When I describe my close encounter with a tiger at Bandipur Tiger Reserve, a friend remarks, “It was not a sighting, it was a show.” He is not too far off the mark.
Cut to an early Sunday morning. All six of us in the jeep are listless and drowsy from a night of inadequate sleep. As a norm, I love morning safaris because it is great to be in the forest when everything is just coming to life after the cold night. It is usually a loud, busy time, filled with bird song and animal calls, but it is not so that morning in Bandipur.
After a desultory ride in the first 15 minutes, our driver gets a call on his mobile phone. And off we go, tearing over the bumpy mud tracks, holding on for dear life. A few hundred metres on, he stops behind another jeep and waves his hand to the right with a flourish that translates to, “Here is the treat I promised you.”
And what a treat it is. An adult male is walking parallel to our path, slowly, purposefully. He gives us a show for over an hour. We spend the entire morning tracking him and watching his activities at various spots. Our driver has a good nose for second-guessing the tiger’s movements, knowing where he would emerge next.
The tiger leads us on a merry dance, walking on the mud path, with our jeep trailing him. At one point, he half turns his head, as if to ask, “Are you still with me?” And so, he goes on, stopping ever so often by the towering teak trees, to mark his territory by licking the trunk.
Now, the gait of the tiger can only be called a catwalk: graceful, elegant and haughty. As if everyone watching the show—mere humans, annoying paparazzi—is not worthy of his attention. And it impossible not to be fascinated by this spectacle.
I have been to several national parks in India and been lucky enough to see tigers during many of my forays into the forest. But this one is special for two reasons: It is one of those rare sightings that come by pure chance, without the preceding drama of following pug marks, listening to alarm calls from sambar deer, and waiting with bated breath for the king to put in an appearance. Secondly, we are the only two jeeps initially, making it an entirely peaceful sighting, without the usual annoying noise and excited chatter, or aggressive pushing and shoving for that vantage position.
In contrast, the evening safari hasn’t yielded any big cats, despite a jeep full of people with eyes peeled for the tiger on the ground and neck craned up towards tree branches for the leopard. What we have is some exciting bird sightings, including the green bee-eater, magpie robin and white-throated kingfisher. As with other Indian national parks, there are herds of grazing chital, groups of langur and the occasional wild boar or mongoose. We come face-to-face with several tuskers, first a lone adult who refuses to pay any attention to us and then catches us unawares with an aggressive mock charge. I swear I can hear him laugh as the jeep driver accelerates madly to get away.
Bandipur is uniquely located, in that the main forest falls along the highway linking Bangalore and Ooty. It is not uncommon to see animals on the road, and everyone who has driven the route has an elephant-crossing story. Ours is that of a family, I imagine a mother and father, playing with the little one by the roadside. This area was once the hunting ground for the royal family of Mysore, the Wodeyars. It was brought into Project Tiger in 1973. It is now also a part of the Nilgiri biosphere along with large tracts of forestland in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
It is peak monsoon season when we make the trip, a time when most national parks remain closed. Bandipur is one of the few (the rest also in south India) to welcome visitors through the year. And visitors come with high hopes of spotting a tiger, given that there are over 100 in this forest alone.
After years of dismal news about poaching and government apathy, the December 2014 census showed a considerable increase in numbers—from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,226 in 2014. And Karnataka zipped to the top position, with 406 tigers.
It is generally said that the monsoon season is a bad time to visit, but I think the forest comes into its own then, with lush vegetation and fewer people. As for chances of tiger sightings, it depends on luck and persistence. And on whether the tiger wants to be seen.