|The law of the jungle|
“Now this is the law of the jungle-as old and as true as the sky; the wolf that may keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die; for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack. And remember the night is for hunting, and forget not the day is for sleep. Keep peace with the lord of the jungle-the tiger, the panther, and bear; And trouble not the Hathi the silent, and not mock the boar on his lair. Now these are the laws of the jungle, and many and mighty are they; But the head and the hoof of the law and haunch and the hump is “obey””.
Rudyard Kipling in Jungle book
Kanha conjures up visions of a roaring and furious Sher Khan in search of “Mowghli” while the wolves cry out to a grey moon and Baloo, the bear, shares his intellect with the assembly. This is my foray into Mowghli land, The Kanha National Park. Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling recreated the magic of this charmed forest in his classic, The Jungle Book. My entourage consists of hyperactive photographer from Sweden and a couple of Australian physiatrists, all in India to catch a glimpse of the elusive stripes. For each of us, a visit to Kanha is a childhood fantasy come alive. We cling to our “Jungle Book” memoirs as we retrace the paths once tread by Mowgli and his animal friends. Where Bagheera, the panther, and Ka, the python, told the jungle story.
After a rib-cracking journey from Nagpur, we reach Kanha and are greeted by a smiling manager at the Krishna jungle lodge. After a quick bite we head out for our afternoon safari. Our guide, Kumar, speaks fluently in English. The Swedes cannot believe their ears while he explains us the topography of Kanha in fluid words. Divided in three ranges, Kisli, Kanha and Mukki, Kanha is spread over 940 sq km. It is covered with Sal and Bamboo forests while being interspersed with vast expanse of grasslands.
Even though the Kanha range is 8 km from Kisli and has a better concentration of tigers, we decide to drive around the Kisli range forests. Soon, our jeeps come to a delightful green patch dotted by cheetals. A little further, we chance upon a pair of wolves. Our driver Mohan cruises the jeep deeper into the forest in search of the tiger. For Kanha, N’ Gorongoro of India strikes as an apt simile. Kanha is green and its hills densely wooded. But unlike Tanzania’s N’ Gorongoro, the Kanha valley is not a volcanic crater, though the enclosing hills are a consequence of ancient geological activity.
Hush! Kumar says suddenly. He has heard the Sambar’s whooping call. The monkeys excitedly move the tree leaves. Sher Khan is about to arrive. Kumar stands on the jeep’s ledge in excitement and looks likely to fall anytime. But Sher Khan decides to be elusive and we move ahead to a different location to spot a big herd of gaurs. Gaurs belong to the cow family. They are mammoth creatures with a head covered with crests and impressive curved horns. The huge bulk of their body contrasts with their innocent baby like faces. Their feet appear covered in white socks and stand out against their otherwise brown or black bodies.
My friends from Sweden breath a sigh of relief. Their trip is saved from being a total waste. They would now be able to tell everyone back home that they saw an endangered species. Suddenly, it is pitch dark. It is as if God has decided to switch off the lights. My eyes slowly tune to the darkness. Mohan hurries to the gate to catch the closing time of the evening safari, failing which he will have to pay a heavy fine.
Crackling fire and drinks await us at the lodge. We sit around the fire exchanging stories. Greg comes shouting. We come to know he has spotted a leopard behind his tent and rush to it. The leopard turns out to be a dog. Greg has had a drinks too many and we put him to sleep and go to sleep as well.
Finally… The tiger
Next morning, we leave for the jungle at dawn. A tigress with cubs has just been spotted near Shravantal. Our jeeps zoom forward while the jungle information system goes to work again. The langur raises an alarm, the stamp deer urgently stamps a foot and the peacocks heave themselves up with their bloodcurdling calls. The tigress is close. The air is heavy with her smell. Anticipation rises while tourists bombard their guides with questions. young couple tries to haggle for a fare discount, if they don’t’ get to see the big cat. “We will give you two hundred rupees if we see the tiger,” says another couple. A Gujarati is confident of seeing a tiger with all his lucky charms intact.
“She is coming, I see her tail” shouts an excited Kumar. Everything comes to a standstill while we wait with bated breaths. Half an hour passes without luck. Will our wait prove to be unfruitful yet again? The suspense, to use a cliché, is almost killing. Impatient chatter breaks the silence. Cranky children start crying with their mother scolding them to stop. A kid on a jeep shouts “two tigers, we saw two of them”. Apparently, a pair had been spotted near the Kanha range. All of the twenty odd jeeps rush to the spot. But Kumar refuses to move. “Madam, it will come please wait”.
Ten more minutes tick away. Tired of making doodles on my diary and biting my nails, I take to watching birds. Kanha’s has a rich bird life with the tally of species being close to 300. I am able to spot the Indian roller, golden oriole, paradise flycatcher, munia, bushchat, among others. A loud swoosh sound fills the air. Couple of crested serpent eagles chase a poor dowdy snake. A real life jungle drama takes place before our eyes. The eagles cannot decide how to share the snake. The snake seizes the opportunity to escape and glides back in its burrow. The eagles have lost their meal.
Kumar is almost about to give up. As Mohan stars igniting the engine, we hear whimpers and scratches on the tyres. I take a quick look. Two tiger cubs!! They have taken a fascination to the tyres and are playing with them. I want to give a whoop of joy. One of them looks up and tries to scare me with its growl but it sounds more like a kitten’s “meow”. A real “growl”, shatters the silence. A tigress is standing right in front of us. She emerges, silently, moving towards us regally. Her skin burns like tarnished gold in the morning sunlight. Our hearts palpitate violently. Mohan is in a dilemma. If he starts the jeep, the cubs might get crushed under the wheels. If he delays, we might become the mother tigress’ meal.
She stops some ten feet away and stares straight into my eyes. One blow and I become dead meat. I feel my hair rising. She roars an order to the cubs. They retreat into the bushes. My heart comes literally in my mouth as she walks unhurriedly past me. For a second, I glimpse something akin to gratitude in the tigress’ eyes. I feel an instant bonding. This is the first time I am seeing a tiger and it is an experience I will always cherish.
We thank Kumar and continue our jungle run. A herd of wild boars cross the path in front of us. The American behind our jeep shouts “Asterix, Obelix and I am hungry.” Our luck continues as we spot the rare ale Barasinghas with the magnificent crown of 12 antlers. They were once found extensively in central India, but are confined to Kanha alone. The rivalry among the males leads to a serious fight while unconcerned females graze away. We head back for the night as I wish things were just so easy in the human world.
The tiger show
Next morning, we take part in the tiger show. An exercise that involves tracking tigers on elephant. The tigers are “trapped” by park elephants and a message is relayed to tourists who then scurry to view the beast. For people who have not been lucky enough to spot a tiger on a jeep, the tiger show is a consolation. Our elephants name is Lakshmi. Sur Singh, our mahout, the elephant driver, friend, philosopher and guide, greets us. “Eyes, ears and nose open and mouth shut,” he instructs. Sur Singh expertly guides us to a huge tiger hungrily gnawing a cheetal. He is the Kanha male, a tiger past his prime. Sur Singh tells us he still has the same vigour of a young tiger. The male snarls at us. Lakshmi lurches in fright and we all are tossed backwards. Some clinging desperately to the paikhana while the remaining hold an irritated Sur Singh.
Robert Pirsig in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance wrote: “Through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You are a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone… you are in the scene and not watching it anymore.” Same stands for watching a tiger from an elephant. I am loath to leave. But at last, a sense of intruding upon a tiger’s privacy takes over forcing our collective departure.