This article is part of the Tiger Series and an exclusive extract from the author’s forthcoming memoir, Environment Through Finance Eyes.
I hadn’t sighted a tiger yet, although I had visited three of India’s iconic tiger reserves. Did you sight a tiger? How many did you get to see? Couldn’t the Project Tiger guys arrange to sight tigers for you? I faced such questions when I met someone first up after I had gotten back from a visit to one of the tiger reserves. My solemn response that I didn’t visit tiger reserves to sight tigers was lost on them. Sighting tigers in the wild remains one of the most thrilling experiences for any wildlife lover. It is a majestic and charismatic species. It is a beauty to behold this animal in the wild, people had told me. Will I be lucky the next time around? I wasn’t sure. Frankly I wasn’t too bothered, either.
I think it was Dr. Rajesh Gopal who, with his honest-to-goodness approach, made it happen with his lady luck the very first time we travelled together. SP, for all his sincerity, hadn’t been as lucky. Soumitra in Sunderbans too had tried desperately, daring even to tip the boat in his enthusiasm to show me the Big Boss, so named because of the tiger’s attitude. He sat nonchalantly in the thicket – so was I told – as we contrived to see him in the fading light of the dusk. The two shiny eyes captured in camera identified the tiger more than my naked eyes could espy! At Kaziranga the sound of a tiger charging at a rhino amidst the tall elephant grasses and the hurried reaction of elephants we sat on, as the striped beast flashed past us at close range giving us the scare of our lives, was the closest to my sighting a tiger in the wild, if that was any consolation!
Ranthambhore looked different. We had driven over in the morning from Delhi. A road rage delayed us en route, and by the time we reached Sawai Madhopur it was late afternoon. We’re tired and exhausted from the journey. After a quick bite, taking advantage of the delayed sunset in western India, we headed into the TR aimlessly, more to feel the Reserve than anything else. Sighting tigers was the furthest thing from our minds. But, as luck would have it, within minutes of taking the jungle path, the wireless sets were abuzz with news – a tiger has been spotted!
We raced towards the Sultanpur Forest Chowki. And there she sat, smack on the road, impeding the passageway, telling us as if we’re the interlopers in her den and how dare we cross her path! It was beguilingly surveying the landscape, taking us too in her sweep as we stopped some 20-25 feet short of her! Her fully grown son wasn’t too far out – at the edge of the water body close by. I had never seen a tiger in the wild. And this mother-son duo was so effusive and generous in presenting themselves to my parched, starved eyes! It would be 20-25 minutes before they thought enough was enough, as they languidly got up to their feet and strode out majestically off our vision to merge in the dusky darkness of the forest.
No, it wasn’t Machhli, the iconic tigress of Ranthambhore, who galvanised the regeneration of tiger population in the reserve by raising eleven cubs in four litters between 2000 and 2007. She was still alive; she died only in August 2016, and this was April 2014 – more than two years before her passing. But this was a period of strife for her when, turfed out by one of her daughters, she had moved out of the habitat she lived all her life. It took the forest staff about a month to locate her. Machhli was much-photographed; some say the most-photographed tigress in the world. She featured in several wildlife documentaries – a 50-minute documentary Tiger Queen on the National Geographic and Animal Planet channels, and as the Queen of Tigers: Natural World Special in the BBC’s Natural World streamed in 2012 .
Every time we visited a tiger reserve and failed to sight a tiger, I would tease SP that for all the hype and hoopla they created about tigers and increase in their numbers, the reality is that there are no tigers in India! SP is the kindliest of men, gentle of demeanour, always cool and collected. He will invariably respond with his beatific smile; and when the laughter had died down, he would often relate his own dalliance with tigers. At times he’ll take out his camera (incidentally he’s an excellent photographer, a hobby he’s developed over the years and perfected with wildlife cameos) and show me his shots. Once I remember he played out his video recording of a tiger in Ranthambhore. It had presented itself before SP, whispering to him as though, “Wild Boy, drink me to your camera’s content, here I come and sit for your shutterbug feast! Don’t you any more call it an unrequited reciprocity!” SP had had his fill. So now I got back to the guesthouse and texted SP: There are three tigers in India: one half each at Sunderbans and Kaziranga, two in Ranthambhore near the Sultanpur Forest Chowki, one on the road, the other near the water body!
A couple of months later, on my first visit to Kanha, we spotted a tiger at his gaur kill site for a short while. But it walked away as soon as it saw us come closer. Gaur, or Indian bison, is far bigger in size and weight than a tiger. It is not often that a gaur falls prey to a tiger. Again it was well past six in the evening and dusk was falling in early summer. We sat stock-still, in the Gypsy a little away from the half-eaten gaur buzzing with flies – and waited patiently, very patiently, quietly (hoping our quietness will impress and pay off!), for the tiger to return. But it didn’t, it sensed intrusion in its territory – who these interlopers are to barge in here unannounced, he would’ve told himself, to my territory? In the quickening nightfall of the sal forest, we drove off, disappointed.
In Pench Tiger Reserve the experience was quite another, though. And very unique. The tigress seemed to repose outsized faith on Dr. Akhilesh Misra, the veterinary doctor, and despite being around with her grown cubs who gamboled and scampered about in the thick undergrowth, the mother sat immobile and unflappable, as if nothing was the matter, as we came closer to her on elephant backs. We took a long, lasting look – her eyes gleaming but betraying not the tiniest trace of menace – as the elephant parked itself about ten feet off her. “She’s comfortable, she’s stable, there’s nothing to worry about,” reassured Dr. Misra repeatedly. “She knows I’m around, and no harm can come her way or her cubs!” To me, this was surreal.
Dr Misra is a wildlife buff. Only the evening before, sitting by the fireplace in peak winter cold surrounded by dense forest, when only our words hummed and punctured the high-decibel stillness enveloping us, he had retailed us his love for the wild and wildlife, and how he had given up his high paying corporate job in the early 90s to follow his heart and indulge his passion. He took up a government assignment – away from the entwined urban comfort and hubbub that complements life, something that he and his family had gotten used to – on a measly salary in the midst of wilderness to live with the wild-lifers and tend to the injured, the orphans, and the aged! The salary hit he had taken to stay poor but stay close to nature coupled with the vagaries and unconscionable ways of wild vastness didn’t bother him one whit.
His love for the wild aside, for us naive and goggle-eyed, the boundless faith this wild tigress placed on him, was simply beyond belief. To this day, when my mind occasionally travels back to that day’s morning safari, the touching faith of a wild carnivore sitting atop the putative wild food-heap – and we were desserts on offer! – seems uncanny. I sure wouldn’t have believed anyone’s words if I hadn’t experienced it.
The writer, Sudhansu Mohanty, is an acclaimed author and, among other assignments, also worked as Additional Secretary & Financial Adviser to the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change.
This article is based on his experiences during this stint, and is the third installment in his 7-part Sunday Feature series about Tiger Reserves.
Tweet at Sudhansu: @MohantyMohanti
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