Catching sight of tigers in a jungle safari happens only when Lady Luck is smiling on you. Subhasri chronicles the nail-biting wait before she could sense three majestic male tigers patrolling their territory, so carefree.
The success of jungle safaris is bench-marked on sightings!! Yes, sightings of big cats. The wild tigers of India often play ‘find me if you can’ with tourists. So when we showed more interest in surveying the jungle than running after sightings, our guide Babu was slightly surprised but more relaxed. With full fervour he started detailing the jungle, its flora and fauna and the avian diversities.
The jungle had its share of varieties of deer species like spotted deer, barking deer then there are the elusive leopards, the labiated sloth bear, the headstrong gaur, antlers, the flying squirrels, dholes civets — Babu went on. But everyone comes searching of tigers, he complained.
We were nearing a big pond where he spotted a marsh crocodile basking in the last rays of the sun. A grey headed fish eagle sat quietly on a branch nearby, gaze fixed on its prey. The water looked calm and serene.
If I hadn’t mentioned before, we were on the last safari of the day, meandering through thick forests of teak and bamboo, enjoying every moment as 250 species of mostly unfamiliar birds flew over our heads, returning to their nests. You may ask, which jungle? To this my answer will be, all jungles are beautiful, each in its own way. So let the name remain undisclosed and let’s enjoy the safari. 😊
It was a hot summer day as we waited near the water expecting animal movement, and ‘lo and behold’ very soon, there were the nilgais, cheetahs, chinkaras galore.
Suddenly an adventurous foal decided to take on us single-handed. It came charging and calling at us only to be scared off by the sound of the engine, whence he retreated at double the speed towards his anxious mama! Naughty child!
Sundown in the jungles of India has its charisma. Soon the surroundings were turning orange-red. As we moved on, we chanced upon a thirsty bear family coming towards the water, instantly breaking into a run as they spotted our land rover. The two babies were trying desperately to catch up with mama bear.
A discontented Babu still wanted us to try our luck; perhaps he was guilt-tripped that the safari should end without a sighting. So off we went on his lead to the Tiger Territory, known to be frequented by a majestic male in his prime and his two sub-adult male cubs.
We reached the spot and waited. On our right was a long stretch of thick jungle, mostly teak and bamboo thickets. The jungle on our left was far less dense, the backside had a hilly terrain and to front was a culvert we had just crossed over and taken position. Tigers in the area often quench their thirst from the stream under the watercourse. An uncomfortable eerie silence set in as the engine was turned off. Slowly we started getting familiar with the sounds of the jungle.
My love for jungles began in my childhood days when I was gifted a book aptly called Jungle Lore written by none other than the world-famed Hunter-turned Naturalist Jim Corbett. The famous tourist spot in Uttarakhand, ‘Jim Corbett National Park’, was named after him in 1955. The book was an eyeopener, and safaris added weight to my passion for jungles through fascinating experiences.
My mind would always be buzzing with questions. Why do gray langur monkeys share a symbiotic relationship with the deer as they roam the forests? Guess what! Now monkeys eat fruits and leaves and drop them for the deer. They being higher up on the trees also set off the alarm when a predator is in the vicinity. The deer allow the monkeys to groom them of ticks and insects and to have a joy ride on their back in return. The jungle experts would swear that a lone gaur is the most dreaded as they are unpredictable. The inmates of the jungle have their own mutual understanding and networking.
Did you know why a tiger claws down a tree? It is because it is marking a territory. Also it wants to sharpen its claws for a better grip on its prey and it additionally gets some stretching of its muscles in the process. Wow, that’s a package!!!
My first sighting in the wild is still afresh in my memory as I vividly remember the regal walk of the majestic tiger towards our Jeep. The fleeting glance reprimanded us enough to send a chill down the spine. The creaking branches muffled soft shrieks and whispers as the beautiful animal sauntered about its usual trail, unperturbed. I could feel the sweat trickling down my face in excitement and fear. Somehow the experience was far less fearsome than the grisly tales we hear or read. Humans are not common prey to these carnivores, and often their bizarre reactions are rather out of fear of humans. Why ever a tiger turns a man hunter is still a matter of debate and research and out of the scope of this article.
The second sighting from which I took a lesson was when we rushed our vehicles to the spot, based on a tip-off from a forest guard, only to find 30 odd Jeeps with tourists not in their best behavior, already surrounding the miffed animal that looked puzzled and pathetic. I felt sorry for her as later on I learned it was a she and took a pledge that henceforth I shall never chase a sighting being a part of a bandwagon.There’s a discipline in the jungle which animals follow, and we need to learn that before we enter their territory.
Returning to our afternoon ride, it was close to sundown as I said before, but there was no respite from the heat, with only an occasional breeze greeting us. The jungle was preparing for the closure as we could hear each other breathing, sitting in expectation in panic-stricken silence.
Indian rollers (Neelkanth) are beautiful birds, brilliant blue color birds, just like the one that flew in front of us and perched itself on a branch waiting for the show. We waited in anticipation, watching the orange rays of the sun grow a shade redder when far behind us, on the right side, somewhere from among the thick bushes, a Kakar called not once or twice but thrice and then silence gripped us once more.
Babu was alerted by the call and slowly stood up with excitement in his eyes. That was an alarm call for big cat movement, he informed, fixing his gaze fixed towards the direction of call. It will be a long wait; the Indian roller, perhaps a little impatient, started grooming its wings. Just then, we heard it; unmistakably, those were the creaking of dry leaves and twigs under the impact of a heavyweight. The sound came from the same direction the Kakar had called and now fell silent, perhaps watching.
The creaking sound grew a little louder, and I could feel the same rush of adrenaline I’d experienced before at my first tiger sighting. Eyes wide, vision compromised by the dimness of the light, we wanted to gather as much of the surrounding expecting the lovely animal/animals. The male adult, with two sub-adult male cubs, you remember, was ready to make an appearance any moment. Dramatically the Indian roller flew out just then, but we were too excited to be startled.
The Kakar kept calling in between once or twice a little at ease as the carnivores moved away from it but towards us.
The creaking was now very close to the right, almost parallel to us, with only a layer of thickets separating us, and then came this low hair-raising growl!!! Was it to caution us or his cubs? Difficult to predict, but it was clear and lingering. There is a saying in the jungle that a tiger has seen you 50 times before you spot it. Is it true? Have they already seen us when all we did was hear them move? The growl was almost telltale as we sweated it out on the vehicle.
The next call came from a jungle fowl on the right ahead of us—another alarm call? The sound of twigs breaking grew fainter now coming from where the jungle fowl had called, the trio had crossed our Jeep and was now moving ahead of us through the thick bushes on our right. Every second felt like an hour as we stretched our eyes and ears to grasp any cue the jungle had for us.
After a while, our Jeep started to move. We felt happy and mesmerized but contended that we could feel the presence of these three majestic male tigers patrolling their territory, so carefree. It was like a sneak peek into their daily chores. Only an occasional cry of the jungle fowl from far remained with us as an ‘aide memoir’ of what we had experienced a little while ago.
It was quite dark now as we took the bumpy ride back towards the jungle gates catching a glimpse of the eerie ghost trees standing out tall in the darkness as the jungle was getting ready to retire for the day.
(All pictures are courtesy Manas Bandopadhyay)
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