Story by Jim Christy
From Jaipur, the 140 kilometre drive across the state of Rajasthan to Ranthambore took six and a half hours through dry, desert-like land reminiscent of the southern Okanagan in British Columbia. We stopped at a temple high in the hills where monkeys roamed free and women with snakes in baskets begged for money to appease the snake gods. One man played his flute and his cobra swayed, hypnotized by the music, or so he told people. But cobras have no sense of hearing; the beast was just following the course of the flute; wishing it still had its poison and its fangs. It’s a strange feeling to have a cobra poke at your fingers with its head.
The trip took so long because the roads are narrow and, near small towns clogged with cars and tractors, cows, camels and the stray elephant. When I bemoaned the state of traffic, Jereem who was driving, said, “Excuse me, but this is not being traffic. Needs moving to be traffic.”
But finally in the early evening, we got to Ranthambore, a town that owes its prosperity to the complex of wildlife sanctuaries in the area. These are home to thirty species of mammals, 300 of birds, as well as snakes such as cobras and kaits; there are also monitor lizards and crocodiles. But Royal Bengal Tigers are the main event.
The owner of the small lodge, ten kilometers outside the Sanctuary, told us there were two jeep “safaris” daily into the wilderness, one in the early morning, the other in the late afternoon. He added that the early morning safari offered the best chance of seeing a tiger. Being ornery—and perhaps hating the idea of getting up at five-thirty—I opted for the late afternoon safari. My companion offered no objection.
People were just returning, looking downhearted, from their tiger spotting trips. “No luck,” they said. The next morning over a late breakfast in the courtyard watching the wild parrots cavorting on the rooftops, people came back from the morning trip, “Yes, we saw one but only for two minutes and it was way in the distance.”
We sat in the back of a jeep, and the guide began to point out the different trees and bushes as soon as we entered the park, which was like a dry jungle. I recognized the large banyan trees but not the tamarind or the Dhok which is a very important part of the ecological life of the park; its leaves are eaten by the many deer and antelope which are in turn, prey for the tigers.
I was curious to see the Neem tree, called the Wonder Tree, and revered in Hindu mythology. Local villagers use the twigs as a tooth cleanser. I use Neem tooth past. The leaf can be ground into a medicinal paste. It is also a shampoo and insect repellant.
So there I was searching for more Neem trees, when the driver slowed to a stop on the narrow trail. There, across a narrow creek at the foot of a rock ledge and no more than forty feet away, was a Bengal Tiger, just waking up. It raised its magnificent head; it yawned; it rested its head on its paws. The next time the tiger raised its head, it seemed to look right into my eyes. I figured the tiger—a female—would take two seconds to cover the distance between us. But then it looked away as if bored, and proceeded to ignore us for the next hour during which time we never took our eyes from her.
You can watch all the nature shows you wish, go to zoos, look up ‘tigers’ on the internet, read books but nothing can prepare you for seeing a full grown, seven feet long, including the tail, three-and-a-half foot high at the shoulder, 750 pound Bengal Tiger in its natural habitat just forty feet away from you. At least, I was not prepared. Awed, yes; but not prepared.
We stared as it yawned again and cleaned its paws and looked around, rolled about on the ground, stood and walked to the creek for a drink of water. Then we watched the tiger, off-spring of a legendary mother known as “crocodile killer”, lift its head and stare beyond us. “Must be deer,” said the guide, and, as if on cue there was a curious yelp. We turned to see ten or so sambur deer at the crest of the hill. They seemed to be looking at the tiger or smelling the tiger and she seemed to be doing the same. Then the deer scattered but rather than going back to sleep, the tiger began to tread through the bush. This was even more incredible, seeing her graceful movement. She looked even bigger.
She moved into the distance but the driver started up the jeep and we followed, never losing sight of her. After twenty minutes, the deer walked right across the trail, not twenty feet from the rear fender of our jeep. We heard movement from the deer pack but rather than follow directly our tiger set off in what seemed like the opposite direction, then we watched as she began to circle around the back. Soon it vanished into the bush.
It didn’t return to view but we had been extremely fortunate. We continued on through the Sanctuary, there were more sambur deer and chital or spotted deer; blue antelope, hundreds of grey langur monkeys. The langurs in the sanctuary are called Hanuman and have black hands and grey-white hair surrounding a black face. Their name is taken from a warrior in the Ramayana who burnt his hands and face in an attempt to rescue Rama’s wife from a fire. They have a close relationship with the chital deer that leave food for them; in return the langurs, from positions in the trees, warn of approaching predators.
We drove on and even saw a jungle cat, a tawny striped animal, somewhat like a raccoon but smaller and faster. It had long ears and yellow eyes, and is called a chaus. The guide said that it was so rare, he knew little about the cat. He’d only seen one other jungle cat all year.
I still retained the sense of awe as we left the sanctuary. Back at the inn, a man I had spoken with a few times, asked if we’d had any luck. He is a naturalist from England and I knew he’d gone out three times without seeing a tiger. I didn’t want to make him feel bad by enthusing so I just told him, Yes, we’d had some luck. Very good luck.
He looked quite sad, and a little bit as if the world were unfair. I shrugged. “Well, you’ll just have to come back and look another time.”
I know I will.
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