A Walk to remember
It is often said in the jungles that while you might not always spot a tiger, he tiger is always seeing you. Follow the tales of a striped tail and the quest to track it by our intrepid author and her team of forest officials.
It was like any usual morning in the year 2009, until a senior technician from Wildlife Institute of India (WII) came and asked me to come with him for tracking the newly reintroduced tigress in Sariska Tiger Reserve (henceforth STR). He, along with other faculties from WII, were staying in STR for a while to see how the new tigress was doing in the wild. One of my seniors and my base camp mate, working on the tiger project, recommended my name to them for volunteering. I was a dissertation intern in those days, working on Galliformes in STR. I was looking for an opportunity to work for tiger conservation and hence I agreed instantly. I had been tracking this particular tigress during the day time in the past four days while the tigress was still in a huge enclosure, but I figured that tracking it in the wild would be more adventurous and challenging. Though aware that monitoring the tigress for a whole day meant that I would have to miss walking my transects, my excitement made me decide to be a “tigress tracker” for just one day and then continue to be the “transect walker” for the rest of my dissertation.
STR, as we all know is the notorious jungle for being wiped out of tiger population in 2004. Although, the beautiful jungle possesses the presence of a tremendous prey base including Cheetal (Axis axis), Sambar(Cervus unicolor), Wild boar(Susscrofa), Neelgai(Boselaphus tragocamelus), Peafowl(Pavo cristatus) and many others, the jungle is an attraction to the tourists mainly because of the tigers(Panthera tigris) and leopards(Panthera pardus). During my dissertation tenure, it only had two tigers (a male – CP1 and a female – CP2) while another female tigress was just reintroduced from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. A day after the release of the big cat in the reserve, a few residents of the adjoining village spread a rumor saying the tigress or CP3 as they called it (Core Party 3), was highly temperamental and may attack anytime. Even after extensive efforts from the researcher team of WII, people continued to panic, terrified of the beautiful newly adopted big cat.
We started our journey that day at 9:00 am with a series of suggestions from our supervisor of that day, a renowned Veterinarian in WII. He wanted us to somehow get a direct sighting of the tigress so that we know it is doing fine in the wild and have no injuries so far. Three forest guards accompanied me and my companion, the senior technician to carry out the proposed tracking. Our group had a large number of people and we were supposed to split up in two sometimes during the tracking. We had taken two wireless handsets to make sure we can always stay in contact with the main control room regarding the updates.
As soon as we entered Kankwadi Beat of Core Zone 1, we heard the melodious signal coming from our antenna, indicating the presence of the tigress nearby. The gypsy dropped us at a point to start our trekking and left. We started walking in the direction of the signal checking compass bearing and GPS readings to record all the details. I was occasionally using headphones to get a clear idea of the signal since the collar was efficient enough to pass a signal from a range of 4 to 5 km. By the time we reached our first hillock, it was already afternoon. We were getting continuous signal from the tigress and were hoping to see it soon, but STR being a scrubland habitat for most of its area, didn’t allow us to do so. The oldest and most experienced of the forest guards told us that the tigress has gone on one of the hills in front of us. We crossed a village on our trek and they offered us some lunch which at first we humbly denied to avoid wasting any time, but eventually ended up packing it instead. One of the guards remained in the village since he was unwell, but the rest of us continued on our the quest.
The two handsets were used regularly by the amateur forest guards despite my warnings of battery drain-outs, and that was exactly what happened. Since we were supposed to return by the afternoon, we had no torches with us and by 6:00 pm, I realized that my senior company was not in the mood of returning home until the tigress was sighted.
We had crossed two hills by 6 o’clock when the senior technician announced that we would be staying in the forest for the night. After crossing the hill, we were supposed to reach a place called Dabkan, which was the last information we could pass on to the control room before both the batteries from wireless drained out. We had no food, no torch, no batteries, full signal of the tigress being around and darkness all around since it was two days after the New Moon. I knew that everybody in the base camp would be worried if we were not back by 7:00 in the evening.
We stayed on the top of the hill for a while since the signal was uniform. We had our packed food at that point, so we could not resist but finish it at that vantage point. I felt as if the tigress was watching our every move and would not have been surprised if it would have just pounced upon us. By that time none of us had any strength to even run for our lives if it did.
By 9:00 p.m., the signal started shifting and we had to climb down the hill which was about 600 feet. We climbed down with the help of our mobile and camera lights. I was laughing and cracking jokes all the way to lighten the situation. My supervisor and the two guards were also enjoying this adventurous trek and the fact that I was laughing not crying along the way. We tripped and fell along our descent until we reached a Nala, crossing which, the forest guards told us, we’ll reach Dabkan Beat. It was 10:30 p.m when we kept on walking through the nala and reached the end at 11:30. I was exhausted with walking on the stones all the way. My feet were sore but the signal was still there, so close that we could feel the tigress’s presence somewhere above us still on the hill parallel to us. All my way, I blamed Lantana camara bushes for not letting us see the animal.
When we finally reached a plane ground at 12:15am, completely covered with Adathodavisica higher than our heights, I wondered if the journey was over or we still have to keep moving. Sir asked us to climb the mountain now in front of us which would lead us to another Beat called Bagani. I saw my cell phone and realized that I had a single bar. Within a second, one of the forest guards’ phone rang. The call was from our supervisor, from the base camp. He asked about our whereabouts, and confirmed that we are not in Dabkan, but in Bagani already. Since the partition of both the places was just by a hill, instead of climbing down straight to Dabkan, we had climbed down at an angle and reached Bagani. It was quite embarrassing that someone else was telling us where we are.
We asked them how they know our whereabouts when we didn’t. He explained that they could hear my voice since they were just 500 meters away from us in the Baganichauki. When torch signals were given, we were glad to follow them. But let me tell you this, we were still receiving complete signal in our antenna and alarm calls of Sambar and Chital around us. Everybody greeted us with relief and when I came into the light after prolonged darkness, I saw that every senior forest officer was there, asking about the girl who was in the team. I found out that my senior researchers from WII were worried because I went untraceable, and went berserk to find me as soon as possible!
It was a cold desert night in February but I was soaked in sweat. Later, we had a good laugh at my memory of the frightened faces of the officials who had thought the worst had befallen me, and I had become the victim or the FIRST KILL of the newly reintroduced tigress. The forest guards were verbally thrashed to get us lost in the forest. I felt sorry for them, since it is easy to lose bearings in the darkness of the forest. I became quite the hero of our misadventure, and every single person there knew me by that time along with what work I was doing in Sariska. I received numerous salutes in the morning by many forest guards I didn’t even know.
Since then, the tigress CP3 (now ST3) is happily residing in areas around Kankwadi beat. The big cat is so far the most beautiful one amongst the present 15 tigers of Sariska Tiger Reserve (including eight cubs). It is now even getting used to tourists and poses in front of cameras. No more rumors of the queen being a threat to the people.
I could have added some spice to this story to make it even more interesting to the readers like saying that we DID spot the tigress that night, which unfortunately, we didn’t. The only proof of that night is the cuts and bruises that I received that day from my tripping or Lantana and Grevia bushes. Those scars left memories with me of the most adventurous night I spent in one of the most beautiful forests in India with the most beautiful creature on the planet misjudged as a harmful beast so often.
Cover photo: ST3 at its best | Photo: Subhadeep Bhattacharjee
Read also: Junglimericks: In the Crazy Wilds of India
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