In that incredible silence, I could hear the beats. Thud! Thud! Thud! My heart beat faster and faster, it pumped gallons of blood at great pace down my circulatory system. I could feel the rush of adrenaline on my cheeks – flushed and heated.
I was on my first tiger safari at Kanha Tiger Reserve in India. There was expectancy in the air as eyes preened into the dense thickets for a glimpse of the elusive beast. We sat huddled together to save ourselves from the merciless blast of chill winds that hit us at breakneck speed as the jeep rolled down the dusty jungle road. It was a cold winter morning and me along with my family were in the park to see the tiger.
That eventful day, I had my first tiger sighting in the wild. I was hooked! Gone was the fear of an encounter with a gigantic and ferocious beast. The tiger, depicted as monstrous by folklore and myth, was as I discovered the most beautiful and graceful creature I had ever seen. No wonder it is the most talked about and discussed animal in the world. Ironically, the animal’s plight has made it even more popular. Due to destruction of its habitat and indiscriminate poaching, it is now on the verge of extinction.
The tiger populations all over the world, especially in India - which holds the largest population - is precariously looming towards a sad finish. The present population is somewhere under two thousand, shamefully lower than at the turn of the 20th century when there were forty thousand. The Indian race is referred to as the Bengal tiger and its scientific nomenclature is Panthera tigris tigris.
My first tiger sighting turned me into a tiger addict and later into a freelance naturalist guide. I do not like anything better than trekking tigers in the wilderness. The best places to see tigers are in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and of late, Pench Tiger Reserve in Central India. All three preserves are centrally located from Jabalpur, my home town – at an equidistance of about 170 kilometers. Another reserve that suits the bag is the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in the state of Rajasthan.
The Wildlife Protection Act was passed in the year 1972 in India. Hunting any form of wildlife, including the tiger, was banned. Subsequently, Project Tiger was launched in the year 1973 to conserve tigers and their habitats. Proper research and habitats study brought the endangered animal more in focus. The image of the animal as a marauder and killer began to diminish. The tiger then started to appear as a natural and most important element of the eco system on which humans depend for their own subsistence.
I visited Kanha and Bandhavgarh after the implementation of Project Tiger, whence these reserves were frequented only by researchers, photographers and individuals with a keen interest in wildlife. On subsequent visits, I noticed a marked improvement in the habitat, increase in tiger numbers and the prey base. I also saw an increase in the number of visitors to the parks.
Although there are lots of tiger reserves in India now with amazing bio diversity of flora and fauna, none come close to Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench and Ranthambhore in terms of tiger sightings. Sariska was one such tiger reserve too, but there are no tigers now thanks to indiscriminate poaching and carelessness of the officials in charge. Another budding destination is the Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttaranchal state.
The reasons for these parks being famous for tiger safaris are high density of tigers vis-a-vis area and forest habitats that hold grassland in between where their visibility is high. Tourism has always been given high priority in these parks; the staff is well trained in trekking tigers. The tiger show almost guarantees a tiger sighting. The elephant patrol treks the tigers almost every day and cordons the animal between them. The tourists are then given a ride on the elephant’s back and taken to the spot where the tiger or tigress is contained by the ring of elephants.
Tiger tracking is a tough job; lots of experience is required. The telltale signs of a tiger in a vicinity are:
• Alarm cries of herbivores and some birds who give a typical distress call upon sighting, hearing or scenting a tiger.
• Pug marks or scat on the jungle roads and near waterholes. Expertise is required to make out the freshness of the tigers pugmarks, which tells of a tiger in vicinity or a tiger gone by.
• Wetting on trees of tiger urine sprays and scratch marks on the barks. Though humans cannot smell pheromones, the wetness does inform of a tiger’s passage.
• Tiger calls at times are barely audible, but they often roar or give a mating call which is a sure sign of their presence in a vicinity. One has to make out the direction and distance of the call and wait for the king to appear.
• Understanding the habitat. Tigers must drink and cannot bear heat. Hence they are often seen near water holes, small lakes and even puddles in the forest.
• Eye of the deer and other mammals. These animals gaze intently in the direction the big cat is, following their gaze patiently often results in a tiger sighting.
• A rustle in a bush or grass.
Most of these signs often result in a leopard being sighted, though their calls are different. The leopard is more difficult to see and impossible to track. I once heard a leopard call which resembles a saw in action on a hard wood – Khggh! Khggh!. I tracked the animal down more than a kilometer away.
Coming back to tigers. My most memorable sighting of a young male tiger was at Kanha National Park one early morning when we stopped to examine tiger spoor. The spoor was a day old, but we waited to hear an alarm cry or some audible signal from the tiger itself. I do this as a normal practice every few kilometers away and at water holes and grasslands. For a long time the jungle was silent, as silent as it could be. Just when we were about to leave, I heard a faint roar from a distance. In an instant the jungle came out live with the cacophony of alarm cries of the deer and monkeys around.
"Wait!" I ordered the driver with a baited breadth. "There is a tiger around," I informed him and my guests from UK. The tiger kept on calling intermittently. When the calls became louder we became sure that it was moving towards the jungle road – in our direction. Excitement increased palpably. After patiently waiting for the tiger to emerge from a ravine, it headed straight toward us. He had stopped roaring now and began walking at a leisurely pace on the road a short distance away from us. He kept on walking the road straight ahead of us as if showing us the way. The animal is amazing, it went for more than a kilometer and never even looked at us; such was its level of confidence. The tiger was young and inexperienced, out to carve its territory and find a female at the same time. After a time it moved into the forest edge, scratched the barks and then sprayed urine on some trees. It kept up with its activities giving enough time for my guests to film as much as they could of him. The tiger then moved deep into the forest and began roaring again.
The rest of the days were never the same for my guests; they were busy soaking up the awesome spectacle. We did see more, but none like this one. Later on in the next trip, I spotted six tigers in two days – the most rewarding moment of my life since I had promised my guest I would show him a tiger. He had mailed me earlier, his desire to see the tiger before he left for his heavenly abode. I wish him long life for many more tiger tours to India.
It is said of the tiger that you see him only if he wishes to be seen. You may pass a hundred times from a track where a tiger is sitting still, only a few feet away in the forest and may not sight him. The animal can sit still for hours, like a stone in its habitat, absolutely camouflaged. The camouflage which is as a result of black stripes on an orange yellow body works well in the forest habitats where tigers live – an evolutionary wonder.
Once I missed a tiger that was only few feet away from me. I was at Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. There was a tiger pair amidst grassland, Chur bahera. I and my German photographer guest rode to the spot on an elephant’s back. We could see the tigress, but not the male, crouching low in the grass. We could hear his warning growls. The elephant went into complicated maneuvers here and there, though he kept at a safe distance, to no avail. The tiger tested our patience for more than an hour. Eventually we had to leave without spotting him; the sun was setting, time to go. Tiger safaris end once the sun sets, usually six o’clock.
Tiger tourism is burgeoning in tiger reserves. Awareness is on the rise about the tiger and its plight. The tiger in its natural surrounding is one of the most charismatic and enchanting animal on this planet. The sight of one in its natural habitat is a treat to the eyes, generates ecstasy, awe and a memory for all time.
The magnificent tiger is on the verge of extinction. Unless dedicated and timely efforts are made, the next generation will see it only in zoos. The wild tiger in its pristine surroundings would survive only in photographs and paintings.