A writer recounts his doomed attempt to photograph a Bengal tiger in India’s Jim Corbett National Park.
While my friend and I were merrily interning at an NGO in the jungles of Corbett National Park, one of India’s foremost tiger reserves, we were accosted by a bitter truth: regardless of our lodging’s proximity to the jungle, our chances of spotting a tiger prowling about in periphery were next to nil.
In the three and a half weeks we’d spent there, the jungles had delighted us thoroughly by letting us in on an array of sights, but the tiger was the only true symbol of success that could be paraded around to friends and family.
The only remedy to this fix was to enter the park as a tourist, stay over for a night, pretend as if every other creature had ceased to exist, and prise the tiger out of his haunts for a virtual jamboree staged on the flimsy walls of social media. To stack the odds in our favour, we roped in another pair of eyes to aid us in our endeavor.
Hailing from the arid state of Rajasthan, our friend had seen many a big cat in Ranthambore National Park, another one of India’s premier tiger reserves, also of global renown (and famously visited by President Clinton in the year 2000). He was, therefore, well-trained in the dark arts of being completely oblivious to creatures that didn’t sport any stripes.
As soon as we sped through the gates, I was awestruck by the vast swathes of sal trees dominating the park’s undulating profile. After barely half an hour of driving came the sounds we’d been endlessly straining our ears for—the calls of a distressed deer, advertising the presence of a predator. The guttural barks of panic were made by a muntjac—also known as a barking deer.
The jungle around us was as thick as a wall, impenetrable to sight and insular to sound. The calls persisted; our hopes rose manifold. We were sure a predator was in the vicinity—out of sight, but on the prowl.
Then the jungle issued the surest of all indications: a sharp crackling in the undergrowth. The thick vegetation around us had conspired to keep a lid on the animal’s identity. All we could do was to hope for it to break cover. But the sounds ceased as suddenly as they began, just as they were beginning to inch closer. Disappointed, but far from being dejected, we drove on, knowing that plenty of time remained for tiger sightings. The better part of the day lay ahead of us.
Resuming our search in the wake of a quick lunch, we kept our eyes peeled for any signs of the predator. While rounding a bend through a patch of tightly-clumped undergrowth, a muntjac came to our aid, once again, by venting its distress in high-pitched, dog-like barks of alarm. But this wasn’t the only similarity to the morning’s happenings. Here too, the muntjac lay obscured in sea of matted foliage, and of the predator there was not the slightest sign. However, our hopes had flared and were fanned even further by the river’s proximity to our current whereabouts. The cat may be headed for a drink, we excitedly thought.
Sadly our hopes, along with the calls, died thereafter. One couldn’t blame us for being so naïve as to trust a highly unreliable jungle informant; both times the deer had issued its alarms with such a resonating degree of conviction and alarming urgency that I couldn’t help but not take them for their word.
The way back to our forest lodge was painfully placid, save the antics of a mahout chastening his errant elephant. The mahout appeared to be gesturing at us, but we drove on, paying no special heed to whatever he had to say.
Having finally called it a day, we lolled about the campus, letting loose our preoccupations with the cat. But zapping us out of our torpidity were a volley of alarm calls resonating from the grasslands below. This time their reliability wasn’t suspect; voicing them in succession was a herd of spotted deer, not the notoriously nervy muntjac.
The remnants of daylight proved invaluable in discerning the cheetal’s shadowy frame in the dying moments of dusk. To my utter astonishment, all of them gazed fixedly at the same spot we’d driven past a while ago. Had we missed the cat by a whisker?
Half an hour later came the answer, painfully hammered home: the mahout was not mindlessly gesticulating, but animatedly pointing out the whereabouts of a tiger; neither was the elephant being errant. It was acting edgy in the presence of the feline. We had squandered an easy sighting.
With the approach of night came the commanding chorus of the cicadas, but that meant little to us; waking up early meant hitting the bed equally early. “Nothing wrong with sacrificing a pawn for the king,” I thought as the untiring cicadas lulled me to sleep.
A misty morning greeted us the next day, reducing precious visibility, but we pressed on with unflinching resolve and soon came across another kind of predator: a jackal, or rather a pair of jackals. Their winter coat glistened in the early morning light as they gamboled about the safari-track with gay abandon, utterly unflustered by our presence. Their playful bouts were a picture of pounding energy and a supremely refreshing sight for our ebbing morale.
We spent the rest of the morning atop a watch tower, waiting for signs of the cat, hoping that alarm calls from the neighboring grasslands would give away its location, but not a leaf stirred. However, as the clock ticked, our blinkered focus began to wane, and just as we began to aimlessly look around, we found ourselves on the brink of a heart-thumping spectacle.
A herd of elephants had sauntered onto the riverbed with the intention of fording the river. In their midst lay a bumbling calf. Now the oncoming stretch of the river wasn’t a placid section by any measure. I knew the adults would negotiate it with relative ease; it was the baby I was worried about.
The elephants, taking turns, began to ease their way into the river. I watched with bated breath as the calf took its first baby steps, timidly trudging into the currents, losing a little more height with every foothold. Before I knew it, he was out of sight! The seconds passed like minutes, and the calf showed no signs of resurfacing; just as I began to fear the worst, the baby elephant emerged out of the depths like a marine monster with its trunk pointed heavenwards in a desperate bid for breath.
The thrills had abated, and the jungle seemed to have little else to offer. The birds were out in droves, but we were loathe to bat an eyelid towards any avian riches. Then arrived a rude awakening. One of the birds we dismissively ticked off as a shrike, a common grassland species, turned out to be a Collared falconet, a highly prized rarity of a raptor. We finally began to wake up to the fact that we may have been doing ourselves a massive disservice by disregarding the bevy of smaller but equally beguiling creatures sharing the tiger’s kingdom.
We had all learnt our lesson the hard way. While observing a parakeet dart over my head with uncharacteristic glee, I told myself I would never look through these little joys of the jungle ever again. Precisely one moment later, on our final approach to the exit, I asked the driver to brake to a halt and wait to allow us to look around in one last, futile attempt to spot the cat before our time ran dry. “Haven’t you learnt anything?” my friend asked.
“Yes I have,” I replied, “and for that I’d love to thank the cat in person.”