(Published in Sanctuary Asia
When I had booked myself at Dhikala in Jim Corbett National Park where one can spend a night in earshot of a tiger roar and elephant trumpet, I had hoped to return with wonderful tales that I can pen down.
As I had decided to ambitiously call it Corbett diaries, I am doing so, but the stories that I have come back with aren’t exactly what I had hoped for.
If I choose the best sighting of not just the trip, but of my lifetime as a start, it was the second day morning in the grasslands.
If you are familiar with Corbett national park landscape, it has a fine mix of grasslands in the low laying areas close to the riverbank and saal forests that climb up the hills of Terai. It is a landscape tailor-made for elephants, as the grand vistas of the grasslands dwarf the elephant herds while the forest of tall saal trees provides them with a majestic backdrop.
At this point in time, there are couple of tigers, or rather tigresses with cubs in Dhikala range that have made it hugely popular with people who mostly frequent two locations, the jungle and the social media.
The tigress I met on the second day was the “grassland-wali” that owns a fine piece of real estate very close to forest rest-house.
It was a cool morning and, as I always like to do, I had started a bit late. As the place was infested with hard core tiger-hunters who, for some unknown reason firmly believe that tiger operates on first-come-first-serve bases, we met some of them returning from the grassland who were helpful enough to tell us that there is no tiger in the grassland and we should head for the high-bank.
As I have seen enough tigers who didn’t believe in waking up early, I was unperturbed, or rather happy, as my own interest is jungle-watching in peace, with or without tigers.
If you are someone who doesn’t own a 400 mm lens and are not part of the circuit that constantly discusses about head-on shots of tigers, I will need to introduce you to a wonderful landmark on Corbett landscape known as mota saal.
Mota saal is a massive trunk of an old forest giant struck down by a bolt of lightning. It stands just at the junction where the saal forest meets the grassland.
As we were moving along the road to mota saal that cuts through two patches of grassland, we saw the sight that fills the heart of every gypsy driver with joy.
There was a small bunch of gypsies crowding a location like wildebeests on a watering hole, indicating that there was a tiger somewhere in that patch of grass. In no time our driver located an orange spot and we started the painful process of following his finger.
Thankfully, tigers of Corbett seem to come with a bit of a disadvantage as they are more orange than their rusty cousins of the plains and we could see the crouching figure that was obviously stalking a small group of sambar females.
As the sambars were across the road in the next patch, it was clear that the tiger, or rather now recognised as grassland-wali tigress by our driver, would need to stalk carefully and also cross the road at some point.
At this juncture, I will like to point out that the tiger was the least dangerous beast in the area, as it was thickly infested by creatures that I fear the most in Indian forests.
We had about five gypsies carrying weapons of nature-destruction in form of bazooka lenses by animals who claim to be conservationists or worse wildlife lovers on the social media page that are plastered with images and titles like “Majestic T2” or “Noor junior with mum” or “CHE from Nagarhole” or, on an emotional moment, “Oh! I so miss Machali” with crying emoticons that us normal mortals can’t relate with (CHE by the way is changeable hawk eagle).
Unfortunately the tigress of mota saal had no option but to step out of the grass and cross the open road to reach the sambar group, so she had to take a long diagonal detour and come out of the grass with the gypsies zipping to intercept her.
It was either her sheer luck or abject stupidity of the sambar, but deer were unable to connect human madness with tiger presence, and the tigress managed to cross the road with a buzz of burst mode that sacred only a few bee-eaters.
As she lifted her head above the grass to relocate the deer, there was another rapid fire of burst mode that she somehow survived and entered the grass to start her patient stalk again.
She crawled through the grass and reached the point where shrubs offered an aesthetic transition between the saal forest and grassland. By this time, she had invested almost an hour in the stalk and it was clear that we were in for a once-in-lifetime opportunity of watching a tiger hunt.
As the tigress sat hidden in the bushes, sambars were able to sense that something was wrong but were not able to pinpoint the location of the danger so they stood in the grass in a state of alert. Tiger was poised to jump, but sambars, not sure about the direction to run to, had no option but to wait for it, so it was as wonderful a status quo as a nature-watcher can hope for.
Though I possess no jungle skills, it was clear even to me that when the tiger would pounce, sambars were bound to make a break for the open grassland and not the jungle full of obstacles. So, I just requested my driver to back out and open the field for the drama to unfold.
Unfortunately, my happy mind-state had discounted the presence of the wild-life lovers on the scene.
I often feel that, though vultures have vanished from India, their ghosts still haunt our forests and possess those who carry a camera. So, three gypsies containing camouflage-wearing wildlife lovers saw the opening created by me and swooped down upon the scene to shoot what they can post as “princess on the prowl” or something as inane on Facebook.
As they went up the road to get close to the tigress, probably to count the number of her whiskers (as 400 mm is default morphological feature of these beasts), my heart sank.
As they whispered angry commands of “aage le” “peechhe le” to their gypsy drivers the sambar started getting jittery and tigress had no choice but to try and encash her investment in time.
When the tigress pounced, sambars spooked and rushed towards the open grass. As sambar’s USP is taking rapid turns, after a straight twenty meters, they turned towards the road where the gypsies stood and managed to swing past them. The tigress tried to keep up but with gypsies standing in the way, she lost a split second that was enough to save the sambar for the day.
As the tigress pulled out of the chase, I could hear jubilant cries from the gypsies ahead about having her firmly caught in their frames. Soon the tired tigress returned to the cover close to mota saal and photographers exhausted their one-upmanship gambits by showing what they have on the viewfinders to each other, everybody left the scene and I was left alone in company of a sleeping tigress hidden in piloo and bhang thicket, with a peaceful moment to ponder.
No just Dhikala, but every jungle that I go to is full of these wildlife photographers capturing thousands of Images of the tiger every day.
What exactly is the use of adding one more image to the lakhs that already exists? All it yields is some more social media “likes” or a few “simply wow” or “amazing” (and if you have Gujarati friends, some “ousome” or “bhare kari bapu”).
Is it helping the wildlife? Is this conservation?
I don’t have the answers, but all I know that the cubs of the tigress of mota saal must have gone hungry that night, while their mother must have appeared on various social media platforms and earned hundreds of oohs and aahs.
It is clear that Indian tiger must learn quickly to feed on social media “likes” to survive its lovers. If not, it is a doomed creature that will soon be found only on Facebook and Instagram.