From a wildlife lover's diary
Tourists in the forests of India have to satisfy themselves with the demarcated commercial zone, unless of course, they have the fortune of being the privileged guests of some forest officer or conservator. The touristy trails are mainly on the 'main roads' where an hour-long vehicle ride allows a peek into the distant shrubs and overgrowth for signs of life.
In the elephant sanctuary of Mudumalai forests of Tamil Nadu, even this trip had its moments. Though we did not really see much, apart from the more populous chitals, langurs, peacocks, and bisons, the forest hummed with expectations. So, obviously the next thing to do was to take the early morning elephant-ride that would take us further into the forests, away from man-made trails.
Nature trail on elephant-back
Bama, the female elephant who was to be our vehicle for the morning was a veteran who had seen it all. Bama had a mahout, a short chap named Chandran, and an attendant also called Chandran. Two Chandrans, Bama, me and my husband were Bama's load for the forest venture. Bama's gait was slow and steady and we rocked gently on our saddle.
As the morning progressed ever so slowly, so did we, Bama's every step taking us into denser thickets. Dry lantana bushes stretched as far as the eye could see. The shrubs formed such an entangled web that even if there were animals right under our feet we would have missed them. Babblers, bulbuls, and parrots were fleeting about in the trees and I couldn't help wondering how different they appeared (not in appearance, but in my perception) to the birds of same species found in countryside amidst civilization.
There is something very reassuring about a morning. We felt fresh and energetic, ready to take on the world on Bama's back. Though we were amidst familiar elements of nature our hopes were pinned on the big game - the elusive tiger, the indisputable lord of the forest. Chandran sounded a bit discouraging when he said that he himself had spotted a tiger or a panther only 2 - 3 times in a month. Being nocturnal and truly solitary, they shy of human contact - a nuisance for them.
Tiger, tiger burning bright…
We settled comfortably, enjoying the elements of nature, chatting in our city-slick manner with the mahouts. Just as we were getting lulled by the perceived joy-ride, Chandran whispered hoarsely, softly: "Tiger, tigerï¿½" ('burning bright', I recited absent-mindedly from William Blake's famous verse, before I grasped the import of his words!). Right on the frail trail ahead of us, at a distance of 200 metres, a tiger stood still, his reverie broken, sizing up the approaching Bama with her curious back-load. "Fantastic," I exclaimed loudly, and immediately held my breath as my words echoed loudly in the exaggerated silence that befell upon us. This was no documentary visual on Discovery channel, but a true flesh-and-blood tiger in the wild!
It was a moment of reckoning - a moment of sheer trepidation and exhilaration. The forest fell silent, time stood still. Bama and the tiger, both females stood facing each other - but, only for a brief instant. The next moment, the canopy of trees and the skies above echoed with the hoops of the monkeys warning their forest friends of impending danger. That truly underscored the presence of this truly magnificent beast that evokes tremendous awe.
Hide-and-seek with the cat
A king-size animal, trifle puffy with age and a fading coat - due to age, resumed walking towards us and disappeared in the bushes beneath Bama's bulk, right under our noses. In a flash it dawned upon us why the forests throbbing with wildlife seemed so silent and barren. The trees and shrubs, tall grass and bushes have a way of engulfing even the largest of animal within its fold. Add to that, stealth, the prime weapon of any wild cat - and you have a Houdini magician playing a disappearing act under your fixed gaze. Chandrans were so excited, they kept repeating in their broken English: "very very lucky… very rare…" And charged with a new-found enthusiasm, they egged Bama right onto the bushes which had embraced the tiger beneath them, much to our consternation.
Bama trampled the bushes endlessly, with our hearts in our mouths we just gave in to the machinations of our elephant and mahouts, with some consolation in the knowledge that they knew best. And there again, away from us through the other end of the thicket emerged the apparition, sniffing here and there, visibly hungry - seemingly mindless of us. We could see her growl soundlessly, her jaws dropping open in a menacing manner. Once again, she turned ever so slowly and looked at me right in the face. For an instant we looked into each other's eyes and then I averted my gaze not wanting to inadvertently give confrontational vibes.
Second time lucky
Chandran speculated: "This is an old female. She has not found prey the whole night and is very hungry. If she had come across a human-being on foot here, rest assured she would have made a feast out of him, as he would have been easy prey." This send shivers down our spines. Just being a few feet above ground gave us so much advantage. At this point, we thought it better not to disturb the feline and decided to turn back. But we were in for another spot of luck. Just as we turned, a huge tiger bounded across the bushes on the other side, a rush of flaming orange, a well-muscled and toned body unlike the female. Chandran informed us that he was a young adult. This one had already spotted us as we were busy searching the shrubs for signs of the first tiger.
Tiger number 2 halted and peered at us out of the bushes. There framed against the green grass, we saw his visage - a perfect face seen umpteen number of times in pictures and documentaries, on book covers and wildlife magazines. It was an image to cherish. This was the TIGER as we had only known so far, not seen ever in real life in the wild. These fleeting moments were worth an eternal wealth of memory. We made our way away from the two cats leaving them to their wiles and ways. We moved ahead and just a few yards away spied a spotted deer. We felt sorry for him; it would be the tiger's meal. Chandran wanted to stay longer in the hope that we would get to see the tiger in action, hunting its prey, but we thought it wise to depart.