Tiger safari

 

 

To my guide the soft dust read like a newspaper report of the night’s drama. Pugmarks, the size of soup plates, were punctuated by mysterious hieroglyphics that told him of the recent demise of a chital fawn. From the pugs Minas identified the murderess and established that she was heading towards the centre of her territory on the southern bank of Lake Padam Talao. The dusty newsprint also forecast that she would need to kill again fairly soon since this would be an insubstantial meal for ‘Lady of the Lake’ and her two cubs.

We had been on the trail of the tigress since sunrise and it would be fair to say that, as a talented and experienced hunter, she still held the advantage even over Minas’s detective abilities. However, Ranthambhore National Park is perhaps the best place in the world to see tigers in their natural habitat; the trail was fresh and we had about two hours before the Rajasthani sun would chase every living thing into cover.

The sudden – “Ow!” – alarm call of a nervous chital had given Minas a tip-off as to her whereabouts and further confirmation, if he had needed it, came from a herd of sambar making a panicked retreat across our track. Then below the bulwarks of Ranthambhore Fort – domain of the leopards that are confined to their rocky lairs in respect for the all-powerful tiger – our quarry had disappeared into the long grass. Now we could do nothing but park up and listen for further news from what the great hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett called ‘the jungle folk.’ Corbett, who spent decades hunting some of the sub-continent’s most feared man-eaters (responsible for the deaths of as many as 1,500 people), knew that the surest way to find this master-of-disguise was to wait for one of the better-equipped jungle dwellers to report his position.

But apart from a few bickering birds the forest was now strangely silent. I began to think that the trail had gone cold until I noticed that Minas was concentrating on a patch of scrub just below the branch on which a group of tree pies had congregated. Just as I realised that the birds were watching a kill, or the remains of a kill, the Lady of the Lake rose to her feet in one fluid motion…and appeared to swell in size until it seemed impossible that she had ever been able to hide herself in such an unsubstantial patch of grass. Behind her, the stocky forms of two large cubs also materialised. Three tigers had been crouched, totally unseen, within twenty metres of us!

The youngsters playfully swatted one another, testing the oversized paws that they would one day learn to swing like a warrior’s battle-axe. At about nine-months old they would already be in training for the serious business of hunting and winning a territory. Totally careless of our existence the tigress now led her cubs on a tangent that brought them within leaping distance [for a tiger, about 30 feet!] of our jeep. Finally, on the edge of a rocky nallah gorge, they blended silently into the bush.

This was a sight that would have been impossible to see in the wild only two decades ago. Seventy years of hunting and habitat destruction had brought the Bengal tiger from a turn-of-the-century population of about 40,000 to the very edge of extinction. The few tigers that had survived had done so by turning totally nocturnal and avoiding man at all costs. In 1973 as a last effort to ‘save the tiger’ Project Tiger was founded and Ranthambhore National Park and Kanha Tiger Reserve became two of its flagship sanctuaries.

Far from the aridity of Rajasthan, the hills of Madhya Pradesh are cloaked in majestic sal forests, walls of bamboo and fifteen-foot elephant grass. The administration of Kanha Tiger Reserve has overcome these obstacles to tiger-spotting by resurrecting techniques that were in use when this was one of India’s most prestigious hunting reserves. It was the shikar (hunting) yarns of colonial ‘sportsmen’ that convinced Rudyard Kipling to set his Jungle Book stories among these hills. Thanks to the offspring of Colonel Hathi, the elephant, few visitors spend more than two days at Kanha without catching sight of that ‘arch-villain’ Shere Khan, the tiger, in his natural habitat. While hunting from elephant back was seen as ‘not quite pukka,’ Kanha’s modern-day elephant safaris have been rated among India’s most exciting experiences.

As soon as I settle myself on the howdah platform the mahout’s heels, drumming semaphore commands on the elephant’s head, send us barrelling into the undergrowth. Whip-like branches and bamboo stems as big as telegraph poles fly past as the elephant thunders up the hill. A jumble of rocks looms ahead, entirely blocking our path and I lean over to peer into the tangle of brush fourteen feet below. But there is nothing to see until, at a word from the mahout, an obliging trunk parts the curtain of grass and a bad-tempered roar rises from the foot of the outcrop. The elephant takes an involuntary – though very natural – step backward and momentarily drops the curtain. But not before I have caught another unforgettable glimpse of the amber eyes and ivory fangs of one of the world’s most awesome predators.

 

By Mark Eveleigh