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, the air 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 before urging the elephant into the tangled 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 tell-tale 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 of 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 nearby branch and stuffed it into her mouth. I reached forward to stroke the elephant’s neck; there was a soft patch, free of wrinkles and bristles, behind her ear.
Corbett was always going to be the more challenging of the two Tiger Reserves on my Indian safari. Over 1,300 sq km of forest and grassland tucked into the Himalayan foothills, it’s home to about 135 Bengal tigers. But compared with Ranthambhore, further south, the cats in Corbett are shy and elusive. “Some people have been coming here for years and have never seen a tiger,” Manoj had told me earlier. To expect to see one on my first visit to India, let alone 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, several species seemed to launch into a gusty rendition of ‘I can see a tiger!’ Sambar and spotted deer began whistling to our left, while langur, babblers and others pitched in with a well-rehearsed repertoire of coughs, grunts and chatters.
Guided by the commotion, Gomati waded into the undergrowth once more. After 50m 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. I began to realise that 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 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 onto 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, plovers and stilts 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 in 2002 and the network of lagoons had all but dried up. “The storks arrived as usual,” said local ornithologist Dilip Saini. “But they took one look and left again.” With patience, and Dilip’s keen eye for birds, we still managed to notch up several dozen species, including a lone pelican squatting dejectedly beside a muddy waterhole that should have been a sparkling lake.
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 metal water pots on their heads, queued at every village water pump. Numerous camel trains were on the move, their masters leading them, grim-faced, in search of new water and forage. The brick factories lining the roadside only added to the sense of desiccation.
Ranthambhore had not escaped the drought either. In the 400sqkm 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. Ironically, the parched conditions boded well for tiger viewing. Ranthambhore’s tigers would be more visible in a forest deprived of its seasonal rejuvenation of leaves and grasses – or so I was told.
There are no elephant-back safaris in Ranthambhore. Instead, a controlled number of vehicles is granted access to specific routes on the park’s network of tracks. Each vehicle has a driver and guide, and there are strict rules for minimising disturbance to wildlife, such as speed limits and bans on off-road driving or deviations from allotted routes. A sound system, in principle. However, I quickly learned that the route scheme had a drawback. Eager to clinch their ‘double tips’ for a tiger sighting, drivers often treated their routes like race tracks. When the park gates opened at 6.30am there was a jostle for pole position – the first jeeps desperate to locate any fresh tiger prints before other traffic obliterated them. By imposing invisible barriers in the wilderness, the route system relied less on fieldcraft and more on chance. You were either lucky enough to have a tiger on your patch or not.
By my fourth game drive in two days, we had seen no tigers. On several occasions we had hurtled at over 60km per hour to beat another jeep to a junction simply so we wouldn’t be following in its dust trail. Langurs, peacocks and spotted deer were literally leaping out of our path.
There were, of course, several moments of pure Ranthambhore magic – a wonderful encounter with a lolloping sloth bear and a glimpse of a rare wild dog. We watched ring-necked parakeets raiding a fig tree and witnessed sambar deer stags locking antlers in a rutting contest. But, ultimately, it seemed that the success of our game drives was determined by whether or not we had seen a tiger.
On my fifth and final drive I did see one – a tigress lying in the shade of a narrow gully – but, by then, too much of Ranthambhore’s wildness and spirit had been compromised. If I had so desperately wanted to see a tiger, I could have gone to a zoo. To my mind, the whole essence of tiger reserves like Ranthambhore is that they embody some of the few places left on earth where you can still sense the aura of wild tigers. With its magnificent 12th century fort and ancient chhatris (memorials) and temples, Ranthambhore’s importance as a refuge for some of India’s last 3,000-3,500 tigers (believed to be an optimistic estimate) seemed especially poignant. It is a rare place indeed where the crumbling remains of human presence are juxtaposed against a thriving population of one of the world’s most endangered species.
Ultimately, 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 Tiger Reserve. 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 – one of the few bird species that had eluded us.
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 rambling into an edge-of-the-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. About 100m 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.
When to go: The dry season begins in November when national parks and reserves reopen after the monsoon. Vegetation is lush and the rain has cleared the air of dust. From February to late April, leaves fall, grasses wither and water sources recede in the tiger reserves, providing the best opportunities for seeing wildlife.
Safaris: There are several reserves and sanctuaries in India that can be incorporated into a wildlife safari. Wildlife Worldwide www.wildlifeworldwide.com offers an 18-day Tiger Tiger itinerary combining the national parks of Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore with a visit to Agra and the Taj Mahal. Other wildlife hot spots in India include Sasan Gir wildlife sanctuary (the last stronghold of the Asiatic lion), Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary (a beautiful reserve with a lake and forest in southern India) and the Keoladeo Ghana Bharatpur National Park (a world-renowned birdwatching location near Agra).Health and safety: Malaria is present in India, so you should consult your doctor for advice on an appropriate course of prophylactic tablets, as well as vaccinations against typhoid, tetanus, polio and hepatitis. Many of India’s larger cities are highly polluted and travellers with respiratory ailments may wish to take precautionary measures.
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