A Dream Tiger Sighting
I wish I had not listened to Amitosh and taken the shortcut through the jungle. My vehicle broke down, and I was left with no choice but to tread carefully through this pristine Sal forest. I had never walked alone in the night in a jungle with tigers, leopards, sloth bears, and elephants for company. It was November; the mercury compelled me to go fast before it dropped further as the night went by. I had walked for about two hours and was unsure how much more I had to walk to reach the nearby town. My camera started to seem like a burden, which I was carrying around my neck.
Questions were crossing my mind at a cyclonic wind pace. Which potentially dangerous animal will I encounter? I hope not an elephant, neither a sloth bear nor a leopard. I ended up saying to myself that if at all I am destined to meet one, then, let it be the tiger, as I could climb a tree to escape one.
I was exhausted physically and mentally. It was well past midnight. Nearby, I saw a huge boulder and I sat down with the thought of resting for ten minutes to regain some energy. I had just sat down when a high-pitched alarm call of a sambar deer bolted me onto my feet. During thousands of day tiger safaris, I had heard alarm calls but none gave me such dread as this one in the night of the jungle. It was tough to ascertain from which direction the call came, it had resonated, but it did not sound too far.
Before I could even gather myself, the Sambar belled again, and this time some resting peafowls flew from the bushes behind me. This was enough indication that the tiger was near. My sixth sense said he was coming in my direction. Was he following me from a distance? My feet wanted to dash away from the place, but my mind said to stay put. In running, there was a likelihood to stumble upon a greater danger.
Some sense prevailed and I looked for the trees next to me. Most of them were Sal trees with the lowest branch about 25 feet. I looked around and found another tree, which had lower branches. I went about 15 feet off the ground before I realized that I could not go further up.
Finally, the tiger announced his arrival by a blood-curdling roar. My heart almost vomited itself out of my body. I listened with bated breath to his deep-throated roar resounding through the forest. He was most likely looking for a mate. I was fortunate that the branch I was sitting on was thick, and that I had heard these roars earlier during the day. However, the impact in the night of a roar especially when you have not seen the tiger yet is beyond expression.
Before I could catch my breath, I heard the footsteps of a big animal coming towards me from the undergrowth near me. The impact on the ground of the foot was heavy, and it confirmed that the tiger was about to show up. I was steady as a rock on the tree. Not making any sound is the golden rule in the jungle to avoid any undue attention from a tiger. The only sound from me that could have reached the tiger was my pounding heart.
Even during the day, the tiger’s coat blends in a wonderful way with the jungle. A full-grown tiger can go unseen in a small bush. But, now it was night. Will I be able to sight him at all? Importantly, will he see me? Or has he already seen me and has quietly followed me till here? If he has, then, what next? Part two of cyclonic thoughts took over.
I heard some branches and twigs move in the bush, and without wasting any time, out came the tiger. It was pitch dark, and all I could see was a black and white silhouette of the beast. He came out of the bush and stood still. His size and presence seemed gigantic. This was my first sighting of a tiger in the night, not in a tiger safari vehicle, and all alone. During the day he is a prized catch to photograph, but at night, he is the spirit of the jungle. In fact, he is the Jungle by night.
He stood there scanning the area and the first person I remembered then was the legendary Late F. W. Champion. I recalled a black and white image that he has printed in his book, “With a Camera in the Tiger Land”. The tiger in front of my eyes looked exactly like that. As this was also a Terai tiger. Only body parts that shone in that darkness were the white area around his eyebrows and his canines. The stripes were hardly visible. The second person I remembered was William Blake for his poem:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Seeing this tiger in front, I was convinced that William Blake had most likely imagined the tiger in the night before he wrote the poem. A Tiger’s fearful symmetry is ferociously visible in the night.
It seemed he had been walking for long, so he decided to rest right there where he stood. He was just 20 feet away from the tree, and I was about 15 feet high from the ground. As he sat down, ease came upon me. I had become part of the tree, motionless. However, my heart was far from beating normally. It was now that I began to observe him. F W Champion was right when he said, “pictures of tigers by daylight are not truly representative of such nocturnal beasts. To get their persona in their true sense one must photograph them in the night”.
The tiger finally looked up and saw a strange thing at a strange time at a strange place, me. His ears rolled back, but as I showed no external emotion or movement, his ears gradually regained their natural position. He would see me occasionally, whilst I could not take my gaze away from him. I was calculating the distance in case he changed his mind because he did not like this addition on the canvass he is used to seeing. Surely, it was in his reach physically, but he showed no interest in something that did not deserve his attention, time, and effort. After a few minutes, he rolled over to his side, and closed his eyes; he wanted to rest for a while before commencing his onward busy schedule in the night. For the first time in the last 15 minutes, my heart was beating at a normal pace.
I was also feeling sleepy. However, I was woken up by something licking my cheek. I opened my eyes to see “Dash” (my German shepherd) licking my cheek. Perhaps he had noticed my disturbed sleep and decided to wake me up from this dream. ‘Maneaters of Kumaon’ by Jim Corbett was on my chest, as I had fallen asleep reading it. Daybreak was close, so I got up, and I think the tiger would have got up and moved on.
It was a big relief that this was a dream only, I was thankful to be out of the forest, alive.
Sharad Kumar Vats