, the Pench and Kanha National Parks contained more than 150 tigers. One of the key objectives is to create a “tiger corridor” between the two parks and ensure that good tiger habitat remains, even ­outside the officially protected areas.

In doing so, it is crucial to gain and maintain the support of the ­surrounding villages.

The organisers allowed us a rest day on the Monday. We went on a practice run. Vishal Singh, TOFTigers’ India director, had acquired a dozen state-of-the-art trial bikes.

I spent the morning learning that the cycling world has much to offer beyond the conventional three-speed Sturmey Archer.

The hard part began the next day. The official “start” would be the entrance to Pench National Park.

We gathered there with our bikes and water bottles at 8am.

Near the entrance, a huge ­sign announces that this is “Mowgli Country”. We are in the midst of the famous Seoni forest.

The region’s trees, rivers and hills inspired Rudyard Kipling to write The Jungle Book, beloved of future ­generations. Would we meet Kipling’s famous tiger, Shere Khan, I wondered, or his latter-day descendants?

We would certainly be cycling through tiger territory.

“Tigers tend to hunt at night,” ­Julian assured us.

I think I was more worried about getting a sore bottom.

I had, as advised by the organisers, bought some padded cycling shorts.

Would Mysore Bum prove to be as much of a hazard as Delhi Belly?

Leaving such minor irritations aside, I shall never forget those three days last week — Tuesday through Thursday — as we rode our bikes from Pench to Kanha. It was tough at times.

Much of the route is on rough ­forest tracks where you can easily hit a rock or skid in an ­unexpected patch of deep sand.

And it was hot at times, too, but not overpoweringly so. In Madhya Pradesh in summer, temperatures can rise well into the forties or fifties.

As it happened, we enjoyed fine autumn weather. Comfortable to cycle in but not too cold to camp at night.

For me the real joy of the ­challenge was the sense I had of the daily life of the farmers and villagers we met en route.

In 1961, 57 years ago, I rode a BSA Twin Cylinder 500cc Shooting Star down India’s Grand Trunk Road from Amritsar to ­Calcutta. On the way, I passed through an endless succession of ­villages. Cows and carts, buffalo and people mingled on the highway.

Cycling last week from one Madhya Pradesh village to another, where cows still lined the sides of the roads and men and women winnowed the grain from the chaff on the roadway itself, I asked myself how much had really changed.

Yes, the villages have electricity, and some of the houses will have television, too. Yes, the mobile phone is here to stay. We were sometimes pestered for selfies!

Yes, the drive to improve basic education seems — happily — unstoppable. But even today I can’t help feeling that the deep-down soul of India still lies in its villages, more than 650,000 of them at the last count. That is why, from the conservation as from every other point of view, it is so crucial to work with the villages and the village people.

TOFTigers’ conservation efforts, for example, include promoting a ­Wildlife Guardian scheme. Pioneered in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, the programme allows villagers to report — under conditions of strict anonymity — killing and poaching, as well as providing ­information about the movements of hunters and poachers.

Of course, there will be conflict between farmers and wildlife. Tigers will stray beyond the boundaries of the protected areas. Cows may be killed. The key thing is to minimise the impact of such conflict.

On our last day, we met a farmer who just the previous day had lost a cow to a tiger. “It’s absolutely ­essential,” Julian explained, “for the authorities to move fast in providing compensation.”

In both Pench and Kanha National Parks, the consensus seems to be that there is a good “prey base” — particularly wild deer — to sustain the tiger population.

But in the “corridor” or outside the protected zone, it is another matter.

As we saw on our cross-country cycle ride, the sheer pressure of domestic livestock — cows, goats, ­buffalo — or of farm systems ­involving the cultivation of food crops (wheat, rice, beans, etc) means that there is precious little food for wild herbivores to flourish.

Protecting existing forest areas from encroachment is essential. Expanding forest areas is just as important.

In his dreams, Julian envisions a “rewilding” of India, so that prey species thrive outside as well as inside the protected areas.

India’s population — 1.3billion — has more than trebled since I first came here. I can remember a time when the Indian government sought urgently to “control the population explosion” by encouraging family planning.

Today, there is a welcome emphasis at the political level on female ­education.

Let’s hope that includes some imaginative thinking about how both people and nature can work together.

Every day, as we cycled from ­village to village, we would pass groups of girls walking to and from school. Clean and tidy in their ­uniform, they would smile and greet us as we passed.

“Namaste!” we would say.

Theoretically, when you say “namaste” to someone, you are meant to bring both hands together to your face, and nod deferentially.

I never felt confident enough on my multi-speed Trek X-Calibre 9 machine to take both hands off the handlebars.

But I waved to those schoolgirls and smiled back at them. We all did.

In this new interconnected world, their future is our future too.

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