07.03.2010 25 °C
It was an early evening safari into the Rajiv Gandhi National Park at Kabini. The heavy lunch was not helping and the jungle trails ahead were not some of the best. A look above the horizon and the sun was getting the best of you. Most say it was a perfect setting to sight the Big one - Tiger.
We waited for a bit at the beginning of the park to register ourselves for passing the National Park. As we waited, a nip of breeze was in the air and the silence was not too comforting. It was around 3.15PM, the sun was gazing bright at you and the birds were at their loudest best. As we started our drive on the webbed trails in the jungle, we noticed the dryness all around. Mid autumn and controlled burnings of the plantations around the trail was not visually too pleasing, but these were the best conditions to sight the Big One. We were the first vehicle in the forest and it was good as we could catch the mammals in their natural environment, undisturbed, at least till we pass by.
10 minutes into our treacherous drive on the rugged roads of the trail, we found some wild elephants who were not happy with our presence. And they made their intentions pretty clear by waving their head from side to side and trumpeting loudly. We spotted another larger male by a tiny waterhole. He too was not happy in our company but watched from a distance.
Quick facts: Only the male Indian Wild Elephants have tusks, the females do not have much to show-off.
As we drove further on our trail, we noticed numerous Chital (Spotted Deer) crossing the road. Our friend and Naturalist, Kuttapan says that this place is in abundance with this kind of herbivores who don't seem too surprised in our company. Although curious, they seemed not surprised at all. Their dotting eyes and continuously moving ears was searching for other predators. For once humans were not in the top of the predator list.
As we drove by, we saw forest officials burning the greens along the trail. They do this often to keep a clearing between the trail and the thick vegetation. For obvious reasons that the cats and other predators camouflage well with the surroundings and a little clearing helps keep them at bay and safe guard tourists at the park.
Quick thought: Is it really wild when you are trying to control the wilderness!!!
Our search for the Big Cat took us to many small waterholes within the park and finally to the banks of the river Kabini. As we entered silently, at least thats what we thought, we were welcomed by the gazing eyes of numerous Spotted Deer, Sambar Deer, Wild Boar and small groups of Elephants. Although evening was near (4.20PM) and the heat was not at its highest, all animals wanted to drink as much of the last drops of water they could. After all night fall was near and this is "Tiger Country" and the cats rule the nights.
Just over an hour in the safari and we were still deprived of finding a cat. We switched multiple trails and headed to more waterholes. Although we spotted a lot of deer and a few more Elephant families. The cats were truly missing. Or were they...
We spotted a lovely Peacock walking ahead of us on the trail. He surely was not surprised in our presence and continued his lazy walk on the trail. Suddenly, for some reason, he stopped, panicky look on his face and a few quick turns to see and hear around. In a jiffy, he flew away right beside our vehicle in the opposite direction of the one we were facing. Something was there... we could feel it. But where...
Our driver whispered and asked none of us to talk. His finger pointed in a certain direction and our eyes searched through the thick dry vegetation. After a few tense minutes of scanning the dry grass, we finally saw something starring right back at us. It was a Leopard and was not more than 50 feet from us. A super blend of shiny golden brown skin with black dotted spots on the skin was very well camouflaged in the shrubs and grass. He was almost invisible. As I silently worked on my lens to get a shot of the beauty, a sudden purring was too prominent and too close. I could suddenly hear my heart beat and the feeling was not the best I have had. Maybe it was the heat but a few drops of sweat did work around my forehead. I worked my lens closer to us but in the same direction only to find another Leopard, about 20 feet from us and better hidden than his partner. This was where the purring was coming from and it was a clear warning. A few shots of both most Elusive of cats and we where off on the trails again. Although not a Tiger, but a Leopard is one of the most rarest caught on camera and I was happy to have 2 on my shutter.
With the sun beaming through the trees and creating shadows of sorts, I was happy and disappointed at the same time. Happy to see some Cats in the wild and sad to have missed the Tiger.
As we searched for more trails we spotted some lovely wild squirrel and a group of Deer being chased by Langurs, for a change. We saw some lovely ghost trees all over the forest and I should tell you that they are a lovely sight to watch. They are Golden in colour and shine bright. It is their Bark that they shed away to grow newer ones revealing their inner skin which is golden in colour. It has no leaves in the process and looks like a ghostly tree from one of the Chain saw movie's.
Around 6.30PM and our hunt for the majestic big cat was coming to a almost tiring end when we saw some movement in the grass on our right. I kept and my camera ready and hunted the grass line with my lens for more movement and something that may catch my eye. With in minutes, Another large male Leopard appeared form the grass and came half way through the clearing before he stopped to assess the movement around. We were about 70 feet from him at this point and we had more worried eyes than him. He must have been more than 6 feet from nose to tail his majestic stance at the edge of the trail was simply a treat to watch. As I focussed through my lens I noticed him starring right back and it was not a very happy feeling that I had. The Lemony eyes had less of curiosity and more of aggression. He majestically crossed the trail behind us and gave us another stare at the end of the trail before he disappeared in the dry vegetation.
We were holding our breadth for a while before heading back out of the park. Nightfall was not far and this really was not our backyard. As we left the park, there was no regret that we could not find the Tiger, but I was sure a few Tigers did have a long glance at us. After all this was Tiger land and we were not invited.
Thought for the next trip over a beer: A friend of mine and a renowned wildlife expert once told me never to go searching for a Tiger and that is the day you will spot one.