The Lines of Wilderness
It had been only two days since the brutal kill took place in the jungle. Jeeps from Maelkkaamanahalli are rushing towards that place. The signs of the year's summer going for the supper started showing up. The green patches that crept in to the jungle in last week's rain has left only some morsels of the sign of the summer. Nine pairs of eyes scanned the jungle thoroughly from the jeep.
The basic reason for our coming to this wilderness of Bandipur was Gouri and her cubs. It was just a year back that we saw the picture of the tiger Gouri walking with her four one-month old cubs: cubs playing about in the jungle under the protection of their mother. We never saw such a lovable picture of the tiger from the jungles of Western Ghats. Those cubs would not have started to cut out their own territory. They with shining eyes might not have grown up enough to capture the deer and the bison in the jungle at the peak of the night. They might still be in the care of their mother because the tiger cubs never get away from the shadow of their mother till they are two and a half year or so. Our aim was to see them.
Perched on a branch without leaves of a tree, a serpent eagle was observing our arrival. He did not fly away. While in the jungle, it preys on snakes and skinks and once in the country side it would be after the fowls; that is why it is called the 'fowl snatcher' in the country side. The safari jeep of Bandipur Jungle Lodges is running very slowly over the jungle tracks, with spotted deer locking horns with one another and testing their strength, peacocks giving way, jungle fowls running out of sight into the jungle under growth.
Passing through the jungle of withered bamboos, the jeep stopped at the bank of a big lake. Deers and wild boars are foraging on the meadows in groups. 'Look there' the driver pointed towards the opposite direction. On the meadow in the middle of the jungle of bamboos a big bison is lying killed. The rump has been eaten up completely. On reaching Bandipur itself, we heard the news of the hunt of the tiger. In such circumstances, the possibility to see a tiger is much better for the tiger takes about four or five days to eat up his kill. Till then he would roam about in the vicinity.
'Could Gouri and her cubs have killed this huge bison? Hey they might not have; as the bison is certain to attack back, the mother tiger would keep her cubs away from it. 'Then which other tiger would have killed this bison.' We got the answer from Santhosh, a Malayali driver cum guide of the Jungle Lodges. Recently a male tiger proclaimed this place as his territory.
Tigers normally establish their territory considering the abundance of prey and the access to mates; the male tiger establishes territory only at a place near two or three females and with sufficient preys. That might sometimes be a forest of about ten thousand acres. But the female tigers would own only the half or less area of such a territory. If come to a new place, they would mark their territory by passing urine and spraying a secretion from their body on trees. They never go out of that territory for prowling. The fights of males over the territory borders are fierce. One tiger would not tolerate the trespassing of his territory by another. Fight over the border is very common. The stronger one would retain his empire or add more area to his empire.
The one who established the territory in Bandipur and might have killed the huge bison, might be a mighty one. 'If we could see him' once in the jungle, the wishes well up one after another. The next three days our eyes searched only tigers. The wild bisons, barking deer or elephants did not seem to enthuse us; purposefully we ignored them.
We spent the mornings and evenings of that May month in that jungle. Once risen up in the morning, we head straight to the jeep with cameras and in the evenings also, the same way. We roamed around the jungle where once the bandit Veerappan held sway. Any slight movement in the bushes raked up our expectation. Every day we went to the place where the bison lay killed. It's size became smaller and smaller. The hunter might be taking rest after having the fill at night.
Two days went past without any development. Although we could see the pug marks of the tiger several times, what we earnestly wished to see, the jungle kept away from us. In the meanwhile another gang accompanying us reported to have seen the tiger. We rushed towards that place. Even though we waited in an open space in the jungle for a long time, nothing special happened. On finishing the morning safari of the third day, our disappointment climaxed. Some amongst us consoled telling 'Let us not worry, we have two more safaris'.
While setting out for the evening safari, our mind was frigid. Strangely the jungle also seemed very still. The spotted deers are moving away to open spaces as if having seen something dreadful; but no ruckus by the birds. Suddenly, breaking the silence of the jungle the barking deer made a shriek, followed by fearful cacklings of peacocks. The jeep driver that day was a Kannadika named Pradeep. He said, 'Sir, there is a leopard or tiger in the surroundings, that is for sure'. Then we were in a place called Kollag Mallikkattey inside the Bandipur jungle. Every body's eyes and cameras came in to 'attention mode'.
The jeep is running very slowly in the jungle tracks to reduce noise. As soon as we reached a small lake, the vehicle was stopped. Looking in the direction to where Pradeep pointed his finger, what we saw was an unbelievable sight: the occassion, we expected ever since entering the jungle; we were roaming around in Bandipur only for this. Unable to believe our eyes, we looked again. To ascertain that it was not a dream, I stamped one foot on the other. Lo! a figure infused with all the wildness of the jungle, on the bank of the lake: a full grown beast of a male tiger.
He is lying with his back towards us; might be in a siesta. His yellow shade shined like gold in the golden rays of the waning sun light. The black stripes on the yellow enhanced the sheen. As getting down from the jeep was not allowed, sitting in the jeep itself, everybody set up their cameras. Nine cameras were ready to 'shoot at sight'. Taking one or two frames, everybody checked their light and other settings; then the eager wait for the 'royal' wake up of the King of Bandipur.
