Bandipur, October 2012:
We drove along to a spot which a Tiger was known to frequent. We had been charged at and chased away by a herd of elephants. “Gowri”, they called her. We turned up and she wasn’t there. The entourage included a bunch of hot-shot photographers. (A hot-shot photographer is one who carries a lens that needs a hold of its own and has paid more than 1L for it.) One of them showed us pics of the Tiger shot earlier. “Ever seen a Tiger before in the wild?” he asked. We shook our heads. “The first sighting is something you’ll never forget” he promised.
Kabini, January 2013:
After a morning safari filled with drama, nerves and heightened expectations, we had returned to camp with zero sightings. The entourage included two other middle-aged hot-shot photographers. We also heard that Gowri, the Tiger from Bandipur had died a few days back after a fight with another male. The photographers joined us for breakfast and I cribbed that I had been looking for a Tiger for the last two years and hadn’t found one. The more talkative of the two listened patiently and answered “Do you know how long I had to wait for my first Tiger sighting?”, he paused for attention “10 years!”, he said. “I remember complaining about it once and another person, senior to me said it took him 25 years to sight one. It doesn’t come easy.”
Kaziranga, November 2013:
This was the last safari of the trip and a guy in the jeep was hoping for a Tiger. I told him the story of the photographer who waited 10 years for his first sighting. This was only his first Safari trip. And just like that, he ducked. By the time the rest of the folks turned, it was gone, into the bushes.
Bandipur, December 2013:
We spot pug-marks, we follow pug-marks. It eludes. But, we spot a leopard for the first time.
Kabini, February 2014:
There’s no hint of a tiger, although the chart says that a Tiger , 3 leopards and a pack of Dhole were spotted just that morning. This time the Safari includes elderly foreigners. Their last day and they’ve spotted leopards but not a Tiger yet. The Safari starts in the heat, barely yielding anything. There are no elephants, no Gaur, just chital. Slowly things start emerging: An Indian Roller, a Malabar Giant Squirrel that actually stays out and still, posing for photos. A mongoose is seen, a Serpent Eagle and a Snake Darter swims out of the water and suns itself.
Another Serpent Eagle is seen, but against the Sun. We go further ahead to see if a shot from the other side is possible. This one turns out perfect.
Just as we are heading to the close, the spotter announces a tiger sighting and we go along to near the river. “There! There!” he says. I watch and find nothing. “Near the bushes” he points. Still nothing. I shoot a pic and zoom into it and can see its head far away. My cousin takes my binoculars and watches it through that and spots it as it gets up, turns back and disappears into the bushes. I wonder if that can count as a sighting, it was barely anything. Also, does sighting it through a lens and not through the naked eye count?
I notice the Sun going down and shoot one of it. We continue waiting and another jeep leaves. Just as the jeep disappears after a turn, the spotter whispers “Tiger!” and without giving anyone much time to collect any thoughts, he appears out of the bushes. We are noticed, and dismissed as non-threats as he decides to walk along. I instinctively feel that he’ll cross the path and disappear into the other side. I click away maniacally, following his path. He crosses the vehicle path and that’s when I stop, pulling my camera away, observing him, taking in the sight with just my eyes.
I wish I could describe what I felt as the quest of 3 years across 13 safaris came to an end. My heart was in my mouth and beating away to glory, there was joy – pure, unadulterated joy – just watching that beast. There is something about a Tiger in the wild; something calming, something majestic, something, as my cousin put it, Zen. It’s not something you experience seeing the ones in a Zoo. Maybe it is the quest, maybe it is the whole Safari experience which puts you in the jungle and you watch the beast in its own lair, its own territory. Maybe it is its own inherent majesty, its nonchalance towards your presence, unlike a leopard which runs. Needless to say, it’s not something I’d forget, ever. The photographer was right about that.
More pics here: