WILD AND FREE
On International Tiger Day, an annual celebration to raise awareness for tiger conservation, AMRITA PRASAD speaks to individuals who share their exhilarating and hair raising tiger tales
The euphoric thrill when you see the big cat in the wild is unparalleled. The effort that you put in — wake up early, queue up at the park entrance to take the safari, and then wait endlessly next to a watering hole or after hearing an alarm call — is worth it when you have the majestic sighting. At the end of it, you are left with beautiful memories and interesting anecdotes. Wildlife enthusiasts narrate some stories that may get you ready for a safari.
HAPPY IN ITS OWN SPACE
On our very first safari in Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, we saw a tiger even before we entered the park gates, in the early morning hours. He was roaming outside in the bushes along the roadside. Our naturalist, Ram, stopped the vehicle and pointed towards the bushes. It’s really commendable how the naturalists spot animals in deep bushes and people like us take so long to even see what they spot. It took us minutes to figure out that there was an animal there. Just then the tiger started moving and we caught a glimpse of the magnificent cat.
Tiger sighting is a rare phenomenon, even after multiple trips you may not be lucky. But we had luck on our side. The first sighting was totally unexpected and a little scary. The locals are used to seeing tigers roaming outside the park but we aren’t.
When I first saw the tiger, my first thought was: ‘What a beautiful animal it is!” The magnificent black stripes contrasted with yellow and white, the fierce look and the enormous size — I was in awe! Moreover, these animals look so much better — healthier, stronger and more relaxed — when you see them in their natural habitat as opposed to when you see them in zoos.
We took five safaris during our stay in Bandhavgarh and spotted tigers in four of the trips.
— Urvi Bheda, fashion retailer and wildlife enthusiast, Pune
Mumma, I want to see a tiger. A big tiger. I’ll take medicines and I’ll be fine. Let’s go to Tadoba!” exclaimed Armin, my four-year-old son in the hospital who was suffering from high fever on our way to Tadoba and this motivated us (my husband and I) to go ahead with our trip.
Earlier, my husband had told me, ‘Keep your eyes wide open, you never know when you can see a tiger — it can be anywhere in the surroundings or even sitting in the middle of the road. I got goosebumps when I learnt that one of the tigers had come till the entrance gate of our resort the night before.
Next morning, we headed to the jungle, all excited to see the big cat. Our driver was all set to take us to Moharli gate where all the vehicles wait to enter the jungle after getting clearance from the authorities. The thrill started from there. Our safari started at 6 am sharp and since we had a core safari, it allowed our vehicle to go deeper into the dense jungle.
Our driver took us to the spot where some of the visitors had had a sighting the evening before. But even after a two-hour wait we had no luck. Our driver Bapu and our guide Santosh didn’t lose hope though. Bapu started driving the vehicle fast as we were left with only 45 minutes of our ride. He drove from the hillside to a lakeside. There was no other vehicle behind or ahead of us. It was almost 8.45 am now and quite sunny but cold. We thought we would have to leave the park without seeing the majestic cat. But Armin’s hopes were alive.
As soon as we reached the lakeside spot, Bapu slowed down the vehicle and within five minutes, we sighted a big male tiger descending from the hills. He crossed the road in front of us and headed towards the lake to drink water and settled closeby. All this happened just 3-4 ft away from our vehicle. The tiger, who is popularly known as Matkasur, was huge and so handsome! He looked at us, gave us a nice opportunity to take some great shots and then disappeared in the woods again.
My son was so happy that he started jumping in the vehicle and all his fever and weakness was gone.
Since then we have taken 15 safaris till today but as they say, ‘the first impression is the last impression.’
— Pallavi Vaidya, interior designer, Pune
We were on a trek to Lake Roopkund in the Garhwal Himalayas. On the third day of our trek, we started from Wan village and headed for Gharoli Patal. After we entered the jungle, we could hear the langurs’ alarm calls and we could notice a chaos among them. We were just two of us, and our porter had stayed back in Wan to start a little later to give us lead time to move ahead.
Though alarmed by the calls, we still continued and took a turn to start walking and there it was — a huge tiger or may be a tigress — on our track. It was just 25-30 feet from us and stood up on seeing us. Before this, I had seen a tiger only in the zoo (which was about 18-19 years ago). Our legs started trembling and our walking sticks fell off from our hands. I had a hunter’s knife tied on my waist belt and my cameras hanging from my neck — but who had the courage and senses to pick any of these and shoot or show the tiger the knife.
The langur calls got louder and scared us even more. I felt as though it was the last few moments of my life. But after a few seconds, good sense prevailed and I asked my friend to stand still and do nothing foolish.
There was fresh blood on the tiger’s face which indicated that s/he might have finished a meal and since a wild animal never attacks until provoked or hungry, I was somewhat sure that we will survive this close encounter. And that’s what happened. After 2-3 minutes of eye contact and also sensing no movement from us, the tiger slowly walked away into the bushes.
We both collapsed on the ground and lay there for half an hour till our porter arrived and helped us get back on our feet. Later, he informed that the tiger had made a kill and was protecting it.
The incident has changed my view towards animals and has made me a greater addict of wildlife.
— Pradeep Chamaria, travel writer and photographer, New Delhi
MOTHER AND CUBS
I had what you would call beginner’s luck. It was evening, and it was our last safari at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. I was already happy sighting a tiger in one of my earlier rides, but I was greedy for more. Little did I know that my favourite graduation gift would come in the form of a tigress and her cubs. We were in one of the many vehicles chasing them after having heard a roar and all of a sudden, she sprang a surprise by emerging with her three cubs from the dust ahead of us. We reversed to give them space, and she immediately walked ahead of her cubs as a protective mother would. Soon enough they separated, with one cub plonking himself near the vehicles and what followed next were incessant camera clicks. Once the mother went into the bushes over a cliff, we decided to make our exit.
No sooner did we reverse than we saw a herd of deer running frantically and one of them attempting to jump safely from the cliff to the ground. I say attempting because we immediately saw a huge orange and black figure jump in front of us and catch the prey. Shell shocked, we stayed put, watching the tigress catch her breath whilst holding on to her prey in a nearby bush. She finally walked to a tree, called out to her babies (making sure that one did not begin eating without the others), and then the happy family walked away, not realising the unforgettable moment they had created for everyone out there.
— Sanjukta Nair, student, Mumbai
What a beast it was! Enormous in size and the roar she let out had an echo in the silence of the wild at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra. Maya, the tigress, was out for hunting and the intensity of her roar left us all in awe. It was an early winter morning and we were on a safari at the park. Looking at Maya led to a mixed feeling of both wonder and fear in us.
Maya ran behind a deer but she couldn’t get her kill. The roar got louder because she was disappointed, and went to the nearest water body to quench her thirst. Alarmed by her presence, the deer and Barasinghas around the watering hole made a quick escape.
It’s amazing to see how animals and birds communicate with each other. They send across alarm calls when the tiger is out hunting. The expert guides also interpret the calls and try to figure out the location of the tiger, making the sighting more interesting.
On the other side of the forest, we had a sighting of another enormous, full grown tigress, Jharni. She walked across the road to go to her cubs and sat near the water body protecting the little ones.
Maya and Jharni have made an indelible impression on our mind, but the one thing that we, as visitors, must always keep in mind is that the jungle is their home and we must respect their space.
— Hirak Mukherjee, entrepreneur, Asansol