An eerie silence blankets the jungle, it has frozen in time. We are waiting, hoping to hear the warning call of the Spotted Deer, alerting us to a tiger nearby.
There it is, and suddenly we’re off, hurtling along in our open-air jeep. We round a corner and come to a screeching halt behind another jeep reversing up the track. Mid way through untangling myself from the seats in front of me I hear “look tiger“, and there, about 10m in front of me is a huge female tiger slowly plodding down the track.
Totally nonchalant to our presence, she continues to mosey along straight toward us, causing our guides to yell at each other in their excited dialect, directing each other to hurriedly reverse, keeping a respectable distance from her, while I felt like my eyes were popping out of my head. I could not believe I was so close to this magnificent creature – Madame Tigress. I could hear her gruff panting, she stopped and sprayed a tree, scenting it, then wandered on.
I’m in Tadoba National Park central India, dawn has just broken and this female Bengal tiger has been out for the night hunting. Murbak my guide, with eyes keener than a bird of prey whispers, “she is on her way back to her cubs, she is tired, she has walked around 16km and wants to sleep”.
Tigers have a short life span. This beast, all 180kg of her, is happy, healthy and well fed but will only live for about 15 years. The largest of the Asian big cats, their numbers have plummeted to critical levels due to poaching, habitat loss and human conflict, and with an estimated 3500 left in the wild extinction could be looming.
Her features are perfect, as if her stripes have been painted on, she is exceptionally clean, and picture perfect. Her white patches glow whiter than I’ve seen on domestic cats and the shiny black spots on her ears unique to each individual and precise in their shape, are said to serve as a beacon for her cubs to follow.
She likes walking on the soft dirt road but suddenly she turns and glides off inconspicuously into the undergrowth and just like that she’s gone.
I’m speechless, awestruck by the encounter I just had. It’s my first safari in India and to have had the privilege of over five minutes with this lady of the jungle has humbled me. Murbak interrupts my somewhat emotional thoughts to tell me we are moving, “we are going to see the cubs”. There’s more – surely it can’t get any better than this?
Next minute, less than 20m from our vehicle, lays an eight-month-old male cub sprawled out in the morning sun on his bed of fallen bamboo leaves. Without a care in the world he lolls about, eventually turning to toast the other side.
Murbak shares, “we wait, she will be here in a minute”. How could he possibly know this I wonder? These guides are local, they’ve grown up knowing and studying the local wildlife and they love the tigers. He comes to the park twice a day, six days per week. He knows each one intimately; their personality, traits and idiosyncrasies. They name them and together with the Mahouts and their elephant counterparts, they protect them.
You cannot take a safari in India without a registered driver and guide, vehicle numbers are restricted and zoned, plus each visitor must book in advance and be passport checked at the gate. This aside, their knowledge and experience is priceless. Sure, I would’ve seen heaps of spotted deer, monkeys, guar and sambar, but without their keen eyes and knowledge of the landscapes, I would not have seen the tigers, laughed as little jackal families trotted about, sat and watched the rare Indian wild dog feasting on a kill plus noticed the incredible sloth bear meandering through the trees.
Murbak tells me he knows every tiger cub from birth and this season he has seen over 75 different tigers in this park, most he can name. He is inspired by these numbers, the work the parks people are doing to protect this species is encouraging. Moving villagers and their cattle out of the nine national parks of Madhya Pradesh state, providing buffer zones and creating employment opportunities are schemes showing inspiring results.
As the heat of the day starts to kick in we leave the park, I notice the spotted deer are more relaxed, they know the tigers are resting now. But later as the sun begins to fade, their tension will build, they will be on point. The hilarious Langur monkeys will also have their babies close to them and their guards stationed high in the trees. The forest creatures will be relying on them and the deer to sound their alerts when the tigers arise from their slumber.
For more visit www.indianaturetrails.com
Photos: Credit to Aditya Padhye – Award winning photographer
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