“The trips up and down the jungle roads seeking the predators are a sure shot way to seek Nirvana, or at lease develop patience and perseverance!” – Meera
Come summer, the promise of sighting predators in the jungles of Karnataka took us yet again to one of the resorts of the state-run Jungle Lodges and Resorts – The Kabini River Lodge (KRL) on the banks of Kabini River. This was our fourth trip to a jungle resort and the second to KRL after our first one in 2008. Still a novice compared to people – photographers especially – who make more frequent and longer trips.
My thoughts during this trip, though, were not on these people keen to shoot breath-taking moments of wildlife on their bazooka-like lenses but on our ancient sages who preferred the forest to seek the purpose of life. If one seeks to understand the insignificance of mankind, seeking a predator in its natural surroundings is the best way to do it, in my humble view. You may be all excited about the possibility of spotting one of these majestic cats, but the cats themselves do not reciprocate the feeling! You could traverse the entire length and breadth of the area you are permitted to travel in, but whether the cat times its presence to be there to receive you is purely a matter of chance and not choice.
Entering the Deep
There are several dos and don’ts when you enter the forest – maintaining silence is one of the key, and remaining in the vehicle another one. Ironically, while you peep eagerly into the bushes from the safety of your jeep, you see tribal people walking through the forests, laughing and chatting with no care for chasing away the animals you have come to see! In fact, they would prefer if the animals avoid the path they are on, and are completely at cross purposes with you.
The first time we went was with extended family including two two-year-olds, two five-year-olds, two eight-year-olds and three sets of parents of these children. Silence? We wouldn’t recognise it if it were staring straight at us! We were no better than the tribal people who walk through the jungles as if celebrating the occasion, though it defeated our purpose.
Kabini 2008 was our first exposure to wildlife safaris. We were totally unprepared.
We enjoyed the ambience at the resort – cottages facing the river, a hammock to relax in and people to chat with along with excellent service and great food. Unfortunately, we treated even the forest as an extension of the resort. We picked up conversations that had been interrupted in the process of getting into the jeeps, our children got bored and restless as we traversed the same tracks again and again in the hope of sighting some large animal or a predator and whined.
We knew why cheetal’s were called spotted deer – because you spot them at every corner!
And the wild boars were so boringly predictable, digging their noses in the mud!
Langurs thought we were worth seeing and came in large numbers, hanging from different trees, watching us with interest. Peacocks dotted the landscape, their rich blue sparkling against the red mud and green leaves even from far.
It all sort of paled in front of the gossip we had to share.
Kabini 2014 showed that we could still be surprised by these common animals that we were dismissing off hand – not even pausing to take pictures of. We were pleasantly surprised to catch three peacocks dancing and jiggling their backsides for the heroines in their stories! Langurs apparently do more than just hang from trees. We caught them active one foggy morning, when we returned disappointed yet again from a watering hole empty handed. A group of hyperactive langurs had us enthralled for several minutes. The young ones started with a fight that was more acrobatic than aggressive. Soon others joined. At one point, we noticed one adult langur caressing a younger langur’s arm and embracing. The gesture suggested the elder one was trying to soothe ruffled nerves, but didn’t succeed for long as the battle ensued in right earnest. Mothers abandoned their young ones to join the fray or to mediate while the little ones tried to chase the mothers and reclaim their place on her chest. This provided much amusement as sometimes the mother moved on impatiently and the children slipped off to the floor.
And then, as tempers cooled, we found one climb up a not very high branch, cling to it and slide down, tearing the leaves in the process, but making it look absolute fun!
Though we had been told langurs, boars and cheetals are normally seen together in a prey-network to communicate the presence of a predator quickly, this time we also saw langurs plucking some leaves from higher branches and throwing them down for the cheetals to gorge on!
There is a saying in Tamil – what we know will fill a fist and what we have to learn can fill the vast ocean. I am sure there are many more wonders hidden in the wild world yet to be discovered and deciphered.
The Giant Act
Sometimes, when your wish comes true, you are just not prepared for it. Like the time we were by the water hole in Kabini, watching the deers and the boars and trying to convince ourselves that that was the greatest moment on earth! There was another jeep in front of us, no doubt just as frustrated as us, when suddenly, a herd of elephants emerged from the bushes from the rear side, very close to the first jeep. Imagine some five or six of these heavyweights sneaking up like a cat! There was a baby elephant in the group and the lead elephant turned on the first jeep, its ears flaring and its trunk stiff in anger. It trumpeted, warning us off. We backed slowly, and the elephant ran ahead, kicked a fallen coconut tree to send the boars scurrying away in fear.
