In search of Stripes
Tracking the elusive tiger in Pench Wildlife Sanctuary, the famed ‘collarwali’ tigress and her litter is a tale worth sharing.
The word ‘tiger’ excites and enthuses most people with the images it conjures up of India’s national animal striding gracefully and purposefully through tall jungle grass. The Pench Wildlife Sanctuary which straddles both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh beckoned us and drew us, almost magically, to its rich and lush environs.
We landed at Nagpur airport in the searing heat of May and puffed and panted our way out of the airport into our waiting taxi. “Should I take out my camera to shoot some pretty landscapes on the way to Pench?” asked my husband. “Sir, don’t bother,” said the taxi driver gently. “The landscapes on the way are not pretty at all.”
And truly, as we sped through the countryside, we found it parched dry by a relentless sun. But as we neared Pench the forest grew thicker, greener, prettier. Our resort, Pench Jungle Camp, is on the edge of the sanctuary. We moved into a large comfortable room which had a silver cloth self-designed tent top as a ceiling. The resort is densely populated with trees of diverse species and from the porch of our room we could see Hanuman langurs swinging leisurely from the branches.During the day crickets set up a rousing staccato sound which echoes through the forest and adds to the mystery and allure of the jungle.
Up at the crack of dawn, we assembled at the meeting point in the resort from where Maruti Gypsies, along with guides, roared off to a further meeting point where around 30 or 40 Gypsies were stationed, with identity cards of the tourists being checked. Then slowly the vehicles rolled into the jungle.
The Pench Wildlife Sanctuary sprawls over almost 800 sq. kms of forest. The river Pench flows through the forest and divides it into almost equal eastern and western halves. Our guides informed us that it is said in these parts that the renowned novelist, Rudyard Kipling, based his famous novel, The Jungle Book, on this sanctuary.
On the first day as we drove through the jungle through the Khursapar gate we saw a dry deciduous forest rich in a variety of trees such as teak, bamboo and the kullu tree, also known as the ‘ghost’ tree which stood out conspicuously with its enchanting silver bark. But the first day drew a blank as far as wild animals were concerned—on the contrary, we saw birds like the Indian roller, woodpeckers and the ever present peacocks, preening their tail feathers in all their cobalt blue glory. We returned disappointed in the scorching heat of peninsular India.
The park has two gates which are very popular, the Touria gate which is situated in Madhya Pradesh and the Khursapar gate which is in Maharashtra. The most popular gateway to the sanctuary is the Touria gate from where the largest sightings of tigers are known.
The next day we drove out again in the blistering heat of central India wondering whether we would see the elusive animal. Suddenly, the Gypsies ahead of us braked to a halt. A couple of drivers had received information that there was a young tiger in the vicinity. We waited quietly and our driver muttered under his breath that there was a watering hole close by. A barking deer uttered a loud warning cry and we gazed enchanted as a young male tiger around two or three years old emerged from the bushes, crossed the mud tracks totally oblivious of our presence and disappeared into the jungle again.
The same night, under a luminous full moon, a guide from our resort led us into the dense jungle where a few machans had been built from where the forest and its wild life could be viewed. We saw the fresh ‘scat’ (poop) of a leopard on the mud tracks indicating the wild cat may have passed by recently!
The next day we entered the jungle through the Touria gate, fervently hoping to spot the beautiful animal. And were we lucky! All the Gypsies drove relentlessly through the forest till we came to a watering hole. Our attention was diverted by a pack of Dhole (jungle dogs)—suddenly the Dhole stiffened, their ears pricked up, their bodies tensed. In the distance was the sound of a barking deer, a peacock flew into a tree to perch on its upper branches, a herd of spotted deer raced past us into the jungle.
“Yahan zaroor kuch hai,” insisted our driver. Suddenly a majestic tigress burst into view followed by her cubs gamboling behind her. “You are lucky to see her, she is the ‘collarwali tigress’, people come from all parts of the country and even abroad to see her,” said our guide softly. All the Gypsies on either side of the mud track backtracked respectfully to allow this beautiful, confident tigress, who remained oblivious of us, to cross the track. Suddenly, one of her cubs who got left behind, started wailing—the devoted mother went back to retrieve her cub and then walking calmly, regally, disappeared into the jungle with her cubs.
The tigress is known as ‘collarwali’ because she wore a radio collar which subsequently fell off. Over the years, she has had litters of 29 tiger cubs! She and her siblings have also starred in BBC’s famous documentary ‘Spy in the jungle’ which was screened for us at the resort.
Today at a figure of 2967 India has the largest number of tigers in the world, a figure which has improved substantially since the last tiger census in 2014. The tiger is at the top of the food chain and its healthy presence in our environment indicates that our ecology is sound. We need to persevere and be single-minded about conservation without which the future of mankind is grim.
Image and Video credits : Sonia Cheema