THE ELUSIVE TIGRESS!
Whenever you go to a forest, the major attraction is the animal life, to view it in their natural habitat. If there are tigers in the forest, then of course, the tiger takes to top priority! If at all there is no tiger to be seen, you have to ‘make-believe’ enjoying watching other lesser animals like deer, rabbits, wolves, peacocks, blue bucks, monkeys. Even though one always dearly wishes to see a tiger, there is never any guarantee. Tiger lives there in the forest, but he is so very elusive, always increasing the tantalization and excitement of a jungle trek. A game of elusion experienced in the Pench Tiger Project….
If everything goes according to our wish, there would be no struggle left in life. And it is exactly this – our wishes not getting fulfilled – that shapes the struggle in our lives. The two days spent in the Pench sanctuary were filled with everything: drama, surprises, fear, anxiety, joy, excitement. The whole experience became simply memorable.
I reached the Pench sanctuary in the morning of June 13, traveling via Nagpur. It had been decided to take rest for the remainder of the day. The resorts arranged for our stay were in the buffer zone of the Pench sanctuary, and so, there was quite a thick shrubbery around the resort. Temperature had gone up to 40 degree Celsius in the afternoon, and so, it was risky going out in the open. All of us gathered for lunch, and saw the resort surroundings. Though the temperature was in the forties, we did not feel the heat because of the thick trees spread as far as the eye could see. We watched for two hours, the video film on tigers, made by nature lover Dharma Giri who was present there in the resort. This raised the eagerness up a few notches. Later, when we gathered again for tea at 4 in the afternoon, we came to know that night safari were arranged in the forest. Of course, none of us wanted to lose the opportunity to tour the jungle at night. All of us agreed and it was decided to go into the jungle from 7 to 10 that evening. Gypsy vehicles were booked. Everybody hurriedly made necessary arrangements for the night and went to the gate to enter the forest.
At seven, we showed our IDs, completed forms with our names, addresses, signatures, and started our night jungle safari. There was a guide with us, as well as the Gypsy drivers, all of whom knew the forest inside out. All of a sudden, the guide and the driver left the tar road, and started driving the vehicle on a rough road. Full lights on, our vehicle was going through the darkness. The guide had already switched his torch on and was searching in the dark bushes and trees on both sides of the road. This road was much rougher than the tar road. The vehicle was bouncing through gullies and dried streams, stopping suddenly if any different noises were heard. So far, nothing of the wildlife had been visible, but the indescribable thrill of touring the jungle through pitch darkness was certainly there in abundance.
Our group had two vehicles, and both vehicles had started in different directions. Suddenly, we saw the other vehicle. Our mates in it were sitting completely motionless, intently peering into the darkness. We thought, perhaps they had seen a tiger, and we too stopped our vehicle. All of us began peering into the darkness, in the same direction. But nothing was visible as far as the torch beam shone. So, we whispered to them, what had they seen? A blue buck, someone replied. They were so excited that they were holding their collective breaths to watch a blue buck! It was the excitement of seeing at least some animal of the wildlife for the first time. So, our vehicle took another road and moved away. Just after a short distance, the guide thought he had seen something in the darkness. The vehicle was switched off. The guide was not able to say precisely what he had seen. But when he continued to stare at the same spot, it was the same blue buck that was seen earlier! It had avoided the lights of the vehicles and the torches and moved into darkness, and was again visible in the torch light of our guide. So, this time, we also enjoyed the thrill of having seen something of wildlife in the night darkness of the jungle.
Now, the moon was also visible in the sky, peeping from behind the few clouds in the sky. Stars also were shining. After some time, our attention was drawn to bird voices that could be heard, breaking the night silence. But these bird ‘conversations’ were peculiar. This was an area around a man-made lake. Such lakes have been constructed so that water could be available for the birds and animals in the forest. Many kinds of birds were flying around and making commotion. Torch was shone on the surface of the lake water to see if there was anything to be seen. There was a movement in the lake water, but it was just as frog! Some dark figures were seen on the other side of the lake. Thinking that it might be some wolf, torch light was shone there, but there was nothing. Yet, we literally drank the darkness of the jungle, and were happy!
This night safari was in the buffer zone of the Pench project. This forest is not entirely in control of the Forest Department. Villagers in the region also have some right of the forest, and they share the responsibility of maintaining the forest with the Forest Department. It was hardly a fortnight since the night safari was started. The purpose of the safari is also to restrict poachers and criminals, along with aiding tourism. Though it is also the purpose that the safari should help restrict poachers and hunters, as well as provide some employment to the local people, another point is also coming to the fore, that this night safari causes problems to the wildlife. Tourists, wildlife lovers, nature experts, and the Forest Department will be coming together to decide whether to continue night safaris.
The first night in Pench had certainly grown our enthusiasm. The next day, we were to get up at four in the morning and start touring the jungle at five. The possibility of coming across a tiger was more in that part of the forest, and so, there was a lot of excitement. All of us got read by five. Now we were accommodated in three Gypsy vehicles. The drivers instructed us to keep our cell phones switched off, as they were not allowed to be used. We were also not to disembark from our vehicles after entering the forest. The jungle tour would be till 9 in the morning. A tiger could be seen in that part of the forest, but there was not guarantee that all the tourists would be able to see it. However, all the efforts would be made for this. By the time instructions were over, our Gypsy had reached the main entrance into the Pench forest. Guides were present at the gate, one of whom came over and joined us. IDs of all tourists were inspected. The vehicle entered the jungle, and the fun started big time.
