On the tiger trail

USHA KRIS drives deep into the Kanha forests and falls in love with royalty of the striped variety 

What is India News Service
24 March 2005

The style of welcome was quite the unexpected. As we arrived from Nagpur in a taxi, our friends greeted us. It was late evening. As is my wont, I looked up to see a night sky studded with diamonds. A firefly competing for attention flew dramatically above me to settle on a high branch, thus merging with the distant stars. We were in Kanha, a ten-minute ride from the forest where the tigers lay waiting for us. I shivered in the thrill of anticipation.

We leave at 4.55 was the firm announcement. Our friend Ernie's enthusiasm for being up and out early made for good tiger sighting. I am sure he was a little anxious that his guests would be a cause for delay. But then he did not know my army upbringing! First in line at the Kahtia gate, first to enter the forest at the Kisli gate, we went first every time, letting the others cope with the dust that the vehicles kicked up.

Rehman, our knowledgeable driver, took us along in the four-wheel drive on various paths from six in the morning till 12 or 12:30 p.m., and again in the afternoons from four to six when the gates closed. On a normal day, the elephants and their mahouts go scouting for tigers starting as early as five in the morning. When they spot the tiger, the base is informed. Everyone makes a bee line to the gate. The elephant takes you right up close to the tiger. Once, the tiger had moved way into the forest, taking the elephant almost ten minutes to get there.

This in itself is a fascinating journey to nature lovers. Brushing against all kinds of foliage, including bamboo and the Sindhur tree -- I even felt the red berries that go to make kum-kum for the ladies! The terrain is through ditches and mounds. Clutching on to my camera bag, hanging on to the wooden post on the howdah, in the screened sunlight that filtered through the thick canopy of trees, we approached the tiger.

"There," said Michael, but I could see no tiger. Only after an intense search did I see this magnificent creature camouflaged gold merging with the autumn leaves, and the black stripes with the dark of the mottled light that filtered through. He was sleeping and could not care less at the parade of elephants carrying eager tourists to the spot right beside him. Hot and sleepy, he glanced at us. Three mahouts gently came around the tiger. This is a feat, let me tell you. Manoeuvering three huge animals in a small area certainly requires expertise. He then got up to move on to a more open spot which was perfect for photography. Then again he went through rough terrain to sit down and lick the salt off some earth which a female may have marked. It the end, it was enough to convert me into a tiger lover for the rest of my life. He was a handsome male, 5 years old, ten feet at least from nose to tail tip, affectionately named Geisha Boy by Carroll and Ernie because of a peculiar marking on the side of his head. The two of them have been visiting the forest for 16 years, and the tales they tell of their experiences beats the stories in any book.

The moon rose, filling the evening sky with a golden hue. Always breathtaking, the full moon was all the more dramatic with the majestic forest as foreground, adding to the drama staged by nature. The unpolluted azure sky, clear beyond belief to us city slickers, the birds going to nest, the deer ambling along to the water holes... Suddenly, as we drove by, two large eyes gazed intensely at us. In the bushes, barely visible, the samba deer looked at us soulfully. The large liquid brown eyes melted into the foliage; gone before we could bring the vehicle to a stop to take a photograph! 

We drove into thick bamboo jungle. The morning light barely filtered through -- the patches of light were dimmer even though it was nearing noon. Up the winding narrow road we stopped to hear bird calls -- an amazing variety, and then a Barasingha appeared like an apparition and was gone. It was only on the last day that they put forth an appearance, giving us an audience while they looked on like royalty. The drive was long. On either side was the valley. To one side, the tribal settlements, and the other side the forest we came from. Driving this narrow way for a few kilometers, we came to Bamhi Dadar, where Shravan Kumar was cremated. The trees had lost their leaves as is the wont in the month of February, an autumn for tropical India, and the new leaves had sprouted in endearing pastels. Some trees had burst into the song of flowers. A fortnight from now we could have had a symphony of flowers from the tall trees reaching out into the blue of the sky. This area’s claim to fame is the start of the Ramayana. The trees fell away. A large clearing appeared on the high point of the range, at 870 feet meters, almost like the hills in Chincherro, Peru.
This is because of the rounded stark hill top. The tall grass was dry, and the vista magnificent. 

Quite ecstatic at the tops of trees lacing the sky, Ernie had a chance to air his botanical knowledge while I was trying desperately to catch up. By far the most interesting was the Kulu or ghost tree. With delicate bare white limbs, she stood out amidst the darker companions, very much like sighting a ghost. I so wished to capture it in the light of early morning, but we were invariably sent onward by the threat of the impatient vehicle behind us. Yet I managed to photograph it despite Ernie’s slogan urging me to take ‘a memory photograph.’

The chant became familiar. Michael has seen over 60 tigers and Ernie has lost count as he has been sighting them for 16 years. Teaching me how to look for special markings which identify the tigers, they had names for all their striped friends. Did you see Sundari today? Or Sunder who has been missing for some time? Ram and Lakshman they have watched growing up. Soon I knew the very spots where a tiger had been sighted almost as if I had seen one there. Such is the power of tiger watching. Hot and tired, we waited for our turn for the tiger darshans as a tiger had been spotted. All of a sudden, the tigress had moved. Heart beating fast, not knowing if she was going out of reach or would settle down in an accessible place, we waited. Thankfully she settled in the tall grass. We got on the elephant which took us within three feet of the tigress. She stretched, looked this way and that, and yawned. It seems that if a tiger yawns three times or so, it would change its resting place, an indication that it was too hot, but I never imagined I would actually see a tiger open its mouth large enough to swallow a live rabbit, and live to tell the tale! Sure enough as we got off the elephant, the tigress was ready to go, but we had seen Umerpani’s older girl. Umerpani, the older tigress, now had two babies, hardly four months old.

The ability to listen is critical for survival in the forest. We too, from time to time, stopped the vehicle to listen. In the shade, a gentle breeze blowing, I would shut my eyes. An incredible number of sounds, of the peacock, the deer, the fox and innumerable birds that I was at a loss to identify. That is a distress call... Rehman would rev up the four wheel drive and move toward the direction of the sound. After a wait of almost an hour, a tigress moved. Her back shimmered in the light of the setting sun. She melted into the tall grass. One by one the other vehicles joined us. The excitement mounted. Others had spied two cubs with her. Then she moved again, and crossed the road. The tall grass parted and closed in after her, and she was well hidden in nature’s impeccable camouflage. The pups, only four months old, were too shy to emerge. All of us, the tigress, the cubs and 20 jeep loads of people waited. It was nearing six and time to go. Reluctantly the drivers moved away to turn in for the day. The numbers came down. We were two vehicles left.

Now it is time to go, said Rehman, and we had no choice but to follow suit. The tiger family won the waiting game, needless to say, and the family was together as soon as we were gone. The red ball of fire right in our eyes, and the full moon smiling its farewell, we returned richer for the experience.

Back in Chennai, recounting my adventures, apprehensive voices commented “What if the tiger had pounced?” 

“There is less chance of being mauled by a tiger in the forest than being run over on the city roads by an errant water lorry. “ But then, I would rather die killed by the tiger.” I retorted.

Usha Kris was awarded the Bharat Nirman for artistic photography and can be contacted at