Monday, October 21, 2013

Monsoon Safari

Published in Outlook Traveller October 2013

The jeep stopped and we sat still for a moment in surprised silence. Then, as if by an unspoken command, we lifted our cameras in unison and started clicking. Two professional photographers, armed with bazooka-like lenses, noisily fired away their cameras. The four dholes, or Asian wild dogs, were so close I didn’t need any fancy lens to get clear, full-frame photographs. I was on safari with seven tourists and photographer Arati in Bandipur Tiger Reserve, Karnataka.

Two dogs circled us while two lay down on the grass in full view, like celebrities so used to media attention they pretended we didn’t exist. The dholes’ reddish coats stretched tight over their bloated bellies, and their round ears swivelled at the slightest sound. One of the circlers whistled, and the rest of the pack trotted off. Unlike other members of the canid family, dholes whistle; they don’t bark or howl.

The dogs ran lightly despite their distended stomachs, and vanished into the forest. We had only been 30 minutes into our safari when we encountered the pack, not a bad start for an off-season visit to Bandipur.

The forest was lush green from recent rains. But nothing could resurrect the bamboo that had flowered en masse and died a few years ago. It will be a many moons before Bandipur’s elephants taste bamboo again.

As we bounced along the rutted dirt track, all of us probably had the same question: Would we see a tiger? Huge pugmarks, the size of my hand, were imprinted deeply into the soft wet track. Lantana, a thorny plant from Central America, formed a green curtain, as high as fifteen feet in some places, on either side of the road throughout most of the park. Probably many pairs of eyes, tucked out of sight within the tangle of weeds, watched us drive by. If we were to see a tiger, it would have to be in plain sight on the track or the wide grassy verge.

When the British brought lantana to India to adorn their gardens in the 1800s, little did they realize they were sowing the seeds of an empire that would outlast their own. By the late 19th century, the ornamental plant escaped captivity and become a pestilence in forests and village commons. All attempts to eradicate the botanical scourge were a failure. Parthenium and eupatorium, other plants from foreign shores, have also set root in Bandipur. Despite being overrun by these noxious inedible weeds, the park, paradoxically, packs one of highest densities of herbivores in the world.

The rains had awakened glory lilies from dormancy. Their curly-tipped leaves clung to bushes as the creepers made their way toward light and burst into bloom. The bright red, earth-facing flowers glowed like jewels against the deep green forest. Despite every part of these plants being virulently poisonous, the scientific name celebrates the beauty of the flowers with a double affirmative: Gloriosa superba. Mysore argyreia’s large, purple, trumpet-shaped flowers competed with the glory lilies for our appreciation.

Minutes passed, and when no more animals made an appearance, I grew aware of the toll the rutted dirt track was taking on my behind. I was seated on the last and highest seat in the three-tiered safari jeep. While it offered an almost 360ยบ view of the forest, it bounced the most. I sat on my hands to relieve the soreness when we suddenly came upon a lone pregnant elephant.

Even though we were a good distance away, she trumpeted, and ran with her tail raised in alarm. Then she wheeled around and mock-charged. A newly married woman sitting next to me shrieked, closed her eyes tight, and gripped her husband. When her bluff didn’t work, the elephant picked up a leaf with her trunk and swatted the air. That trick didn’t chase us away, so she walked into the lantana that swallowed her up.

A few minutes later, we caught a quick glimpse of another elephant with her calf before they hid in the bushes. Bandipur elephants aren’t usually this shy, and I wondered if perhaps pregnancy and having young made them feel vulnerable.

As we climbed higher up a hill slope toward a fire watch tower, the trees grew stunted. Above us, a lone sambhar stag posed in silhouette, proudly holding his head of antlers aloft. From this vantage, the deciduous forests of Mudumalai stretched out below us, and many ranges of the blue Nilgiri Mountains created a wavy horizon.

We clicked pictures of the panorama until our time was up. We headed back through a sharp torrential rain, the canvas top of the jeep keeping us almost dry. Earlier this year, the park had been horrendously parched and many feared for the survival of its denizens. The belated rains filled all the waterholes, and animals were not huddled around a few puddles anymore. Good for beasts and forest, but sad for tourists hoping for a wildlife extravaganza.

I wondered how Arati, who was at the front of the jeep, was faring. Light was flat, skies cloudy, and animal life scarce. Seeing dholes early on our safari made me greedy for more. But the maxim of a forest safari is: there are no guarantees. That evening at the Windflower Tusker Trails Resort, the staff rued we hadn’t seen a tiger. We had come at the wrong time, they said.

Gajendra Singh and his wife, Vishalakshi Devi, the youngest daughter of Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar, the last ruler of the princely state of Mysore, set up Tusker Trails in the mid-1990s. The park had once been her family’s hunting reserve. A few years ago, the Windflower group took over the resort on a 30-year-lease. Twenty-two terracotta tile-roofed cottages were set amid five acres of native trees, the most common being the red gum-oozing axlewood.

Gajendra Singh explained that the trees had been cut before they bought the property, and the re-growth was only twenty years old. “Nothing browses on these trees, and nothing gnaws on them,” he said. “That’s why they’re so successful.”

