For centuries, the rajahs of Anandapur hunted tigers in this mystical forest. In 1544, King Bhima Disampati decreed the forest a royal preserve and built a hunting lodge for himself and invited guests. In an effort to make his "sport" easier, he had his subjects enclose much of this area, effectively trapping his prey. Befittingly, he was later killed in a hunting accident. Subsequent maharajahs, seeing the error of this endeavor, transformed this enclosure into a nature preserve where the animals and the local people could live in harmony.
For many years, British colonization oversaw much of Southeast Asia. When their rule ended in 1948, the villagers of Anandapur opened this sanctuary to the outside world. They take great pride in their forest and share their love of animals with visitors as they explore this refuge.
The Maharajah Jungle Trek can be found at the north end of Asia in the Animal Kingdom. This walking trail allows guests to see a variety of animals up close and personal. Visitors can spend as little or as much time as they like in this lovely forest. But like so many things in life, the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it. Please, don't rush through this wonderful preserve. Slow down and smell the flowers.
When you pass through the entrance, look up at the ceiling. Old Anandapur newspapers have been used as insulation.
On the other side of the entrance, be sure to pick up a guide map and animal description card. A lot of valuable information can be found on these handouts.
The first stop along the way brings us to the Komodo dragon. This largest of all lizards can be found around Anandapur and on the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, and Gili Montang. Growing to an average length of six and a half to almost ten feet, their large size can be attributed to the fact that there are no larger carnivorous predators on the islands on which they live. For the most part, they eat carrion but they also occasionally hunt for their meals. A Komodo dragon can live as long as 50 years.
As I mentioned earlier, the villagers of Anandapur take pride in their preserve and serve as guides along this trail and are full of interesting facts about each species.
Besides the animals, the forest itself is most inviting. Lush, tropical plants abound and the occasional signs are amusing. Be sure to pay attention to the construction of the English sentences. If you've ever traveled to other countries, you know that signs like these can be a great source of amusement.
The next stop along our journey brings us to the Malayan Tapir. Also called the Asian Tapir, this is the only one of four species native to the Asian continent. As conspicuous as we might think the tapir's markings are, this coloration is actually used as camouflage as they look like a large rock to their predators when they sleep.
The Malayan Tapir grows to between six and eight feet and weighs between 550 and 700 pounds. They are vegetarian and forage the forest for tender shoots and leaves. Their eyesight is poor so they rely on their excellent sense of smell and hearing to survive.
The next animal along the trail may give some of you the heebie-jeebies. Bats! But don't worry. If you're uncomfortable with these creatures, the villagers have built an enclosure that allows you to pass through without ever seeing any of these flying mammals. But even if you are squeamish, I strongly urge you to put your fears aside and take a look. The bats are harmless and won't bother you.
Two types of bats are native to Anandapur - the Giant Flying Fox and the Rodrigues Fruit Bat call the Royal Forest home. Both of these creatures eat fruit and help replenish the forest by spreading seeds in their droppings and carrying pollen from one plant to the next.
The Giant Flying Fox is the largest bat in the world and can have a wingspan of more than six feet. The smaller Rodriques Fruit Bat has a wingspan of around three feet.
Also in this room are several terrariums. Here you can view a White-lipped Tree Frog, Blood Python, and an Asian Giant Centipede.
Around the corner from the bat enclosure is a second viewing area for these flying creatures. Ornate windows, beautiful in their own right, look into their habitat. This spot might give those of you suffering from chiroptophobia (fear of bats) a perceived safer vantage point from which to experience these animals.
For me, the real beauty of the Maharajah Jungle Trek begins at this point. It's here that you enter what were the old hunting grounds of King Bhima Disampati. The decaying ruins are dazzling and it's fun to imagine what this magnificent fortress looked like in its heyday.
Up a flight a stairs we come to a duck-blind. Or should I say tiger-blind. It was on this lookout that the king and his guests would position themselves and wait for the tigers to be coaxed into the fountain to drink and play. From that point on, the animals were easy prey to the hunter's arrows.
Today, it's thrilling to see these magnificent beasts playing and bathing in the water, safe from hunters. For those of you in a wheelchair or ECV, a ground level vantage point is just around the corner. And don't worry if you don't see any of these large cats enjoying life here. There are more viewing spots along the trail.
The Anandapur Royal Forest has six Bengal tigers, all female. Since male Bengal tigers fiercely defend their territory from other tigers, it was necessary to omit them from this enclosure. On the other hand, female Bengal tigers will share their terrain with other females.
A fully grown male Bengal tiger weighs between 419-569 pounds and a female weighs between 221-353 pounds. Tigers do not live in prides as lions do. Instead, they live independently and mark their territory by spraying urine on rocks and trees. Tigers live exclusively on meat and hunt a wide variety of animals. Loss of habitat and poaching has put the Bengal tiger on the endangered species list. It's estimated that less than 3,000 Bengal tigers are left in the wild today.
