The forest was rather chilly and misty early in the morning which only added to the enigma. Five minutes into the forest the forest guard, Jitu, asked the driver to pull over. He had heard the first call from a Sambhar deep inside the woods indicating that a tiger was on the prowl. A herd of spotted deer (Chital) which had been grazing on the dry grass suddenly had their heads up facing the other side of the road and their ears straightened as if they were being pulled up.
A second herd of spotted deer on the other side of the dirt road kept moaning in fear. They were simultaneously joined by a group of monkeys (Langurs) sitting high up on the branches of a sal tree and shrieking their guts out raising alarm to an incoming danger. After a few minutes they suddenly became quiet and from about fifty metres inside the dark of the woods came a deep growl. I had heard that sound a lot of times on National Geographic but hearing it up close from within a dense forest got my adrenaline rushing through the roof. It was followed by continued moaning from the monkeys and the deer who steered themselves on their toes from right to left ready to evade the giant from pouncing on them. After a few minutes they stopped calling. Jitu told us that the tiger must have rested.
Bandhavgarh is home to around 70 tigers in an area covering 700 square kilometres which makes it the most densely populated tiger reserve in the country. The forest is divided into three zones namely- Magdhi, Tala and Khitouli. It opens for a few hours during the day. During those hours the quiet of the forest is minutely disturbed by the almost soundless safari jeeps which are used to tread through the dense foliage. Every jeep is accompanied by one forest guard who also doubles up as a guide throughout the safari.
It was interesting to see how all the animals called out and helped each other during the moment of danger thus acting as a community helping each other live for one more day. In a jungle everyday is a battle for survival. If you aren’t alert you die.
The following two days had been a long test of patience and anticipation. We found pug marks of adult tigers and their cubs along the dusty roads to mark their territories and drive out other predators. But they were nowhere to be found. Sometimes after travelling deep enough into the woods we used to stop the jeep and wait for the next call in complete silence, such that one could hear the minutest sounds of insects during the wait. As soon as we heard the shrieking of the monkeys or the cries of the spotted deer, we would rush to the possible spot where the call might have come from. The pug marks would also guide us to where they could possibly be spotted.
Laden with binoculars and cameras we strained our eyes to catch one glimpse of the striped cat in the dense forest and the open grasslands. On the way the peacocks and the goars, the deer and the monkeys and the claw marks on the trees would give us signals of the possibility of a sighting. Jeeps full of people would patiently listen for the call of the wild rushing in all directions when they did.
Finally on the last evening as the sun was about to set and we were on our way back passing through the golden grasslands, our guide in a moment of sheer excitement pointed out to a small lake. I stood up and saw a huge tiger about two hundred metres from me peacefully drinking water along with its three cubs. We quickly drove around to the narrow road which they would be crossing to get back home after drinking water. Over there a bevy of photographers waited with their eyes wide open for the four of them to cross the road. As soon as they did off went the innumerable clicks of the cameras. The tigress and the cubs calmly crossed the road without being bothered and disappeared into to dark of the jungle again.We left the forest soon after. It was dark and freezing by then.
My mind still wanders through those densely covered routes of the forest which would become the hunting ground for the majestic nocturnal creatures and the innumerable calls which would reverberate through the chill of the dark to save the herbivores from falling prey.