Sabyasachi Patra



Spotting wildlife


I have often come across people, who after viewing my photographs or listening to my experiences of seeing the tiger in its true habitat, exclaim that I have been lucky. I believe that if you come across a tiger in a jungle, then you are lucky, but more often than not, you create your own luck i.e., learn to respect the jungle and its inhabitants, and most of all understand Mother Nature.

Spotting wildlife is becoming increasingly difficult these days, due to the indiscriminate destruction of habitat and poaching of wild animals. In the days of the Raj, when herbivorous animals were in abundance, small patches of forests used to hold large number of carnivores, like the tiger and leopard. Today, even in National Parks, sighting carnivores is difficult and watching a tiger is becoming rare. In such circumstances, your patience and perseverance is tested to the core. I have heard tourists, roaming around in open jeeps in the jungle, complain that they didn’t get to see a single tiger, and the forest doesn’t seem to have tigers etc. The tourists invariably blame their own luck when they hear that some one else had seen a tiger somewhere in the jungle.

Do we need to attribute our successes and blame our failures in spotting a tiger to lady luck? Or is there something else, beyond luck?

In India, the forests are mostly dense, unlike Africa where you find vast tracts of grass lands. It is difficult to spot a tiger in such a scenario. Nature has given tiger such a beautiful camouflage, the black stripes help in breaking the outline of the body, and it merges with the fallen leaves and dense foliage very easily.

Wild animals by nature remain very still when required. With evolution, the human sense of sight, smell and hearing have become very feeble, when compared to wild animals. Tiger has evolved so that it makes very little noise. The tiger has soft pads in its feet, which helps it in walking virtually noiselessly in the jungle. There may be an occasional twig that will crack under the weight of the tiger or a gentle rustle of the leaves when the tiger moves through the bush, but these are very few and too feeble to pick up when you are moving in a jeep. Added to it is the fact that the vehicles often creak and groan in the bumpy jungle roads. To make matters worse, most of us city dwellers have a tendency to engage in incessant chatter inside the jungle.

I have often been amused, and irritated by the proclivity of people to talk loudly when they are in a jungle. I wonder whether the cause is their irrational fear of the animals, which stems from the stories of the so called blood-curdling beasts’ of the jungle, or some other reason. The bright attire with liberal dose of perfumes, deodorants etc ensures that animals sense human presence much before the tourists senses the presence of the animal, and as a consequence either completely disappear or maintain respectable distance from us.

In some of the National Parks like Ranthambhore National Park, tourists are allowed entry in a bus called Canter’. These Canters, with tourists, who most often don’t understand that there is a difference between Zoo and a National Park, often disregard the requests of the driver and guide to maintain silence. It is futile to expect such a group of people to remain silent for a long time. No wonder, that these tourists most of the times fail to sight the tiger.

In the jungle, the best way to track the tiger or other carnivores is to understand the language of denizens of the jungle and read the tell-tale signs that are there. A few basic rules, if followed precisely, could go a long way in sighting the animals:

1) The footprints of animals can be found imprinted in the soft sand, mud etc. A sure sign that the animal has crossed this area. A keen eye, a little bit of knowledge about the jungle, and above all, real love fornature can help in predicting the time of the imprint. One can also gauge the relative speed at which the animal had been walking during that time. Knowledgeable jungle folk can predict the next movements of the animal based on experience.

2) A number of animals and birds give an alarm call when they see or smell a carnivore. Following the alarm calls of deer, sambar, muntjac, monkeys and birds like drongo and Indian Cuckoo, one can tell the position of the tiger. If you are able to interpret these calls, then you would understand what the tiger is doing and then plan your move accordingly.

Once, early in the morning, in Corbett National Park, several summers ago, I saw a solitary red-headed vulture, sitting on a tree near a stream. I asked my driver to park the vehicle and wait. The driver doubted whether there was a tiger near by. The presence of a vulture, which was looking down intently, made me sure that it was an indication of the presence of a kill and the possiblepresence of a carnivore.

We were in an open jeep, the summer sun beating down on us, the intensity of the heat increasing every moment, sweat slowly tricklingdown our collars and flies bothering us, making the wait unbearable, and to the uninitiated, probably quite futile. I knew for sure, that if there was a tiger hiding in the foliage, it would, sooner or later, come out or at least make a movement betraying its presence. Normally flies bother the tiger and it moves or shifts its position to ward of the nuisance of the flies. Suddenly, I could see the tip of the tail of the tiger as it shifted its position. My assessment proved to be correct, that the tiger had killed some animal and was resting there guarding its kill after a heavy meal.


The tiger drinks water at regular intervals after a heavy meal. In the summer, the tiger also loves to cool off in water. So I knew sooner or later the tiger will definitely come out. We were on the banks of the Ramganga River and the April heat had dried the river considerable, leaving small ponds as watering holes scattered all over the place. Several tourist vehicles passed us, each enquiring about the reason behind our stoppage – some of them waited for a brief moment before deciding to move ahead. A couple of these tourist vehicles when they discovered that we have been waiting for a long time, cynically commented whether they would order lunch to be sent for us.

The minutes dragged by, stretching into hours, till finally, after more than three hours the tiger decided to get up. The intense heat made the wait seem far longer, except for the fact that I had checked my watch. The tiger got up from the bush behind the nullah and walked about fifty yards to enter a pool of water. The bulging stomach of the tiger and blood on the face and leisurely walk to the pool suggested a heavy meal.

Had I not read the tell-tale signs of the tigers presence -the king vulture, the two crows on branches of a tree, an approaching peacock suddenly getting alarmed and taking to flight near the tree – I would not have spent three hours waiting for the tiger and definitely would have missed him when he came out and entered the pool.

Watching wildlife has more to do with reading the signs of the jungle and perseverance and to a lesser degree on luck. You must remember that though you are in the jungle to watch the tiger, actually you are the one who is watched. The elusive king of the jungle will only make an appearance at its own sweet will. So watching a tiger in the Jungle is an extremely fortunate occasion. However, you can increase your chances of sighting the majestic tiger if you make an effort to interpret the signs and language of nature and persevere in your efforts.

Sabyasachi Patra
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