Published in Wanderlust

THE WONDERFUL THING ABOUT TIGERS

Corbett National Park, India

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It was almost as if the tiger had flicked a switch in the forest. One moment it was quiet and calm – the trees swathed in webs of early morning mist – the next, it was charged with tension. Gomati had heard the distant alarm calls – the shrill snort of a spotted deer, the indignant bark of a langur monkey – and her mood suddenly changed. She blasted a trunkful of dust up between her front legs, then shook her head so vigorously that I had to clutch the padded saddle to keep my balance. Gomati’s mahout, sitting astride her neck, issued a terse reprimand, then urged the elephant into the tangled chaos of the forest. 

There was no path. Gomati made her own. Soon the air was infused with the pungent aroma of crushed herbs and freshly bled sap. Spiders and beetles drizzled from shaken trees; our clothing became wet with dew and stained by moss and lichen. We sounded like a forest fire – crackling, snapping, trailblazing. But through all the noise came a single piercing cry. Gomati stopped and we heard it again – the telltale alarm call of a spotted deer.

Manoj Sharma, my guide, leaned towards me. “When the tiger moves, the deer calls,” he murmured. “We must be close.” I nodded slowly, my eyes chasing around the shadows of the forest. Sunlight sparked through chinks in the canopy, but the understorey was still a diffuse patchwork of muted greens and shadows-within-shadows – the perfect foil for tiger stripes. Apart from an occasional rumble from Gomati’s stomach, the forest was silent.  No one spoke or moved.

A minute passed, perhaps two. Then we heard a woodpecker hammering  against a dead tree. I glanced at Manoj, but he shook his head. The woodpecker was not one our forest spies. “Scimitar babbler, laughing thrush, green magpie.” Manoj’s voice was barely a whisper. “They will tell you if a tiger is near.” So we waited. And we listened.

Gradually, the tension slipped from our bodies. The woodpecker stopped drumming and Gomati grabbed a branch and stuffed it into her mouth. I reached forward to stroke the elephant’s neck. There was a soft patch, free of bristles, behind her ear. 

Over 1,300 sq km of forest and grassland tucked into the Himalayan foothills, Corbett National Park is home to about 140 tigers – but they are shy and elusive. “People have been coming here for years and never seen a tiger,” Manoj had told me earlier. To expect to see one on my first elephant ride in Corbett was perhaps asking too much. Still, I was happy enough tickling Gomati behind the ear. And at that moment, none of us realised just how close the tigress – or her cubs – really were.

They say tigers make the orchestra of the jungle play and, suddenly, spotted deer began whistling to our left, while langur, babblers and others pitched in with well-rehearsed repertoire of grunts and chatters. 

Guided by the commotion, Gomati waded, once more, into the undergrowth. After 50 m or so, the alarm calls ceased, but now Gomati’s trunk was raised and she began to hesitate. The mahout dug his heels in, but she shuffled to a halt. For the first time that morning, the elephant let out a deep, resonating rumble. Clearly, Gomati was going no further.

Moments later we saw why. Less than a dozen metres ahead, the vegetation thrashed from side to side as three tigers burst from cover. The two cubs kept low to the ground, melting into the forest like wisps of smoke. But the tigress paused to glance over her shoulder. For a second or two, she stared straight at us – her eyes locked on ours with the intense scrutiny of a supreme predator. Then she turned and vanished.

It was the briefest of encounters – an exchange of glances that jolted the senses; seared the mind. “You are very lucky,” Manoj told me as Gomati trundled back to the rest house. “Not one tiger, but three!” Somehow, though, numbers seemed irrelevant. It wasn’t the glimpse of the tigers that had moved me, so much as the supercharged atmosphere of their native forest stronghold. Spotting the tigers had merely reaffirmed their beauty; tracking them had revealed their spirit.

Later, during our afternoon elephant ride, we heard and saw nothing – no alarm calls pulsing through the forest, no pug marks on the sandy tracks that led from the rest house. The following dawn, Manoj took me out in a jeep to explore a wider a area of the reserve. But again, no tigers. The forest seemed to be guarding their whereabouts; a silent reminder of their secrecy and rarity.

Leaving the forest, we drove out on to the floodplain of the Ramganga River where tendrils of mist squirmed in the gathering heat of mid-morning. A large herd of spotted deer, perhaps 200-strong, grazed peacefully, while families of wild boar snuffled amongst them. It was a scene more reminiscent of Africa – a tawny grassland peppered with game; vultures wheeling overhead; a pair of jackals on the lookout for an easy meal. There were even wild elephants, far across the plain, looking for all the world like giant river boulders, except for the occasional puff of dust that rose above them.

 

Quietly and methodically, like a holy man reciting a mantra, Manoj totted up a list of nearly 100 bird species that he had either seen or heard that morning. A huge variety were concentrated around a lake at the heart of the reserve. Herons tip-toed around basking gharial crocodiles, while pied kingfishers hovered overhead.

If anything, my next destination should have provided an even greater avian spectacle. Travelling overnight on the sleeper train to Agra, I hired a car and driver to take me the short distance to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary – a former royal hunting estate. During the breeding season, Bharatpur is usually throbbing with painted storks, ducks, pelicans and other waterbirds, but the monsoon had failed and the network of lagoons had all but dried up.

The Rajasthan countryside on the drive between Bharatpur and Ranthambhore was equally arid. Cattle-drawn ploughs struggled through the hard-baked soil, while women, balancing copper colloshes on their heads, queued at every village water pump.

Ranthambhore had not escaped the drought either. In the 300 sq km national park (at the core of the tiger reserve), the lakes were dry and the dhok forest – usually lush after a monsoon soaking – was scantily clad with brittle, golden leaves.

There are no elephant-back safaris in Ranthambhore. Instead, a controlled number of vehicles is granted access to specific routes on the park’s 300-km network of tracks. We had a wonderful encounter with a lolloping sloth bear, glimpsed a rare wild dog and witnessed sambar deer stags lock antlers in a rutting contest. On my fifth, and final, drive I also saw a tiger – lying up in the shade of a narrow gully.

Ultimately, however, the most thrilling tiger encounter of my safari was not actually an encounter at all. It took place several days earlier when Manoj and I were leaving Corbett National Park. It was a quiet morning. The sal forest had shrugged off its blanket of morning mist and Manoj was happily scanning the trees for tawny fish owls.

When a jeep approached us from the opposite direction, we paused to chat to the driver, but he hadn’t seen the owls either – so we headed on towards the park gates. A short distance further, Manoj suddenly stiffened and pointed to the dirt track ahead. “Tigers.”

With one word, he transformed our laid-back birding ramble into an edge-of-seat drama. There, clearly imprinted over the tyre marks of the jeep we had just passed, were the pug marks of a tigress and her three young cubs. Less than five minutes had elapsed since we saw the other vehicle and, in that time, the cats must have emerged from the forest, strolled along the road a short distance and disappeared into the trees again.

We took a long, hard look around us. A rustle of leaves spun our heads, but it was just a pheasant scrabbling about on the forest floor. Manoj thought he heard the alarm call of a babbler, but whatever it was stopped almost immediately. He signalled to our driver to reverse up the track. A hundred metres beyond a sharp bend, we found more tiger prints – this time overlaying our own tyre tracks! Again, we stopped and listened. Somewhere, very close, a family of tigers was probably doing the same.

We never did see them. And, yet, it felt as though we had been directly interacting – pitting our wits and senses against each other. It had been an exhilarating experience – a moment of heightened awareness that stirred some primordial human instinct; part fear, part respect. I had discovered how it feels to fall under the spell of the tiger.