Many kinds of animals and birds were welcoming us on both sides of the road. Herds of deer were feeding freely. Monkeys were jumping from trees to trees. Peacocks were longing for the rains to come, ready fan their feathers and dance. Birds were chirping. Fragrances of peculiar forest flowers filled the air. The vehicle was moving forward slowly. Our guide was intently looking for the ‘call’. Now, this ‘call’ is a very important word in forest tourism parlance. Whenever a tiger is seen, all other animals and birds in the surrounding areas become alert. They start running, perking their ears. Monkeys sit on treetops and makes peculiar noises to alert other animals. Thus far, there had been no such ‘call’. There had been no alerts sounded. Our vehicle was going towards the area where there was a chance of coming across a tiger. The tigress, who was supposed to be seen, was called “Collarwali Female (the female with collar)”. She had three young cubs, and the guide was certain that she would be out to drink water.
Tigers in this forest reserve have been given different names, such as “Collarwali Female”, ‘Sharmili”, etc. ‘Sharmili” is shy, hence the name ‘Sharmili”. One of the tigers is known as “BMW”! This has nothing to do with the famous car. His name is “BMW” simply because there three Roman letters are seen on his left hind leg. “Bagin Nala Female” is the tigress who lives in the Bagin Nala area. Same goes for “Pivarthadi Female”. These tigers have been named like this by guides, tourists, local people, vehicle drivers etc. Most of the guides and drivers are from villages around the Pench project. They have got such jobs in the sanctuary, and they enjoy their job very much. While taking care that tourists will have no problems, they also safeguard and maintain the Pench wildlife.
Our guide was answering our questions, but at the same time, he was also intently looking for the ‘alert’. Just as our vehicle came near a dried stream, he saw that the deer had perked their ears. He signaled the driver, “Bhai, alert hai”. The vehicle stopped. Everybody sat motionless, listening intently. Certain sounds could be heard from a distance, and the vehicle started in that direction immediately then stopped once again. All of us held our breaths. It seemed certain that we were about to come across a tiger. So far, ours was the only vehicle on that road, but somehow, perhaps via the jungle telegraph, other vehicles also got the news, and three or four other vehicles also appeared quickly. Everybody was peering intently. The monkey calls continued for 15-20 minutes, starting and stopping intermittently. As far as we could see, no other animals could be seen anywhere. The guide sitting on top of the vehicle in front of us drew our attention. “Shh, Collarwali Female hai. Udhar Dekho.” He pointed with his finger. All of use started looking in that direction. Vehicles were moved to such convenient spots from where the tigress could be seen. By now, it was certain that the tigress was there in the bushes. Suddenly, there was more movement in the bush. We could see three cubs going away from us. Very faintly. Everybody stared at the bush now. A moment later, the tigress could be seen, following her cubs. More and more vehicles arrived. By now, about 15-20 vehicles had come to the spot. Some of them had arrived slightly late. Some had had only fleetingly seen the tigress with her cubs. All of the tourists in the vehicles waited patiently, hoping against hope to see the tigress once again, but to no avail. We went quickly by another road, hoping to see more of the Collarwali Female and her cubs. But it was pointless. None of the vehicles arriving late saw even a glimpse of them. It was just that – a glimpse. But we were very happy. But by now, our time was up, and we had to return. Yet, we hoped that we would be able see a tiger once again in the afternoon safari from 3.30 to 7 in the evening.
Another guide accompanied us at the afternoon jungle tour. He had different ideas. Our vehicle started towards the spot where tiger was likely to be seen. But we came across vehicles that were returning. We thought that our guide had made a mistake in guesswork. He asked one of the guides who were returning. The information given by this returning guide was rather shocking. There certainly was a ‘call’ at the spot where our guide was taking us, with a 100% chance that a tiger would be there. But, he was not about to come out because of some work started by the Forest Department. This was very disappointing news for tourists. Our vehicle was turned back. We still hoped that Collarwali Female and her cubs would come out for water, from where she was seen in the morning. Because there were no signs at the spot where there was water. All the vehicles were waiting there. We waited and waited, but she never came out – if at all she was there. Our dream of seeing a tiger remained just that – a dream. The Collarwali Female had eluded all of us.
Three media persons from Mumbai were present in this safari arranged in cooperation with Aircel. Boarding arrangements were made in Mahua Resorts. All the arrangements were perfectly done by coordinators Dapinder Kaur and Mudita Lal under the guidance of Bindra Malhotra, chief of this Aircel activity. With their cooperation, it was possible to experience and enjoy the beauty of tiger, as well as other wildlife, flora and fauna, and the nature. A green tree provides shade, but even leafless trees and dried twigs and leaves that have fallen on the ground in this jungle have become beautiful! Nature lovers must visit there at least once, to experience and enjoy it all!