After reading this note, you will call it The Dudhwa Drama – a Tiger Safari in India. It was December 20th, 2014, at 5.00pm. For those who know the Terai forests well will understand the kind of light to expect at this time of the year and day. During a Dudhwa Tiger Safari, there is usually no sun the entire day, by late afternoon the fog starts to set in, and the visibility reduces considerably. I was searching for elephants in Dudhwa National Park.
This was my third day and there was no sign of elephants yet. We were driving from Sonaripur towards the Salukapur range of the park when I saw some branches on the tracks suggesting the elephants were in the area. There was some hope of seeing them now, but the time to exit from the park was close. So we decided to go back via Salukapur Forest Rest House.
The moment we turned on to S D Singh road, I thought I saw elephants but I did not say a word fearing that Naseem our guide would be amused by my hallucinatory elephant imaginations. But as we drew closer Naseem whispered, elephants. My thoughts reconfirmed that indeed, there were two elephants on the track ahead and facing us. They were good 150 meters away. He stopped the vehicle, as I wanted to take the record shot first. While I was busy clicking, Naseem was seeing through his binoculars and he hushed, ‘Sir, Tiger on the road’. I stopped shooting, but could not see the tiger. He pointed to the tiger crouching on the road looking towards the elephants. (Image below). It was now that I saw the tiger sitting facing the elephants on the track.
I went numb, as I had never witnessed a tiger and two elephants in one frame. It was now that I realized that the elephants had a young calf between them, and they were protecting him, while the tiger wanted to attack, and mortally injure him. The emotions that followed cannot be expressed in words. But I shall make an attempt nevertheless.
It was a moment I had never witnessed in Indian national parks and one that I probably won’t ever again.
A closer look at the Dudhwa Tiger Safari
I asked Naseem to narrow the distance, he cautiously and almost silently got the vehicle in about 75-meter range of the tiger and the elephants. The tiger totally ignoring our presence behind him began to stalk the elephants. His focus was the young calf. The distance between the tiger and the elephants was about 15 meters. Seeing the tiger get up and crouch towards them the unhappy mother trumpeted, her voice tearing the jungle apart. The mother elephant took a step towards the tiger, but the king, undeterred and unfazed, stood his ground. After about 30 seconds of standing, the elephants turned back again and started to move, the tiger followed, and so did we, maintaining a distance of good 50-60 meters behind the tiger.
My mind began to wander. What if the rest of the elephant herd is in the surrounding tall grasses? What if they charge to help the mother in despair? They mistakenly could charge at us.
The tiger took a few fast steps towards the elephants. There had to be but one result of that, the elephants turned around and took 4-5 quick steps towards the tiger trumpeting again, and trying to dissuade the tiger from following. But tiger seemed determined not to let go of even an inch, he would not back off. Instead, he again stood his ground. The elephant had to retreat towards the other elephant and the calf and started to walk away again. Often they turned around partially to look at the tiger from the corner of his eyes. Dudhwa Tiger Safari.
The intelligence of the elephants was evident from the fact that they stayed on the open track. They knew that getting into the grass was a dangerous game as the tiger would be invisible and at an advantage. On the other hand, the tiger wanted them to panic and enter the grass so that he could crouch and give a couple of lethal blows to the young calf.
It was a sheer blessing to watch this mental combat between two of God’s most powerful creations. The tiger did not charge while in the open, as his movements would be easily visible, and a kick from the elephant could be fatal. On the other hand, the mother and the younger female (presumably a sister or aunt) were not getting hysterical with the tiger’s presence. They did not leave the young calf’s side as they knew about the tiger’s swiftness. Both the contestants were being prudent and rightly so. It was a game of tact and patience than brute strength. Both wanted the other to falter, and both knew the strengths and weaknesses of each other. Hence mutual respect was understood, but none was letting go.
A face-off at the Dudhwa Tiger Safari
The mother turned back and trumpeted again, with the same result as before – an echo, birds flying from the surrounding Sal trees, and the tiger remaining unperturbed. This scene continued for some more time without a change in setting. Interestingly, the calf, 10-15 days old in my opinion, was totally ignorant of the impending danger. He stood calm and composed, probably because of his confidence in his mother’s capability to ward off this danger; or probably because he was too young to know fear, it was more likely the latter.
It was now that the tiger finally looked back at us for a brief second, and I clicked. In this whole episode, it was only once that I got the Elephants and the tiger both looking into my lens (image below).
Now it was beginning to feel unreal, was I actually doing a Dudhwa Tiger Safari, or was it a dream? I pinched myself hard to realize that I was fortunate to be present at the spot.
Naseem reminded us that it is time to go. ‘No’ was my first reaction, but I knew that we had to go. It was only with a heavy heart that I agreed to leave. I kept looking back till they were completely out of sight. I kept my cameras on the seat, and it was now that we looked at each other and smiled. No words, they were not required, for what we saw was a rare natural history moment. Today it’s 6 years for this sighting, but it is absolutely fresh in my mind like yesterday.
This rekindled my love for a Dudhwa Tiger Safari experience once again. My heart cannot thank late Mr. Billy Arjan Singh enough for dedicating his life to this beautiful haven. Without his efforts Dudhwa would not be standing as tall as it is today; and I would never have got to witness such a moment in my life. I shall never forget this Dudhwa Tiger Safari until I breathe last.
– Sharad Vats