Sitting on the terrace of the homestay in Corbett, shivering slightly in the crisp Kumaoni air, we glanced through the photographs from our evening in the forest. I realised then that I had shot an entire series on the tiger cub, which was the highlight of that safari, perhaps the whole trip. One of the images caught our attention: the cub licking his lips, a pensive glint in his eye.
At that moment, I recalled a joke from a long time ago. Question: “What did the tiger cub say when it saw us on the jeep?” Answer: “Meals on wheels.”
It was all very well to joke about it then, as I warmed my hands in the bonfire, far away from the dark depths of the forest. Cut to a few hours earlier in the evening. As the tiger cub kept advancing towards our jeep, it was all I could do to keep my hold on the camera. Don’t think for a minute that cub meant a small, helpless animal. This tiger kid, less than 18 months old, was almost as big as his mother.
Shaky fingers. Dry throat. A frisson of fear mixed with the excitement.
This tiger sighting came after a long, tiring ride in the forest, where we saw more jeeps than animals. At one point, our driver Jalees, with his experience of over twelve years in this forest, stopped on a path where he sensed tiger movement. Within minutes, a dozen other jeeps had pulled up next to ours – the jungle drum system of communication is very efficient – in a buzz of eager eyes, animated whispers and cameras with bazooka lenses.
As if to herald her presence in the area, the tigress roared, the sound reverberating in an air already thick with anticipation. A rustle in the dry bushes, a flash of tawny stripes and she was gone. This was the elusive Sharmilee, recent mother of two and queen of Corbett’s Bijrani Zone. True to her name, Sharmilee played hide and seek with us for a while, and finally bored of it all, vanished into the wilderness.
Apart from a few sporadic alarm calls from the deer, Bijrani stayed silent for the rest of the evening. The big sighting came without any warning – no alarm calls of sambar deer, no pug marks – on our way out of the forest. We turned a bend and there he was, Sharmilee’s son, walking towards us. My mind could not process this at first: wow, is that a really large deer?
The cub stopped in front of our jeep with a thoughtful look (possibly the aforementioned joke running through his mind). And so we stood, facing each other for over ten minutes. Here is when I learned, there is no winning a staring contest with a tiger. In fact, there is just no meeting eyes with a tiger. Yellow, cold, menacing. But I am not complaining; this was my best tiger sighting in all my forays into Indian forests.
Corbett is India’s first National Park, set up in 1936, and initially named after the local Governor Malcolm Hailey. It was renamed later in honour of Jim Corbett, fearless slayer of man-eaters and ardent conservationist (called “Carpet Sahib” by locals). Corbett’s other claim to fame is that it was the first tiger reserve to be brought under Project Tiger in 1973.
Although not considered the best place for tiger spotting (punters who equate wildlife with tigers are better off at Ranthambhore or Bandhavgarh), Corbett compensates with a large population of tuskers and hundreds of avian species. With the Ramganga river flowing through the National Park and the striking grasslands which often grow tall enough to hide the elephants, it is also one of the most beautiful forest landscapes in India.
We were staying at The Ranger’s Lodge, a quiet homestay between the Bijrani and Jhirna zones, right along the periphery of the forest. Our host, Imran Khan, is a dedicated naturalist and a Corbett veteran, who accompanied us on every safari. I am forever grateful to Imran for introducing me to the joys of bird watching. It started right from my first morning at his home, where dozens of birds gathered for a summit meeting in his garden, each on his preferred perch.
By my second safari, the morning after the up close and personal encounter with the big cat, I had begun to keep my sights trained on the trees and not the ground. Of course, I was still privately calling them “small yellow bird” and “ugly fat thingy” but Imran was supremely patient and pointed out the details that would help me identify them (hopefully, some day): white eyebrows, red throat, curved beak and so on.
The morning was bone-numbingly cold, the mist swirling above the tall grass and rendering the forest grey and languid. The only excitement came in the form of a large herd of elephants crossing the road right in front of us, the babies scrambling behind the adults in a purposeful (and slightly frightened) manner. After that, for a long time, the forest stayed still, all forms of life waiting for the chill to abate.
Slowly, as the sun peeked out, all the usual suspects emerged – chital, sambar, langur, peacocks – and some of the not so usual too, including wild boar and jackals. And I loved the way bird names rolled off my tongue: brahminy starling, white-throated bushchat, great Indian hornbill, coppersmith barbet. Of course, I was repeating the names after Imran, but by then I was well hooked into this birding business.
If our Corbett safaris began with a rendezvous with a tiger, they ended with a confrontation with a tusker. It was my first (and not a happy one, I can assure you) incident of being almost assaulted by an elephant. “Mock charge,” Imran said smugly. “He is trying to scare us away.” Oh well, he succeeded. We waited in a patient “leave or let leave” policy but this rogue had decided to block our path and kept charging at an alarming pace each time we tried to move ahead. I don’t think Jalees, in all his years of driving inside Corbett National Park, had reversed at such speed.
And so we spent a good half hour playing mind games with a wily elephant. Again, after getting out of it safe and sane, I could boast about it being a fascinating experience. Back at Imran’s home, my husband and I felt like heroes returning from a gruelling battle, relating tales of our wild conquests (with the camera) to an enthralled audience.