Tiger zinda hai
That spectacular vision of the king of the jungle, is something I will cherish all my life
I had no idea how noisy I would be in the forest, even when I walked as quietly as possible. The noise would scare off wildlife. But the leaf litter, piled high on the ground, went scrunch-scrunch as I walked, and when I stepped on a twig, its c-r-a-a-c-k seemed to resound in the hushed forest. I was walking off the beaten track at the Shergarh Tented Camp, in the buffer zone of the Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. Thanks to my sister Sarayu Kamat, we went off the grid last Diwali.
Tiger-watching is not for namby-pambies. We were up at 4.45 AM (eeks!), to reach the park gates by 6.15 AM. At 12 degrees C, it was cold enough to see our breath condense. Our excellent naturalist-guides, Rajan Gurung and Son Singh Ayam, pointed out barasingha (which adorns its antlers with grass to entice girlfriends), chital, hornbills, hoopoes, Alexandrine parakeets, and a pack of jackals feasting on a chital they had killed. Gurung said Kanha was among India's finest tiger success stories: it had 110 tigers and about 25,000 deer.
I was very happy to ogle at the diverse wildlife in the park, though some returned saddened that they hadn't sighted a tiger, even after a week. Gurung would cock his head to one side to listen. That's a monkey's alarm call, he would say, or a deer's alarm call, telling us a tiger was nearby, and drive our jeep over. Whenever we passed another jeep, each driver would sadly shake his head at the unspoken question: tiger dekha kya?
When a young naturalist braked his jeep to show off tiger pug marks to his firang clients, Gurung drove past scornfully: yesterday's pug marks, he sneered. He would rather show us a real tiger. One generous driver told us Munna ('Munna Male' or 'T17' for Tiger 17) was headed to the other side of a thicket. A covey of jeeps scrambled over. I've no idea why such a stately animal is named after a chai boy. Some tiger names were more appalling, like Dabang, while others were more evocative, like Budbudi, Thin Stripe, Jamun Tola, Mahaveer, Chimta, Old Chuhri, and sadly, Limping Male.
Anyway, as we waited with bated breath for Munna to appear, we heard a plop plop sound: it was dewdrops falling from the tall sal trees; the first time I heard a dewdrop. Everyone was on edge, as a forest of mobile phone cameras went up. Suddenly, Munna emerged from the bushes. He was absolutely magnificent. He simply knew he was jungle royalty. Now about 10 jeeps blocked the road that Munna approached. Yet he strode magisterially towards it, until he was barely 10 feet from our open jeep. My heart was in my mouth. As the other tourists shrieked with excitement, Munna paused and flicked his ears, as if irritated by these rowdy beasts, before calmly striding on.
As he walked along the gap between the jeeps, the drivers went crazy trying to reverse in order to give the tiger enough room, and trying to get closer to give their clients a better view. Munna walked alongside us for about 10 minutes, before loping off into the bushes, along a ridge, and disappearing near a lake, marking his territory as he went. That spectacular vision of the king of the jungle, is something I will cherish all my life.
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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