No, a charging elephant is not a pleasant sight, especially when you and that said elephant are on the same bank! We reversed and escaped, only to stop abruptly a few meters away, just short of a lone tusker. Given our luck, I was sure that the giant was a rogue one and was going to go on a rampage. We stood stock still till the tusker moved away.
Phew! We learnt that a jungle ride was no picnic.
In BR Hills, another jungle resort in Karnataka that we visited last year, we were helplessly stranded like the daanveer Karna, our jeep tyre caught in slush during a heavy downpour as an elephant watched us from some distance, munching on whatever elephants munched on. My hands trembled as I clicked the photo thinking at least posterity will glimpse the threat I faced in my last moments. Am I glad to tell the tale!
This trip too, we had a close call, and an elephant charged since there was a baby in the herd. We had caught each other unawares! But my faith in the naturalists who accompany us was restored as they did the most sensible thing of switching off the engine and letting the vehicle go still. Placated the elephant moved back, but left me wary of every elephant we met after that.
They were still full of surprises. The next elephant group also had a baby, and a tusker stood guard. But instead of charging or showing even mildest signs of irritation, he actually went on to pose for us, generously swinging his trunk and blowing dust over himself. Finding it too mundane, he plucked a sapling that looked incongruously small against his massive body, and chucked it over his head. The guy was a natural comedian and had us all giggling.
Yet another elephant, a lone tusker, showed us some of the uses of his trunk. After swaying his hips this way and that as he walked ahead, he went to the side then stopped – one of his front legs was up while he used the trunk in its stead, to balance himself. I am glad that Kabini elephant experiences, while showing the angry side of this giant, has not scarred me for life. I continue to look forward to seeing them in their natural setting, albeit from a safe distance.
The Light and Sound Show
In a jungle, yes, there was a light and sound show. Not organised by the government or the resort officials but by nature herself. But while it was awe-inspiring, it was scary too.
This was in BR Hills, and as you can guess, we were on a hill, amidst tall and short trees and bushes in the sweltering month of May, with most foliage having turned brown and dry. We had been recommended this place for the log huts which were quaint. Boars (yes, more of them) and deer roamed freely in the resort. Even the normally shy barking deer met us on the day we reached there. But in the forest, all we saw were birds and more birds, of different plumage going about their business. We collected impressive knowledge of birds and how to spot them. (It was a proud moment when I was the only one to capture the elusive paradise flycatcher in the camera in Bandipur on an earlier occasion). The knowledge of identifying tiny birds with long names – such as Asian Brown Flycatcher – came in handy to show off when we travelled with novices in the safaris and having them look at us with awe; but our main game of tigers and leopards are hard to catch.
On one such safari, it started pouring and thunder and lightning put on a spectacular show. I tremble even on level ground. So many feet above sea level was not the right time to remember science lessons about not being under a tree when lightning strikes. It was worse to be in the last row in the jeep where I could see lightning touch the ground behind us. The smell of what I assume was sulphur had me worried. But my camera wielding husband was more worried that we would be driven back to the room before we could spot any predator!!! Much to our disappointment, all we got to see was the pugmark of a leopard the next morning.
On the way back from the resort, we saw such a wonderful variety of birds that though I crib, I must admit I scan the horizon to feast on the sight of birds often. Among the items in the ‘I will not do that’ list, ornithology was one. But when you see the variety out there, it is hard to resist.
In Kabini 2008, we had heard of earlier jeeps sighting leopards on trees, of catching sight of tigers slaking their thirst. But by the time we reached the spot, predators would have vanished. So, when during our second jungle trip in Bandipur, when the normally sedate jeep suddenly was driven as if by a madman through one part of the forest to another, even bypassing elephants that had suddenly emerged from nowhere, I forced myself not to hope for much.
And so, when we were suddenly brought to a path where an adolescent tiger lay in plain sight, my ecstasy knew no bounds. I feel that way if I get a rare, relaxed darshan at Tirpupathi. He looked at us languidly from some 20 feet away with sleepy eyes and seemed to be in no hurry to go away. When he finally did get up, it was at a leisurely, thoughtful pace. Predators and scary? Not this one!
Yes, this trip already fell in the category of ‘successful’. The eagerness to go on the safari increased, but it was back to birds and the bees. The next evening, after celebrating a chance sighting of a family of elephants, we watched with fascination a peahen crying when the naturalist suddenly said, “There is a leopard in the bushes!” Our benign enjoyment turned to excitement as we spotted the animal beautifully camouflaged behind the bushes. The peahen chased the predator all the way across the mud track behind the jeep. The leopard, though angry and irritated, walked away seeking fatter prey. It paused to smell deer droppings and, guessing the direction of its prey, headed away from us but still in plain sight.
