G&J (Great Journeys): Tiger Blinkers
At times, the big-cat-or-nothing scenario can get quite absurd.
The jackal on the safari trail in front of us threw back its head and let out a piercing howl. The rest of his pack stationed at the far end of a golden grass meadow answered the call. The forest reverberated with the bone-chilling cry of their savage serenade.
There was more to our game drive into the wilds of Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh. A frisky pack of bushy-tailed wild dogs rallying each other as they prepared for a hunt; a mean-looking gaur grunting his displeasure. (Okay: we got the message and moved on). A nervous blue bull; the furry antlers of a cheetal stag glinting in the sun; a strutting sambar deer; migratory cranes by a deep blue waterhole; brilliantly plumed birds; the glistening web of a giant wood spider… It was a rewarding wildlife drive by any yardstick.
Or was it? “Nothing! We saw nothing,” the man who had shared our safari vehicle declared when we returned to our base camp at PugdundeeSafaris’ Pench Tree Lodge, tossing his DSLR camera with a phallic lens attached to it on the sofa. Nothing? Was what we saw and experienced all part of our fevered imagination? “Nothing?” queried the manager of the resort. “We did not get to see the tiger,” our fellow guest clarified.
Tiger blinkers: that’s what the poor chap was wearing and his obsession with seeing and freezing the magnificent striped feline—the apex predator of the Indian forest—in hi-res pixels had impaired his ability to appreciate the raw beauty of nature’s forested canvas and the other animals that resided in it.
Sure, we would also have loved to have encountered the tiger. It’s an awesome beast and seeing it stride, muscles rippling under its luxuriant coat, across its wild domain, rather than in a zoo, is undoubtedly the highlight of any jungle safari. But when we reduce a wildlife safari to a tiger safari, we are short-changing ourselves. The wildlife parks of the country have so much more to offer… Like the time we spent half an hour watching a baby langur monkey and a jackal play a game of cat-and-mouse till an adult monkey had enough of their antics and sent the jackal packing. Tourists in the other vehicles stopped briefly to grab a photograph and hurried on with the tiger chase, analysing pugmarks and droppings in their quest of the big cat.
At times, the big-cat-or-nothing scenario can get quite absurd. Like the time in Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, we came across a vehicle in which the occupants had trained their cameras on the tail of a leopard hanging from a tree, waiting for the hidden feline to turn. When our driver tried to explain that they would get a frontal view of the animal if they negotiated the bend a little way down the road, they shushed him and waved him away. “Idiot!” one hissed. An hour later, we passed the vehicle in the same spot still focused on the tail and waiting for the animal to turn!
On another occasion, we had a fairly rewarding game ride – sans a big cat sighting – at Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. There was a buzz as we pulled into the parking lot at the end of the drive: a tiger had been spotted outside the parameters, at the far end of the camp. This scrap of information had an electrifying effect on a burkha-clad lady sharing the vehicle with us. She vaulted out of the jeep and whisked off her cover in one fluid movement, and started to sprint away, leaving her husband to collect the all-covering garment she had discarded in her wake. “I saw the tiger. I saw the tiger,” she squealed and skipped about like a little girl when we finally caught up with her. It turned out that the sighting was less than a fraction of a second, of the cat disappearing into the thicket.
“The tiger has transformed my wife into a tigress,” said her husband as he handed her the discarded burkha.
All photographs courtesy of Gustasp and Jeroo Irani