Never thought I would see a tiger in the wild. My audience with royalty has been restricted to zoos where they lay looking malnourished, depressed and extremely edgy; an exhibit for all to see.
I have visited some national parks across the country, but never insisted on seeing the tiger. The guides and drives say its rare; I am just happy to smell the earth and breathe to my hearts content. There's also guilt that our race has left so little for them and I am intruding that limited space.
My New Year visit to Ranthambore was to awaken the activist in me and to take my resolve to actively participate and support conservation programmes.
Day 1: First drive into the national park was joyous; the park is one of the few dry deciduous forests with some forty tigers (forest department census). It has a great variety of animals, reptiles and birds. But the main attraction off course is the King and Queen of the jungle. We had a great guide, Salim, who knew the forest he had even worked with a couple of BBC natural history programmes.
We drove around the zone four and after a while we just told him to stop at a peaceful spot and chill; that's when the forest came alive. The silence was deafening broken ever so gently by little birds, the lullaby of the forest makes you want to stay forever. We followed a few sambar calls for the tiger but left the park without seeing one. I was just happy being there. On my way back had an argument with my wife over why there were no female guides or drivers.
Day 2: At 6:30 as if to prove a point Hemlatha our new guide turned up (don't know if it was engineered). Our driver Shakeel had been driving around the park over two decades (had some nasty stories about some conservationists), Shakeel spoke a lot even claimed to have learnt English on the job (he was good). He would say Holdon (hold on) every time he decided to start, I held on!!
In this picture: Karma, Shakeel, Suresh and Hemlatha (guide)
Shakeel and his stories penetrated the peace of Ranthambore, encouraged by my questions and silly one-liners; he went on and on till my wife put a stop to us. We were also lucky to have Neel, a naturalist, who looks after a resort in Khana. He was the one to hear the first sambar call.
The Call: For a successful sighting one must listen to the warning calls for the King made by the animals. Sambar's is by far the most accurate. Once we heard the call Shakeel bolted down the tracks..we could just get a glimpse of a young prince as he walked back from his morning drink. He vanished into the thick foliage.
Follow up: Experienced Shakeel knew the path he would take so went and positioned the gypsy at that spot. Several minutes passed and the calls grew fainter and fainter. We gave up and moved on towards a forest camp for a break.
Oye Lucky: On our way back we heard a second Sambar call..followed by a Langur's very close to where we were. We headed towards the direction the Langurs were looking...
And Finally!!! The prince walked out in all his glory, my wife who's the trained cameraperson was so awed that her hands failed, she quickly threw the camera to me, she just wanted to watch him. An SLR can be tricky for the untrained it took precious seconds for me to understand that everything was in manual mode.
Switching back to my favourite auto mode seemed like forever, the prince did not care for a photo opp, he would not wait. Lens focus to auto, camera focus to auto, auto flash off, camera to auto ohhhwwww..by then he has lumbered a little further. I managed auto and that point he stopped. Turned to look at us in all his glory as if to say, "Karma, you idiot here's your chance. You silly human,", I said "thank you" deep inside.
Others arrived there was chatter and hushes all around...Tiger, Tiger diminishing but still burning bright.
Our Audience was with Prince T7 (they are all numbered in Ranthambore) son of Queen Jhumri, the undisputed rulers of zone five. Prince t7 (sounds like a rapper) then slowly walked up the path towards a temple in the middle of the jungle and continued his morning walk, perhaps looking for a kill. We would not be his breakfast, we were too easy. Royalty always has their way with things.
My dad is a religious man and believes that a meeting with the tiger can lead to enlightenment. He had asked me to 'chant om mani padme hum,' if I saw one. I did because it's easy sitting on a jeep. I would have to chant a lot many mantras if I were to meet in the old days, walking down a lonely path. And the only enlightenment I would get is inside his stomach.
Seriously! Was I enlightened? I guess I was. I still tremble with excitement as I write this now. Has it been life changing? i don't know. But it's definitely made my resolve to fight to save them stronger. Now I also perfectly understand William Blake's poem.
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?