Tiger Tiger Burning Bright… What My Search for the Big Cat Taught Me About the Jungle


Tiger Tiger Burning Bright… What My Search for the Big Cat Taught Me About the Jungle

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

There is only one king of Corbett National Park – the tiger. Visitors come from lands near and far, hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of William Blake’s muse as he burns bright in the forests of the night. While tracking tigers from a gypsy is undoubtedly a pulsating affair, being confined inside a vehicle ensures a sanitised, inauthentic jungle experience. The great Jim Corbett once said that the fear of death added zest to the life of all jungle inhabitants, and the best way to imbibe that zest is to experience the forest on foot.

So with a trembling heart, unarmed, undeterred, and accompanied only by my guide, I began my first walk into the haven of roar, trumpet, and song.

The first signs of animal life I came across was in the form of a burrow that was said to be inhabited by a porcupine. There was no sign of the spiky rodent, but the fact that something indicated its presence was enough to fill me with glee. It seemed to be a good omen; if my luck held, I might even spot my tiger today.

Our trail led us to a rocky incline, where my guide pointed to a natural shelf in the escarpment. “A tiger was spotted slumbering here a couple of months back,” he said, sending my imagination into overdrive. And so, with my excitement heightened tenfold, my guide and I plodded on.

As the day wore on, we began to notice signs of a jungle cat. The miniature pugmarks were as a clear a sign as any that they had indeed been made by the tiger’s lesser, and far more elusive, cousin. The tracks were everywhere. Maybe like us, it too, was on a leisurely walk.

At least the birds were happy to welcome us, even if the mammals were not deigning to oblige us.

They led us to the Ramganga River. Winding its way through the park, it cleaved the jungle into two halves. By its banks, we climbed a slope that led to higher ground, in the hope that the elevation would provide a better vantage point to search for our majestic quarry. The sun, gathering its strength for what was sure to be brutally hot afternoon, caused the surface of the river to glint as it cascaded over smooth grey stones. As the climbing heat began to play tricks on our mind, my guide and I spent some time debating whether the elongated dark shape we saw flitting under the river’s surface was an otter or a crocodile. The swimmer never surfaced and we set forth once again, in search of other jungle gems.

Just as I was losing all hope of spotting a forest resident, our progress through the undergrowth startled a Great Indian Hornbill into flight. The glorious visual left me rooted where I stood – the prodigious wingspan, the arresting plumage, it came together in a resplendent image that reinvigorated my spirits, and hopes of spotting a tiger. At least the birds were happy to welcome us, even if the mammals were not deigning to oblige us. I was about to complain to my guide, but swallowed my words when we came upon the massive footprints and football-sized droppings of an elephant. The sheer size of the dung made me realise I was better off without a single mammalian encounter; I didn’t have to test my wits against an angry pachyderm.

Just then, the sound of a branch cracking sent a shiver down my spine. Had the tusker returned, and would he take kindly to us strolling through his toilet? I was ready to bolt, but one look at my guide put my frayed nerves to rest – he was calmly trying to identify the animal that gave us such a scare. In the next few moments, the culprit emerged from its hiding place among the bushes. The innocuous creature that had assumed monstrous proportions in my head was actually a mountain goat. It might have not been threatening in any measure, but observing it from such close quarters was a rare delight, as gorals usually restrict themselves to high, inaccessible cliff faces.

By now, our shirts were soaked with sweat from the afternoon heat. Tigers, the guide told me, are infamous for their low tolerance of soaring daytime temperatures. With this in mind, my guide and I stationed ourselves at two different spots, overlooking two different stretches of the river, to spare ourselves the ordeal of trekking further. Only fortune would bring the tiger to us now, and since we were separated, only one of us would sight it.

As luck would have it, that is exactly what happened. The moment my guide’s incomprehensible hisses fell upon my ears, I knew that the king of the jungle had made an appearance. But instinctively knowing that the show wasn’t meant to last long, I stayed put, for my guide was about half a mile away. Any fruitless exertions on my part would only help in compounding my disappointment. I sat there cursing my fate, when a dung beetle scurried into view, engrossed in the act of manoeuvring its perfectly spherical ball of dung to its desired location. It may not have been a tiger, but the moments that followed left me experiencing an unprecedented bliss.

Too many visitors to Corbett think of the park only as a “tiger-spotting” destination. They pile into Gypsies or clamber onto an elephant’s back and go around the bush, zoom lenses at the ready to capture every moment the tiger graces them with its presence. All too often, this leaves them blind to the jungle’s many other delights. Watching the indomitable bug wrestle its hoardings past the numerous obstacles scattered all over its route was a sight as awe-inspiring as any, including that of a big cat.

The jungle had kept its best for the last, and at the same time taught me a very important lesson: To truly feel the pulse of nature, leave behind your unfounded expectations. Amazing encounters await.