The tiger seemed agitated and was snarling menacingly at the eight of us perched on two elephants. Can’t blame the tiger – it was 10 AM, bedtime for him and he had found a nice shady spot under some bushes. But the mahouts had found him too and he had to give darshan to more than a hundred wild life tourists like us coming in bunches of four on elephants. Good business for the mahouts, disrupted sleeptime for the tiger, a moment of epiphany for me. I was trembling as I dismounted the elephant to get back into the jeep, such was the splendour of the tiger.
“Tiger show” as it is called in wild life jargon is actually a diluted version of the experience of seeing the tiger in the wild, but to be practical, the only sensible way….. It is not for the connoisseur but for the lay wild life enthusiast. The mahouts set off early in the morning on their elephants to try to spot any tigers. If they do, word goes out to the forest rangers or guides who ritually congregate with their respective tourist customers to a spot somewhere in the middle of the forest. The tourists are then taken on elephants to the spot where the tiger is – for a fee of course! The tourists would have woken up early and driven through the forest, an experience in itself – driving in an open jeep through the silence of the forest with its sights and smells and sounds. Desperate for a “successful” safari, it is normal for the first timer to miss out on these….
I just couldn’t get these wild life enthusiasts before this: what’s the big deal? Egged into a safari by Akhil, an IIT – IIM guy whose childhood ambition it had been to become a zookeeper and whom I might have intiated into a Bhairav and a Yaman, I was not without misgivings at the early wake up call. With two young kids in tow, I was tired from our journey from Chennai via Mumbai to Nagpur and the late night drive to Pench in Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh boasts of many tiger reserve forests and the three on our itinerary were at Pench, Bandhavgarh and Panna. We had to give the beautiful forests at Kanha a miss.
When we finally set off in our jeep at Pench, it was quite bright. We wanted to see a tiger, who wants anything less! “It’s a little late in the morning,” the guide said; Akhil nodded grimly. We set off into the jungle and the first happening sights were droppings – tiger droppings no less! I couldn’t share Akhil’s enthusiam. “Oh, oh! How many days old would those be?” he goes. Oh Please! And then, pug marks! What? Foot prints of the tiger, stupid! “How fresh are they?” The tiger has been here, walking right along this path. We saw plenty of spider webs, really huge ones; and trees – teak trees with a very diseased appearance. “Oh that is nothing. The trees will be fine” comes the nonchalant reply. Where is the tiger – any tiger please? Suddenly there was a filthy stench – more excitement. “Oh, it is a kill!” A tiger must have mauled some creature a couple of days ago somewhere here and the flesh is rotting. A monkey gives a sharp cry. “Is that a normal cry Bhaiyya?” asks Akhil. If the monkey has seen a tiger in the vicinity, it will not be a normal cry – so that is the point of the question, I later learn.
So, we saw the tiger’s droppings, pug marks, gaped at scratch marks left by the tiger on trees to mark his territory, smelt the rotting flesh of a kill, tried to hear any warning calls that deer or monkeys give out when there is a tiger in the neighbourhood – but we saw no tiger. Some gaurs (wild bisons) sighted many meters away had Akhil more sad than excited – if we had come in just a little earlier we would have had them crossing our path. Ok. At Bandhavgarh we will be up real early I promise him.
Bandhavgarh, where Sri Rama is said to have built a fortress for Lakshmana (Bandhav – brother, Garh – fort, house), still has a fair tiger population and has been the home to many legendary tigers like Charger (he who would charge at tourists!) and B2 (Chargers’s son and later, challenger and killer; for tigers are territorial creatures and two males cannot cohabit in the same territory!).
Our guide was a strong, silent man – silent definitely. We saw a bird caught in a spider web. It was a paradise fly catcher! A lovely, if slightly puzzling, name. And the fly catcher was caught in a spider web – what irony this. Many jeeps stopped, the tourists clicked away at the hapless bird (only man is vile), and went on their way to the spot where information about tiger sighting would be available and where we would have to join a long queue, if one had been sighted. “Can you not release the bird?” I ask fearing that I would be given a contemptuous dismissal. The bird was going to die for no reason – the spider was not going to eat her! Akhil warns me – “Don’t play with nature Didi!” Release the bird the guide did and we went on to see the tiger. I think it was that good deed done that fetched us the tiger darshan.
As one leaves the Bandhavgarh tiger sanctuary, there is a board with a painted tiger saying: Don’t lose heart if you have not seen me – for I have seen you. Many tourists have to leave with that small and eerie consolation, but the gods were on our side and we actually saw a tiger a few feet away from us.
It was later in Panna where we were more relaxed, having seen a tiger and all that, that the real joy of wild life hit me. It was a common peacock with his feathers downsized (happens during the monsoons, informed my guide) which was just roaming among some tall grass. It was so beautiful – just the experience of seeing it like that. We have left some for other creatures too, even if it is too little. The peacock was there not because we had put him there, like in a zoo, but because – that was his home.