In search of a tiger: Wildlife encounters and the humbling, raw grandeur of nature
Madhya Pradesh boasts of many tiger reserve forests and the three on our itinerary were at Pench, Bandhavgarh and Panna.
'Tiger show', as it is called in wildlife tourism, is a diluted version of the experience of seeing the tiger in the wild.
Wildlife encounters are humbling for they display the simple, raw grandeur of nature.
'I was trembling as I dismounted the elephant to get back into the jeep, such was the splendour of the tiger.'
The tiger was agitated and snarled menacingly at the four of us perched on an elephant. 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 wildlife tourists like us coming in groups of four on elephants. Good business for the mahouts, disrupted sleep time 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 wildlife tourism, is a diluted version of the experience of seeing the tiger in the wild, and clearly is not sensitive to the needs of the tiger. In a wildlife sanctuary such as Bandhavgarh, the forest should be the tiger’s castle and he may not be disturbed willy nilly. In a display of good sense and simple decency to fellow creatures, tiger show is now banned in Bandhavgarh. But, until a few years ago this was eagerly consumed by tourists wanting to be there, do that, including my family, at the behest of a rather persistent student of mine.
Tiger show was never for the connoisseur but for the lay wildlife enthusiast. The mahouts would set off early in the morning on their elephants to try to spot any tigers. If they did, word went out to the forest rangers or guides who congregated with their respective tourist customers on a designated spot in the forest. The tourists would then be taken on elephants to the spot where the tiger was — 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 timers to miss out on these.
I just couldn’t get these wildlife 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 initiated 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 enthusiasm. “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?” cried Akhil. If the monkey has seen a tiger in the vicinity, it will not be a normal cry – that is the point of the question, I later learn.
So, we saw tiger 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. 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. As we drove through the forest, we saw a bird caught in a spider web. It was a paradise flycatcher! A lovely, if slightly puzzling, name. And the flycatcher was caught in a spider web – what irony this. Many jeeps stopped, the tourists clicked away at the hapless bird — only man in 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 asked fearing a contemptuous dismissal. The bird was going to die for no reason – the spider was not going to eat her! Akhil warned 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 wildlife hit me. It was a common peacock with his feathers downsized (happens during the monsoons, informed my guide) which was roaming among some tall grass. It was so beautiful – just the experience of seeing it like that. The peacock was hanging out on his own turf and there was something majestic about that. Wildlife encounters are humbling for they display the simple, raw grandeur of nature. Madhya Pradesh calls us for this reason if for no other.
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