AS THE NUMBER OF WILD tigers is dwindling at a drastic rate, staring into the eyes of one of these majestic cats in its natural kingdom is a lifetime’s experience.
“There’s a tiger over there!” exclaimed Durgesh, the Naturalist who had driven me into the forest. His startling remark diverted my attention away from the little statue-like white owl sitting on the lower branch of a slender Sal tree, that he had spotted just moments ago.
This was the last of six safari trips I was taking at Bandhavgarh National Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. I had also spent two preceding nights at Kanha National Park. So far, I only had snaps of a rear view of a tiger, boldly striding out of a bush in the distance, sunlight dancing on the fire and coal of her body.
As we entered the jungle, Durgesh could not make any promises of a better sighting.
Within minutes of my last encounter of the forest, Durgesh was given a signal by the Naturalist of a jeep about 20 metres ahead, informing us of a tiger’s presence. This was accompanied by the pious calls of the Langur monkeys and the high-pitched yells of the deer, warning the other animals of the coming of their deadly jungle ruler.
Where’s the tiger?
The other jeep was parked next to a dense bamboo bush. Durgesh carefully pulled up alongside the vehicle and slowly switched off the engine. I looked anxiously to my left, but bamboo bush filled my vision. I looked to my right and all I could see was more shrubbery and a barren path lined either side by the towering Sal trees. So where was the tiger?
Lost in anticipation, I gazed straight ahead, past the other jeep and there she was. The tapestry of bamboo leaves veiled her face, but her huge ocean-green eyes appeared to be staring straight back at me. My senses surrendered under her spell. I was frozen, despite the afternoon sun’s hot breath smouldering my skin. But I wanted to get closer.
The people in the next jeep motioned me to climb into their vehicle for a closer look. Durgesh advised us not to leave the jeep. However, in my thirst for adventure, I pretended to be temporarily deaf and clambered into the other vehicle, much to his displeasure.
But the fact that I was now within two to three metres of the tigress made it all worthwhile. Staring into the eyes of a wild animal that could kill me with one swipe of a paw was thrilling, to say the least.
She held her unfaltering gaze and moved her head to get a clearer view whenever the bamboo leaves fell in front of her eyes. I could see vivid specks of orange and black between the branches, which seemed to stretch far out into the bush. However, we must have been a very dull sight for her, as she began to chew absent-mindedly on the leaves and preened herself like a domestic cat.
The boredom must have really settled in when she yawned, her razor-sharp teeth standing like proud, white-coated guards of a dungeon. Sitting in an open jeep without any weapons, it wasn’t helpful to my composure to notice that my entire head could fit quite snugly inside.
In a flash
I was frantically clicking my camera, eager to grab every moment before it fleeted past. Then Durgesh firmly said, “You need to switch off flash! It may disturb her!”
I quickly did as I was told, but a shivering thought told me I might be too late. The tigress stood up on all fours, her shadow imposing on my insignificant form. I trembled and clumsily stepped backwards, only to feel the firm grip of another guest’s hands on my shoulders, warning me not to make any sudden movements.
I breathed with a huge sigh of relief as I saw the tigress turn around and head out from behind the bush. She strode majestically across the dirt road behind our jeep. She stared and snarled at us with every cautious step. Her huge, muscular body looked as though a tireless hand had painted her slender stripes – a masterpiece which she carried with pride.
She trailed off into the distance and disappeared over a hill, oblivious to the fact that seeing her had just become my childhood dream come true.
Let’s hope the experience can be recreated for future generations: seeing the tiger through their own eyes instead of a motionless image captured through a lens.
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– Monica Sarkar
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