Monday, June 17, 2013

The Tiger and I (Memorable sightings revisited) - Bhakhola

I have been blessed by the tiger gods. There can be no other reason for the incredible sightings I've had of this most wonderful of animals. Time after time in forest after forest, this amazing animal gives me a 'vision' (sighting would be too blasé a word) and even with all the sightings I've had, the next one still is as exciting, spellbinding and magical as the previous one. Thankfully, (and it is a blessing) I will hopefully be rendered incapable of getting tired of watching tigers in the wild.

And as the rains end the wildlife season, I thought I would bring up some my finest sightings over the years, before I started my travels, when wildlife trips used to be for the odd weekend every summer. And a lot of them will be set in Ranthambhore, because that's where I've had some of my most spectacular sightings over the last decade, with Pench and Bandhavgarh also throwing up some gems. The quality of pictures is not necessarily very good, with most of them being scanned images of prints from the pre-digital era.

Bhakhola (Ranthambhore) June 2002

Bhakhola - Airconditioned comfort for tigers
This was my third to Ranthambhore within 6 months; I drew a blank on sightings on the first trip and finally saw my first tiger(s) on the second. But these average sightings had only whetted my appetite for more. And it also motivated my friends to join me me in the hottest month of the year -June. So Krishnan, his wife Ranjini, Amar, PD and me set off, to be welcomed by one Hemraj Meena, naturalist at Ranthambhore. He was, we were assured by the hotel guys, one of the best guides in Ranthambhore. And he took us straight to this densely wooded place called Bhakhola, home to a tigress and 4 cubs. That morning, through thick bush, we saw the tigress for a while and then returned. My friends, barring PD who was with me on my first trip, had seen their first tiger on their first ever safari! Lucky so-and-so's!!

Curious cub
That evening, we headed back there and waited. and through the bush we saw plenty of activity. Glimpses of black and orange bodies wrestling, sounds of the cubs playing (and the mother scolding them) but no great visuals. Until suddenly, we saw a little face peeking through the bush. A curious cub wanted to give us a once over, or so we thought. He was actually looking for something, so he wandered out, right behind our gypsy and then found what he was looking for, right next to the road. It was a piece of leg (sambhar I think) which he picked up and went back in. 

Some time later, we watched as a huge tiger appeared in a gap - it was a male. Hemraj whispered that it was Bambooram, the dominant male, made famous by being the bloke that Bill Clinton sighted a couple of years earlier. He was obviously the father and quite an indulgent one at that, spending so much time with his cubs. Later, the tigress came out into the open and we watched as she licked and cleaned one of her cubs who lay in her lap. Truly moving sight to see the affection and it made us realize that a mother's love is the same, be it human or tiger. Special sighting, but the next day would be truly spectacular!

Hemraj showed us his incredible tracking skills the next day. Early in the morning as clouds gathered, we headed back to Bhakhola but found no signs of activity. We waited and then drove slowly around the area but it was almost like the tigers had disappeared. Then Hemraj asked the driver to wait at one particular point near Anatpura check post, more than a kilometer away from Bhakhola. And we waited for almost an hour. The driver became impatient and more than once said we should move on and try elsewhere. But Hemraj held firm and said that we would see tigers and see them there. And after the driver's nth disbelieving snort, Hemraj triumphantly said the magic word - "Tiger". And as if on cue, the tigress walked out from the bush 10 metres behind our gypsy.

She then walked behind us (the sole vehicle) all along the road to Bhakhola. Then she sat and started calling her cubs. Gently at first, but her calls increased in volume and annoyance as the minutes passed and the cubs didn't emerge. Soon, her roars started reverberating off the rocks around us and every one of us in the jeep could sense her anger. And just then, four little furry bundles emerged from the grass. And what happened next was incredible - like an annoyed mum, the tigress turned away and started walking, ignoring the cubs. They then ran to her and started to nuzzle her, almost as if to say sorry. Finally she relented and the (now) happy family walked together again.

The cubs then got into a waterhole and splashed about for a bit, but one call from mum and this time they leapt to attention. She led them as they walked into the bush for a rest and that completed one of the most memorable sightings of my life, compounded by the fact that we were the only vehicle the whole time. This would be the first of many many such trips with Hemraj and our relationship has grown stronger with the years. Today, he's more like extended family and his skill and enterprise have taken him very far in his field.

It also taught us the four basic pre-requisites for any sighting in the wild - patience, skill, faith and blessings. As a tourist, your most important virtues faith and patience. Any element of fortune is out of our hands and the skill resides with the guide and driver. Which is where the faith comes in; we learnt that our only chance of a sighting lay in putting all our faith in Hemraj's ability. He later told us that he'd heard a sambhar call once from the bushes half a kilometer away. One call, that's all. We were all privy to that call, but we didn't have the skill (then ) to interpret it. And the driver didn't have the patience to wait. Not all the calls that your guide takes will necessarily pay off, but you respect the jungle and understand the unpredictable nature of wild animals, you realize how special any sighting is. And how much of a tribute it is to your guide and driver.

But the final arbiter is still the tiger god. All the skill, timing, patience and faith can go to nought if the gods aren't smiling at you. And so, when you do get the sighting, please respect the rules of the jungle, behave appropriately and don't disturb the animals. Finally, close your eyes for a second and say a silent vote of thanks to this most incredible of god's creations. For you are fortunate to breathe the same air as these magnificent creatures, even if for a few minutes at a time.

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