Can you blame us for this addiction to the jungle safaris? Can anything be scarier and yet… and yet… so satisfying! What words can describe that moment? Can you blame us then that we went to BR Hills the next summer, and that we were terribly disappointed at not sighting these majestic animals? Can you blame us that we should decide to try our luck in Kabini again and hope that this season we will not return empty handed?
We returned to Kabini in 2014. The reception at the resort displayed a board with the list of animals sighted. Tiger and leopard occupied the pride of place. Every day for the previous seven days, both safaris every day, the predators had been spotted. But that evening, as we set out full of hopes, rumbling skies sent the tigers and leopards back to their shelters.
The next morning too, we returned without luck. But just as we headed back on the highway, the naturalist suddenly asked the driver to stop the jeep. He could spot a tiger on the bank of a waterhole some 500 meters away. We could only guess at the direction till I saw the tiger shake its head and its creamy patch below the neck catch the sunlight. It was not enough and we thirsted for more.
But that evening proved disappointing. We spotted jackals, which looked like tiny dogs and keen on avoiding us.
The next morning, even the elephants and gaurs were scarce. We made a final trip to a water hole really expecting nothing. We saw a jeep ahead of us, waiting a safe distance from the banks. The man at the back gestured us to stop, then move forward. There was something there! Then we saw the jackal and it was anti-climactic. We heard the word leopard whispered. Hiding behind a mound. We saw a movement. There it was, just a glimpse of something menacing.
And then it emerged in full view, intent on avoiding us, crossing the first jeep not 15 feet from where we were, merging with the bushes, and then climbing a tree, licking its paws, grooming itself before flopping on the branch for a nap.
It was Kabini’s parting gift to us. We returned, full in our hearts at having seen this majestic animal. It was thrilling like living on the edge.
As we travelled to a water hole, frequented by a tiger, our hopes rising, we also spotted co-founder of Infosys, father of UID, entrepreneur turned politician Nandan Nilakeni at the waterhole. If not for us lesser mortals, won’t the tiger make an appearance at least for him?
No, the tigers and leopards are too far up the food chain. They care little for us enthusiastic tourists, preferring to hide in core areas where tourism is not allowed.
Even our benign, well-meant, eager not to disturb measures sometimes fall short. For instance, this leopard by the river bank had fought with the jackal for a kill hidden by the mound where we had sighted it first. Maybe catching sight of intruders, it abandoned its food to move to a quieter spot.
Earlier, in one of the previous safaris, we had seen a crested serpent eagle on a fallen tree on the ground. Very excited, we moved closer and the bird flew to a higher branch. Someone spotted a viper slithering on the floor very close to where the eagle had been sitting. Again, maybe our presence had deprived the bird of its food, as we watched the viper slip into an anthill. Well, one man’s cake is another man’s poison. Eagle’s loss was viper’s gain that day!
Such philosophical thoughts are natural in these quiet surroundings where your thoughts are fixed on one object.
As we returned to our rooms, I saw the villagers living on the borders of the forest and how they may view us urban dwellers eagerly going up and down on safaris! We wish to see exactly that which they want to never see near their homes – the rampaging elephants, the fierce leopards and the killer tigers. Why, I cannot imagine my own forefathers going to the forest to see these creatures! And yet, today, as the tag-along wife of a camera-toting husband, it has become an addiction, a desire – to visit the jungles, to see these animals of different sizes and temperaments up close. From a safe distance, yes, but see them for sure.
On returning home, a program on National Geographic made me realise how dangerous an addiction it can be. The accidents that can happen… how these human-shy predators can turn around, and with one swipe of their powerful claws, change one’s life! But then, when we met people who were staying at the resort for six days and longer, it seemed as if we were missing out on action.
And it made me wonder about life, about the futility of desire, of the misconception that man is superior. We are nothing. The leopard did not bare its fangs or pause to show off its powers. The tiger was in his world, and couldn’t care less who saw him. The elephants – were busy mud-slinging on themselves and cavorting in water. Beware though of going too close, but you walk your way, I walk mine!
There is a beauty, a charm, a remoteness that is appealing. You are nothing more than a spectator. You cannot orchestrate sightings, they happen to you.
It is much like life, and letting go of that eagerness, that anticipation and flowing with the current – that is all one can do.
Is it surprising then that forest is where one seeks knowledge and enlightenment?
Photography – Srikant Ranganathan