BACK TO KANHA
After having witnessed a very late and heavy monsoon, in October 2019, Kanha Tiger Reserve opened up again for safari activities.
Thanks to the annual rains, the forest was lush green, giving the impression of an enchanting place waking up and coming back to life.
Highly anticipated, the first safari of the year is a very emotional moment for any wildlife lover, the opening of a season of expectation, in the hope to find the hidden gem of the Indian jungle, the Royal Bengal Tiger.
This year, I’ve been lucky enough to be once again in one of the most stunning forests, right in the heart of Central India. The real-life Jungle book, no matter how many times I visit, I always marvel for its beauty and magic.
We had no tiger luck that particular day. But how lovely it was to see all the animals again. The thrilling cacophony of birds, the most enticing of the dissonances.
The monkeys and the spotted deer, the eyes and the ears of the jungle, alarming to the presence of a predator.
And the proud Barasingha, the most handsomely dignified of all deer, endangered species saved from the brink of extinction. That time of the year, they sport an extremely elegant antlers’ lining, a delicately rose-tinged velvet.
But a love story with tigers is one of the obsessive kind, and the enflamed lover gets easily blasé. Sambar, langurs and chital become once again the spies of the jungle, their role of the uttermost importance, to give away a tigers’ location. The hunt was on again.
RUST OVER LUSH GREEN: A TIGER AFTER THE MONSOON
It’s common knowledge that first times are rarely forgotten. Though if we look closer, every time might be a first in its own way. A detail, a mood, a certain weather condition, the presence of a special person, an unexpected thought passing through your mind.
The first tiger sighting of this season has been the majestic Umarpani male. The first time I saw a tiger just after the rains, bright, furry rust blooming out of the outrageous green of the undergrowth.
Little did I know, at that time, that this dominant male, otherwise of elusive habit, would become one of the fiercest protagonists of this season’s game of tigers, his very own Bildungsroman one of evolving personality and ambition.
Like an elaborate chess play, it all started with a key component of the fine tiger balance of Kanha going missing, the beloved Chhota Munna.
Like water would flow through any cracking, the space that was left was meant to be filled. Called by the power of primal instinct, a handful of lingering warriors slowly rose and started the silent catwalk to the new battlefield.
It was only a matter of time until the detonation of a fast-ticking bomb that would shake the foundations of Kanha’s prime tiger territory.
But the destiny decided that knowing the outcome of that battle is not for us to know. Not yet, at least.
ENTERS THE TEMPEST
Though the real Shakespearean character of this season in Kanha Tiger Reserve hasn’t been one of flesh and blood. Regular, unexpected and heavy storms have fallen over the forest every month, backlashes of monsoon memory reminding us not to ever take nature for granted.
Perceived as ominous and disruptive at times, one might wonder whether the rains were a way of the Universe to warn us of impending changes.
Storms over here have the annoying habit of coming unannounced. It’s incredible to witness such a powerful show: the sudden swaying of trees, the fierce lightning. Enters the rumbling of thunders, approaching like an army of belligerent horsemen.
And then, the rain. Torrential, implacable, a thick curtain drawn over our world.
Hail, sometimes as big as duck’s eggs, would shower over our roofs mercilessly shattering glass and tiles.
At times vehemently scary, the enraged tempest has prevented me from sleeping more than one time, triggering some profound sense of distress.
ON FIRST TIMES, AND THE SHREDDING OF VEILS
A strange season this one has been, unexpectedly truncated by events that were beforehand relegated to our experience of science fiction novels.
But before our lives turned into the plot of a B movie, with not even some consolation found in binge eating popcorn, I have really enjoyed accompanying people to the forest.
Seeing a wild tiger, is an incredible privilege one should always be thankful for.
But the first wild tiger is an experience one can never forget.
Seeing the expressions of sheer joy, the fire in the eyes and the total loss of composure in people looking at the imperturbable striped cat on a morning patrol, is a total high and one of the best parts of working in the jungles.
Its magic operates at any age. Many times, while on safari with the team of Shergarh, I’ve been witness to this unique moment, the shredding of the veil, the no-turning-back moment.
Facilitating the ageless loss of tiger virginity is one of the reasons I’d want to keep sharing my passion and love for this amazing animal.
Ann, an 80 years-old British lady, came to Kanha Tiger Reserve in December. Quite a shy, frail-looking lady, she is indeed one of the most inspiring persons I’ve ever met.
Gifted with an extremely sharp mind and a dry sense of humor, she has a years-long habit of exploring the world as a solo traveler.
An animal lover, every year she flies all the way to Mexico for whale watching, an activity she cherishes particularly.
But this year she had come to India for another reason: trying to see a wild tiger before life could decide against the feasibility of such a trip.
Very humbly, with low expectations, she boarded the gypsy in the chilling darkness that always precedes a winter morning safari. Sonsingh and I were accompanying her that day. I could see the trepidation in her eyes, the childish excitement in her subdued grin.
That’s when I made a wish, silently hoping that that she would see her first tiger in the wild that day.
And so it happened. Just a few minutes before exiting the gate of the forest, the beautiful MB3 decided to magically appear in front of us.
Unfretted, she kept walking, marking her territory, while we were following her. A few times, moderately curious, she looked at us, before resuming her more important activities.
Seeing the smile on Ann’s face that day has been one of the highlights of the season. Both excited as little girls, we went back to camp to share the details of the sighting with everybody else.
Her first sighting ever. From then on, Ann was entitled to tell that she had seen a tiger in the wild.
I don’t know what Ann is doing now, in this new, more complicated version of the world. I really hope she will get to see her beloved whales once again next year.
As for me, like the most of us in these trying times, I am still navigating the agitated sea of uncertainty.
The only thing I know, is that I hope to see a wild tiger again, silently walking the roads of one of India’s enchanted forests, Kanha Tiger Reserve.