Tigers in the Dark

Tigers in the dark

Its been three long years, since I had this amazing experience of wild india. It was the summer of 2005. Surjit called me to ask if I would be able to join him on a trip to Malani in Corbett National Park. I had not been to this part of Corbett National Park before and readily agreed. Sambit and Balu also joined us to make it a big party.

The Malani forest rest house is located on a cliff overlooking a stream flowing below. As is the nature of these streams, the monsoon season sees it at its ferocious best and at other times of the year, the flow reduces to a trickle making pools of water here and there for the kingfisher to hunt or the langurs, deers and elephants to drink. When all these animals are there, how can be the king of the jungle be far behind? The tiger is seen cooling off in a small pool in this stream in the summer months.

Coming back to the story, we bought some fresh eggs, bread etc to add to the provisions we had procured from Delhi. The forest rest house doesnt have a canteen, so visitors have to carry their own provisions if they expect to eat. We reached the rest house and handed over the groceries. We were hungry but rather than waiting for the meals to be prepared, we had some light snacks and moved on for the afternoon safari.

Sambit was in a jungle for the first time, and was pretty excited. We found deers and Sambars grazing or resting in the shade. Surjit was photographing them. I was on the look out for any signs of the tiger. We found lot of pugmarks in the dry river bed and then at a distance we found some tourists in a jeep. It took us some time to make out the outline of the sleeping tiger. The tiger rolled over and yawned. After a few yawns, the tiger got up and started walking and we could see that it was an adolescent one. It seemed to have had little success in hunting in the last few days as it appeared to be famished. The tiger soon crossed the dry stream and vanished into the undergrowth.

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful. We returned back to the forest rest house happy sighting a tiger. I was feeling good thinking that on every trip to Corbett National Park, I have sighted a tiger. Our tired but excited spirits soon got a boost with hot cups of tea.

Within half an hour the dinner was ready. Though it was hardly seven in the evening, we were pretty hungry and devoured the food. Surjit and I came out of the forest rest house to feel the evening air. The forest rest house is located at the base of the hill in a clearing of about a football field and half in length and breadth. The stream flowing in front of it, has carved a steep drop of fifteen to twenty meters at places. The forest department staff has made a gradual slope to approach the stream in front of the forest rest house. About fifteen feet in front of the forest rest house there was a tree, which is no longer there, and the base of it was cemented to create a rectangular platform of about fifteen feet by ten feet. We pulled two chairs and placed it below the tree in the compound. The edge of the forest is about a further thirty feet away sloping down into the stream. Towards the left the forest starts hundred feet away from the tree. Towards the right is the approach road and the clearing is about the length of a football field. Soon Sambit joined us by pulling a chair and placing it after me and closer to the edge of the forest. We were seated in a semi circular manner facing the approach road.

It was a moonless night and for the first hour it was pitch dark. We were enjoying the chill breeze and listening to the soft murmur of the flowing stream. We were happy having sighted the tiger and were discussing its emancipated state. Sambit was very happy on having sighted his first tiger on his first visit to the jungle. It is natural to be excited to watch Gods most magnificent creation in the wild. Sambit was telling us that he would definitely come back to this place with his wife. The deers were grazing in the compound. We could make out their blurred shapes at times and could here the sound of their grazing or occasional movement.

The playful banter came to an abrupt halt when we heard the sound of a twig cracking from the direction of the stream about 40 feet away. We were staring intently into the darkness towards the source of the sound, knowing fully well that it was done either by a tiger or a leopard. Sambit till that moment was blissfully unaware about our sudden alertness. The crickets had stopped chirping there was an oppressive silence as if the entire jungle is watching with bated breath. Several minutes passed by and then suddenly the silence was pierced by a sharp alarm call about 30-40 feet in front of us. Even though we were alert, the sharp call, its proximity and the silent jungle gave it a sinister meaning. Till that moment, Sambit had never heard an alarm call in his life. He had no inkling about it and was so startled that he would have fallen from his chair had I not caught hold of him. A man with a weaker heart could have got a heart attack in such a situation. For Sambit it was too much to handle. He got up and shifted his chair to a position behind Surjit and closer to the Forest Rest house.

Clearly, the tiger was trying to hunt the deer barely few meters in front of us. Surjit suggested that it was too dangerous to be out in the open in the midst of the hunt and got up to move the chair closer to the wall of the Forest Rest House. We did so and realized that Sambit had vanished. He had got inside the Forest Rest house and had locked the door. We were straining our eyes to see any signs of the predator. At times we could see the white portion of the belly when the light of few stars could shine through the clouds. At times we could make out the outline of the deers. They had come closer to us. It seems the deers thought that coming closer to us might save from getting killed.

We kept on listening to the sounds as hardly anything was visible, breathing slowly through our mouth without making any sound. All our senses were in high alert mode. Minutes kept on ticking. After about half an hour or so, suddenly there was a sound of a charge. We could hear an animal abruptly run from left to right from a point about 30 feet straight in front of us. We knew the tiger is charging. However, we were shaken up when within a couple of seconds, there was another charge from right to left from the same point. All along, we were under the impression that there was one tiger. But it was physically impossible for a tiger to start a charge from the same point within a couple of seconds. We kept on straining our eyes to see any signs. And then soon the crickets started chirping again and the jungle came back to normal. We knew the predators are not there any more in the compound. I looked at the watch, and this experience had lasted forty five minutes.

After some time we got up and asked Sambit to open the door and we retired for the night. I was again woken up from sleep at the sound of an alarm call. It was 1.30 am in the night and the tiger was near the forest rest house again. I tried to listen for further sounds but didnt know when I fell asleep. The next day we got up before dawn. Two tigers were roaring and answering each other at a distance from the forest rest house.

We had not taken a single photograph that night, but it was one of our most memorable tiger experiences in Wild India. It gave a huge jolt to my ego. Despite several decades of tiger watching and studying in Wild India, I could not know that there were two tigers in front of the forest rest house barely 30 feet away. It was a humbling experience as well. It teaches us that how ever experienced you might be, we are still scratching at the surface. Learning a single paragraph in a lifetime from the enormous book of nature, would be a big achievement.

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