I was moving along slowly, my eyes watchful in the silence of India's deepest jungle. Every sound from the wild had me gripped. Camera was in position and binoculars were hanging down my neck. I was cautious to every sound and every movement in the thick jungle growth. And then, I heard something move…
It's a different experience in the dense forests of India. I was in Corbett National Park, India's oldest and finest wildlife sanctuary. Established in 1935, the park is famous for being the habitat of the now endangered species - the tiger. Named after the legendary hunter and environmentalist, Jim Corbett, the park launched 'Project Tiger' an internationally assisted programme to save tigers from extinction. With a good tourist infrastructure, this 520 sq kms park is worth a visit, even if you are not a wildlife buff.
As winter approached, I decided to spend a week in the jungle to get a real feel for wildlife and to catch a good glimpse of the tiger. I yearned to watch the majestic creature in all it's glory and take a few good snapshots. I was away from my usual mountain holiday. I took a break from climbing.
This time I was out on a 'Tiger Hunt.' Unlike mountaineering, I was not loaded with bundles of gear and equipment. All I was carrying was a good camera and a pair of binoculars. It was a great 'light' feeling. I was in a cool khaki outfit with a matching hat and a trendy sleeveless canvas jacket with large pockets to keep lenses, torch, goggles, etc. Well, I was dressed and camouflaged for the occasion.
It was early in the morning in Dhikala, a thick cover of mist enveloped the forest. I couldn't see beyond 20 feet. That was exciting. It created a mysterious magical atmosphere. I realised it wouldn't be too great if a dozen tigers passed by me without a hint of their presence. But I was not going to let that happen. I was sure that the tiger would not elude me.
The air was still, the silence perfect. The sky was flushed with streaks of pink and yellow and the weak rays of sun filtered through the jungle cover. The sharp smell of the morning dew and the scent of the wet grass was exhilarating. Sal trees stood out almost as though artificially lined. Their leaves were big and round as dinner plates. The bamboo grass looked elegant and oriental. The dainty verdure of Sisoo and the tender pink of the new born Pipal foliage filled all the intervening space. The trees were scaled by a multitude of creepers winding round and round like huge python.
I started looking around for pugmarks. I came across different interesting footprints on the marshy land. The identification process was more in the nature of speculation because ascertaining a tiger's imprint had considerably more to do with my anxiety than realism.
By the time the mist uncovered the forest, I had seen nothing apart from a hog deer, mongoose, woodpecker, drongo, black partridge, wild dog and a checkered keelback snake. Snakes do fascinate me but I was still looking for the elusive Mr Stripes. My day remained incomplete.
Next morning, I woke with the chirping of the blue throated barbet and rose ringed parakeet right outside my window. Today, I was really hopeful of spotting the tiger. The morning was crisp and beautiful as it always is here. I crossed open grasslands and marshes. My head kept turning in all directions. I wasn't going to let any of their silly camouflage tricks work on me ! I used my binoculars to good effect. I didn't even miss the lovely baby cobra crossing my path. A cobra is such a beautiful and elegant sight.
I must admit I couldn't say the same about the harvestman - an arachnid that looks like a member of the spider family with a near similar appearance but distinctly more long-legged. It was sunbathing on it's huge web. Sometimes their peculiar habit of remaining still for hours together makes me presume they are so dumb !
An afternoon sojourn led me to a herd of wild boars. Surprisingly, I spotted a huge and very healthy lone tusked elephant in their midst. I viewed them patiently from the bushes. The boars were playing with each other while the lone tusker remained in a pensive mood before finally strolling away. It was wonderful to see wildlife in different moods in their natural environment. For the first time, I thought to myself that the elephant is a ''big'' animal. Really huge.
By the evening, the forest took on a different character. Low beams of light played hide and seek through the trees. As the light began to fade, the colours of the jungle disappeared to leave only silhouettes. I retired to my cottage to sleep and wait for yet another day to spot the tiger…or take a stroll in the darkness of the night. The tiger could be moving in the stealth of nightfall, I thought. It was a desperate bid to confront the animal. So at about 10 or 11 at night, I crept outside my cottage with a torch in hand. The crescent moon hardly threw enough light. It was pitch dark but the night was alive. The sounds of nocturnal life in the forest is unbelievable. From the beautiful to the bizarre, I could hear hundreds of species! The mating calls of frogs, the high-pitched sounds of insects, the distinctly audible jungle owlet. There were more but only an audio-specialist could have identified the variety of night-life there.
The sensuous scents of the night flowers added to the aura of the jungle night. Meanwhile, the twigs were cracking underfoot with every deliberate step forward. I was questioning the wisdom of my half-baked idea of strolling out at this hour. Besides, what if I lost my way? Quite immediately, I turned around and walked back to my cottage.
Time went by and I was getting impatient. The machan wasn't comfortable either. Suddenly, the mood of the forest changed. I heard the sound of the sambar barking in abrupt warning, the hanuman languars rattled form branch to branch while calling loudly. Clearly, a predator was on the move. I was excited. I took position and waited. And waited and waited…….
I saw nothing.
I was back in my cottage at dawn. So much for my tiger hunt. I was leaving in the morning without even a tiny glimpse of the majestic animal. Sure, Mr Stripes would have made my day but hey, I think in the end the whole experience was much better than what I had expected. A few days in the wilderness brought me very close to the incredible life that lives in parallel existence to ours. Forest scents, jungle sounds, animals and birds moving in freedom, nights teeming with life, misty mornings, the changing moods of forest depths, the dense vegetation with trees hundreds of years old and the natural anxiety and caution within us…...all this is a part of the feeling of being in the wilderness. It can be very special for any city dweller. And yes, the 'tiger hunt' isn't only about the 'tiger'.
The whole forest experience is profound. Certainly a different perspective from watching animals and birds on television, magazines, books and slides. It only strengthened my stand to support wildlife and its habitat. Forests continue to face threat of destruction and so many species face serious danger of extinction. I worry that my children will view tigers, bears and other animals like we look at dinosaurs today. Nobody can create a Jurrasic Park. You lose them now and you lose them forever.
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.