May be realising the presence of human beings, barking deer and peacocks became silent. Not even a small animal is coming to the surroundings of that lake; no bird is seen: what to say, even the wind seemed to have backed off. None in the jeep made any noise; even the breathing also is done very carefully.
Half an hour passed by, he slowly lifted his tail and wagged around; it was driving away the flies. Then lying and lifting his head slowly, he looked ahead. As if awaiting for the same moment, nine cameras clicked all at once: the camera shutters clacked opening and shutting several times. In the silence of the pregnant jungle, those sounds seemed like the gun shots at a war front.
He just turned; in the sleepy mood, he turned supine and stretched the body lifting up his legs. Then he turned and lay facing us. Still he covered his face with the fore legs; again slumbered (emulating the eternal sleeper, 'Kumbhakarnnan'), a slumber after a sumptuous meal. Half an hour went by without any movement; and rest for cameras.
That whole time, we enjoyed watching him. Now we could clearly see the feet that made the pug marks stamping his presence, 'I was here', on the wild tracks. Although he is lying, his strong legs instilled a fear in our minds. These are the legs that strike on the preys. We made a guess to assess him. His length might be about five and a half feet, The tail itself might be about two feet. His weight might be about three hundred kilos. This behemoth himself might have been the killer of that bison.
In the meantime, a turtle raised his head from the lake. That ripple startled him out of his slumber. He lifted his head and looked at the turtle. Seeming to tell 'Sorry, it was a mistake', it dipped back in to the water. He turned about again. Then imperially resting on his front legs, he gazed at us. Is fire emitting from his eyes? The vis-a-vis with a tiger, the blood seemed to be draining out of the body. He is only thirty or forty meters away from us. In a split second he could dash around the lake to get at us. His horrifying image reflected in the calm lake.
He lay there like a statue looking at us for about ten minutes. Nobody stirred in the jeep. Only the cameras clacked without break. As if had a sudden realization, the driver Pradeep murmurred 'that is Shyam' Wont to get in and out of the jungle daily, they could recognize each and every tiger. Probably, realising that we were not trouble makers, withdrawing the gaze at us he started to lick and clean whole body. Then he yawned still in a slumber. Yawning exposing his canine teeth and long tongue, he looked several time ferocious He repeated this process a few more times, seeming to frighten us. Then as if looking at a mirror, he looked in to the water for a while bowing his head. Slowly he started to drink water lapping up with his long tongue: a rarer than the rarest sight. The cameras again became the guns at a war front.
Suddenly a Forest department jeep came around and stopped at us; it was the Bandipur D.F.O. in the jeep. 'Now do not stand here, you should go out of the jungle.', he commanded us Then only we checked the time, it was past 6:15 PM. Ho! then, for more than two hours, we had not taken our eyes off the tiger Shyam. It neither bored us nor the tiger. We spent our time expecting that he would move away and he, so about us. When the jeep darted forward, everybody turned the head to get a last glimpse of Shyam.
On reaching back at the Jungle Lodges everybody started checking their pictures, Many of us had taken about 400 to 500 pictures. A guy from Bangalore with the wildlife photography as the hobby told us; 'Despite visiting many jungles, I could see a tiger only after six years' . The sleep that night was pleasant; all of us had the expression of having conquered some empires.
The last dawn of Bandipur journey: the safari jeep is ready; all got in to the jeep with their cameras. Again the discussion was about sighting of the tiger the previous day. As usual we are going to the place where the bison lay killed. We were just reaching the lake. May be we saw that scene simultaneously, because that was such a vast open space. Inadvertantly, different sounds of excitement emerged in the jeep repeatedly: there are not one but two tigers on the meadow on the bank of the lake. One is lying supine and the other, standing. That day's jeep driver, Malayali Santosh shouted 'That is Gouri and his son.
Although we wished very much, we never expected such a good finale: The cub is rubbing its face on that of supine Gouri; And the mother patting her son's face with her fore leg paws. Santosh told us that he could be seen with Gouri regularly. Gouri is enjoying the rest near the water. The cub is standing there without moving away from mother; may be, he loves to be petted by the mother always. Suddenly he turned in the direction of us. Since it was an open space, he could see us. He looked at us for awhile, then he poked her mother once or twice with the fore legs; may be hinting her to move away from there. Gouri not responding, he slowly disappeared in to the jungle. Not knowing what suddenly happened, Gouri stood up and looked around. Realizing that we were the cause of that, she also slowly disappeared in to the jungle.
'Kuda jab daetha hai tho, chappad faatt ke detha hai' ('the God showers when he gives') the soliloquy of a North Indian in the rear seat: true; when God gives he gives altogether. Only after many years' penance, a few only could see a tiger in its natural habitat, that too for a moment; some others get to see with limitless luck. On the way out from the jungle, thorny vines of doubt crept up the mind: 'why only one cub could be seen with Gouri? then what about the other three?'
Text: TJ Sreejith
Translation: Balachandran P