Although none of these beautiful animals are ever forced to perform or exhibit themselves, the villagers used several tricks to coax them into our view. For example, on hot days, the water is cooled in this fountain to encourage the tigers to splash around and play.
After leaving the tiger viewing area, you come to one of my favorite areas along the trail. Here, the walls of the old hunting lodge surround you and the canopy of trees overhead create a peaceful enclosure. Visit this area in the early morning, before the crowds materialize, and you will be transported to nirvana. In this vicinity, you'll also find another charming sign, informing you that you are safe from the tigers as long as you stay on the trail. Pay attention to the details of the structure here. Once again, you can see that King Bhima Disampati spared no expense when he built his lodge in 1544.
In one corner of this enclosure is an ancient coral tree. Here, villagers hang scarves and garland as offerings and bells represent prayers that have been answered.
While passing through a large archway, you can see frescos of King Bhima Disampati on the left and more ecologically minded maharajahs on the right and beyond. Notice that the king is holding a bow and arrow whereas the other three maharajahs possess peaceful symbols. It was these three enlightened rulers that helped turn the hunting lodge into an animal preserve after the king's hunting accident.
On the other side of this arch is the second tiger viewing area. Tigers spend between 16 and 20 hours each day doing very little apart from lying in the shade, sleeping, bathing, and relaxing. If you wish the see the tigers of Anandapur in a more active state, your best bet is to arrive soon after the preserve opens or shortly before it closes.
The next stop along the trail brings us to a large courtyard. If you pay close attention to the decaying wall, you can see where a portion of the original structure has been destroyed and removed over time. To plug this gap in the fence, the villagers used rebar to create a new barrier.
This courtyard offers one of the best spots to view the Blackbuck antelope. Native to India and Anandapur, the Blackbuck is one of the fastest land animals and can outrun most of its predators such as wolves and feral dogs. The Blackbuck eats mostly grass, pods, flowers, and fruit and lives an average of twelve years.
A short distance from the courtyard is an ancient medicinal garden. The villagers once used this area to grow a multitude of therapeutic herbs and aromatic plants used for healing purposes.
Across from the garden is a watering hole. As any foreign traveler knows, drinking local water can be risky. However, the water here is potable as the overhead sign indicates.
Moving on we come to an old bridge. Hanging above it are numerous prayer flags. These square and rectangular shaped pieces of cloth are used to promote wisdom, strength, compassion, and peace. As the wind slowly unravels the fabric, the threads are carried to heaven and these benefits rain down and benefit all.
To the left side of the bridge we often find the Banteng. This species of wild cattle is native to tropical Asia including Anandapur. They live in swamp forests and bamboo jungles and feed on grasses, fruit, and the leaves of young branches. The Banteng is active both day and night but nocturnal habits become dominate in places where humans are commonplace.
To the right side of the bridge we come to the final tiger hunting area. This section of the compound is important in that this is the spot that King Bhima Disampati was killed by a tiger while pursuing these beasts. This is depicted in a decaying fresco.
Traveling on we come to five important murals. These carvings tell the story of how the people of Anandapur became at peace with the animals and land.
In the first carving, we see man and beast living in harmony.
In the second carving, we see the animals taking shelter under a tree. They are frightened and fear the encroachment of man and his destructive ways.
Next we find man at his worst, cutting down the forest and killing the animals.
The fourth carving shows the heavens' disapproval of man's destructive ways.
And finally, we see that man has learned from his mistakes and he now once again lives in harmony with his fellow creatures.
The man depicted in these carvings is Ananta, the founder of the Kingdom of Anandapur. When he died, his remains were placed in a sarcophagus and rest inside a nearby temple.
It's outside this temple that some of you must make a decision. An aviary lies just ahead through the doors. If you have a fear of birds, you might want to take the path to the left that bypasses our feathered friends. Also, guests with service animals should check with a host or hostess before entering the aviary. In addition, your guide map and animal description card can be returned just outside this building.
The aviary is so cleverly built that you would never realize you're inside a giant cage unless you pay close attention. In this enclosure are numerous species of birds native to the areas around Anandapur. Some of these are, Wompoo Fruit Doves, Indian Pygmy Goose, Golden Pheasant, Nicobar Pigeon, and White-throated Kingfisher.
There is also a beautiful collection of ornate birdcages scattered around the area. See how many you can spot.
Far too many people rush through this section of Maharajah Jungle Trek. In order to get the full enjoyment out of this segment of the tour, you need to take the time and look for the birds. Being small, they blend into the surroundings, but it's a lot of fun to spot one and point out your discovery to the rest of your group.
After leaving the aviary, you leave the preserve and head back to the village of Anandapur.
I'm sure many of you are wondering how I know so much about Anandapur and the Maharajah Jungle Trek. Well, I have to admit, I did a little research. But when I was done reading, I walked the trails once again and talked to the local villagers who so proudly man each section of the preserve. They told me everything (and more) that I had learned in my research. And they like nothing better than sharing their knowledge with others. So the next time you find yourself in Asia, be sure to visit this most peaceful section of the Animal Kingdom. And take the time to smell the flowers.