I was reading this account (which is amazing) and was reminded of the elephant rides I have had in Kanha National Park. I have been to Kanha twice and have been lucky enough to spot tigers on every excursion into the jungle, but one.
Watching a full-grown tiger roaming around is surely a humbling experience. We had a tiger walking parallel to our car (Maruti-800) and the tiger was almost as long as the car. The Discovery channel people always used to say that tigers are 8-10 feet long; that day I realized what a 10 feet long tiger means. It was so huge that it was scary. But watching a tiger from a car/Gypsy pales in comparison to watching a tiger in its element, at its home from an elephant back.
My first trip was in 1996 (or was it 1995?). The elephant rides in Kanha used to start at about 9:30; so that the weather was hotter and hence the tigers would be less active, meaning less dangerous. We trudge into the jungle and soon another mahout tells us that he had spotted a tiger few hundred meters away. Our elephant is soon on the path to find the majestic, but elusive, tiger. In a minute or two, the mahout asked us to keep silent. How did he know that a tiger was near, I don’t know? Maybe the elephant had caught the tiger’s scent and the mahout would have noticed the change in elephant’s demeanour. The mahout pointed to a bunch of bushes in the shadow, I strained hard and was able to see nothing. I nudged my father, asking him to show me the tiger. He shushed me and pointed to the same clump of bushes. This time I peered and could make out some black stripes. What amazing camouflage! Had the tiger not been pointed to me, I would have surely missed it. This was a female and soon we spotted its cubs playing nearby. But the tigress was restless on seeing so many humans hardly 15-20 feet away. Sensing this the mahout turned the elephant and we came back without incident. On our way back we found more people on another elephant going to see that tiger. Our mahout told them to turn back, as the tigress was restless, but the family (with a small kid, hardly a year old) on other elephant was insistent. So the other elephant went on. Later on we heard that the kid cried when they were near the restless tigress and this sudden noise provoked the tigress. She attacked the elephant, but both – the mahout and the elephant – were experienced enough to ward off any serious altercation and everyone returned safely.
The very next day I was up for another elephant ride. Even though we had been told that only pugmarks and droppings had been seen, no tiger had been spotted per se; nevertheless we went on to search for the tiger. This time the jungle was so dense, that the branches constantly kept slapping us. We had to look out for low-hanging branches (of which there were many). After what seemed like hours evading the branches, and which was actually just 10 minutes, we heard low growls. We looked around only to be stared back by the numerous trees, and innumerable leaves. We knew the tiger was around, as if the low growls were not proof enough, the monkey-cries and birdcalls provided more circumstantial evidence. But we were the encroachers; the tiger was at its home. The dense foliage was perfect cover for tiger. Even the experienced mahouts were unable to spot the tiger. Soon the growls faded away and so did our chances to spot the tiger.
My next trip was in 2004 summer. This time the elephant that carried me was very young. It was not even full-grown and thus lacked the sense of the elder elephants, and was walking very fast. We had to go through a dried stream to get to the place where the tigers were spotted; generally the elephants are very sure-footed and you do not feel discomfort while sitting, but this baby elephant was intent on giving us a fun ride. Since we were going through a dried stream, there was a gradual descent initially and then a much steeper climb to get to the other side. The climb up was not that dangerous, as the elephant was slow while climbing; but I would never forget the descent – the unsteady, quick gait of the elephant resulted in a really wild sway for us. But on the other side of the stream we forgot all those sways and swings. That time I was as near to the tiger as I ever can be. Both the tigers were just lying on the ground (it was summer and around 10:30 a.m. – that would mean temperatures hovering near the 40 degree Celsius mark and hence the tigers would be very inactive) and stared lazily at us. We were standing almost on top of the tigers; we were actually looking downwards at the tigers. Only few feet separated us from the most majestic animal on earth.
(I have photographs of this trip, but I am unable to find the CD with the pictures… I’m searching for the CD and will post the pictures as soon as & if I find the CD)
The photographs are here.
Hoping to spot many more tigers when I visit Sunderbans in January, 2007.