The resort is unfenced on two sides and wild animals wander in freely after dark. Gajendra said, “We have had every animal come through except tigers.”

A troop of bonnet macaques wandered around the resort, picking insects from the grass, walking on the cottage roofs, and looking for hand-outs from guests. At meal times, the monkeys sat on the wall of the dining room and watched us eat patiently.

Elephants wandered up from the forest during the dry season to drink from the swimming pool; wild boar rooted under the lantana hedge. A leopard snatched a deer from the reception, knocking over a coffee table that remains broken to this day. The resort apparently has an unwritten timeshare agreement between humans and wildlife.

I asked, “Are guests safe?”

General manager Fazal replied, “After they check-in, they are given instructions on how to stay safe.” I witnessed a couple being briefed by a staff member in a manner akin to a stewardess explaining how to open the emergency exit on an aircraft.

At 10:30 pm outdoor lights were doused. Guests were advised to retire to their rooms and not venture out even if they heard animal noises outside.

That night, while Arati photographed the swimming pool, she heard a tiger calling “aaauuummm” repeatedly. She hurried back to the restaurant. “I’ve heard tigers before but this was bone-chilling,” she said. “It seemed so close.” We had seen tiger pugmarks right outside the resort gates earlier that evening.

At dawn the next morning, I startled a herd of spotted deer that had been silently grazing amongst the cottages. As the animals melted away among the trees, I took it as a good omen for wildlife viewing that day. At the hotel reception, everyone wished, “Hope you see a tiger today.” It’s the Bandipur way of saying “Have a good day.”

Our first stop was at a gaur carcass, reduced to skin and bones, by the side of the road. The bovine had died of natural causes, and for three days, two tigers had feasted on it, said Natraj, the naturalist accompanying us. Now, a stripe-necked mongoose was looking for leftovers. Occasionally, it stood on its hind legs, scoping the terrain and us. Its orange eyes and Rudolf-like large red nose made it look like a demented clown.

Our driver stopped to confer with the driver of another safari jeep. Both said, “No tigers. Saw only tracks.” On that discouraging note, we rolled forward. Freshly and clearly imprinted over the other jeep’s tyre tread marks were the pugmarks of a tiger. It had waited until the track was clear before striding down. We had missed him by minutes. Natraj said the 880 park has nearly 100 tigers. If every one of those cats was as fastidious and secretive, what chance did we have of seeing one? Especially, when the jeep’s engine announced our approach loud and clear?

In an open clearing ahead of us, a herd of elephants gathered. As soon as we drove up, the giants crashed into the lantana. A couple of them trumpeted, while one set up a high-pitched braying. All we could see were two trunks sniffing the air above the bushes. We backed up and waited. Minutes ticked by, but the distress calls didn’t abate nor did the elephants move. I feared a calf had been hurt badly.

In the end, we couldn’t fathom what happened. When I mentioned this to Gajendra Singh later, he said, “A cat must have been involved.”

I was still disturbed by the elephants’ behaviour when we came upon a large herd of gaur. These wild cattle turned to go but stopped. They watched us over their broad backs, stamping their white-socked forelegs nervously. Unconvinced we were harmless, they wandered off into the bushes anyway, the mothers with calves leading the way. Last to leave was a one-ton heavy, velvet black, muscle-rippling stud bull, the protector of his harem.

Why were they so shy? But then, why would they want to be seen, if they can help it? During the dry season, they have no choice because trees shed their leaves and visibility is greater. Someone said the department hadn’t set out salt licks this season, so the animals were spread out through the forest. Or, they were in neighbouring Mudumalai indulging their salt tooth.

We arrived at a cliff overlooking the Moyar Gorge. The unease I felt about the spooked animals disappeared at the sight of water cascading down below us. I sucked in the cool air sharply when I saw the steep slopes on either side, with barely a foothold for an adventurous animal. Even lantana hadn’t taken root here.

Back at the resort, I lowered my sore bum into a soft-cushioned chair. Throughout my forays into the jungle, I had to listen to the constant drone of the jeep’s engine, grinding through slush and revving up slopes. I found bird song and peace not in the forest, but at the resort. Darting amongst the lantana thicket were white-eyes, ashy prinias, red-whiskered bulbuls, jungle babblers, and white-throated fantail flycatchers. A grey mongoose came nosing around.

On my badly scribbled list of creatures-we-saw were: Oriental honey buzzard, crested serpent eagle, grey junglefowl with half-grown young, red spurfowl, jungle bush quail, peacocks, southern plains gray langurs, sloth bear, and barking deer. Seeing a tiger may rank as the pinnacle of wildlife-viewing experience, but it was a joy to see these creatures of the forest.

I remained puzzled by the shy herbivores. In years past, they had been as nonchalant as the dholes. I pondered Gajendra Singh’s theory of how animals might perceive us, “We think snakes are slimy and awful because they don’t have fur. We are just as hairless as snakes. Imagine what other animals must think of us.”

When I looked up, the mongoose was gone.

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