Tiger Safari in Sariska National Park, Rajasthan, India
No matter how many words you speak, no matter how many sentences you write down, the experience cannot be replaced by words. As words are limited, sentences are limited. But your experience is unlimited. I heard about tigers reclaiming their lost real estate in Sariska National Park, so I thought of experiencing the same while on a tiger safari in Sariska. Besides, seeing the most adored, savage, and intelligent denizen of Indian jungles in his natural home is always a privilege. So, I set out from Gurugram on 16th December at 7 a.m. and reached the Resort in Sariska National Park in about 3.5 hours’ drive. After a quick lunch, I headed to the gate of the park where my safari vehicle was waiting with a guide and a driver.
Tigers had vanished from Sariska National Park in 2004 due to poaching. They were reintroduced in 2008 from a not-so-distant Ranthambhore National Park. But, no one was prepared for the setback caused soon after when a tiger was found poisoned. But finally, some good news started to come around 2012. For the first time in almost a decade, tiger cubs were sighted in Sariska. Slowly but steadily the population of tigers has grown to over 20 tigers as of now. This is still not a viable population, so utmost care is being provided by the Government to ensure the tigers get a safe haven of yesteryears.
At sharp 2 p.m. I entered the park for my tiger safari in Sariska after almost 5 years. I told the guide I wanted to explore some water holes in the park, as there is always some interesting activity around the water bodies with prey and predator playing hide and seek at times. The water holes also tell the real conservation story of the ecosystem of the park. He took me to a huge water body called Karnawas which had some Crocodiles basking in the winter sun. Spoonbills, Painted Storks, Bar Headed Geese, and some more birds were around the area. It was good to see the waterbody full to its brim, and a lot of action around the same.
A vehicle crossed and told us that two tigers were heard roaring around the Ghaanka Chowki. So, we set out to try our luck in the area. Not surprised I saw some vehicles already waiting in the area. We found no direct or indirect evidence of the tigers in the area. We had been waiting for about 20 minutes when suddenly I heard a monkey alarm call and an Indian Peafowl flutter at a distance.
This was indication enough that there was some movement of a predator there. Sariska also has the second largest population of common leopards in a national park, so we could not rule out the presence of a leopard. Usually, it is the call of a Sambar deer that is considered a guarantee of a tiger’s presence. Whatever, but it was worth a chance, and let us not forget that though a leopard is equally beautiful and graceful as a tiger he gets not half the attention from anyone except the prey animals.
We immediately moved from Ghaanka Chowki to the area where we thought we might see some evidence of predator movement. I cannot say about others, but about myself, I say this with deep honesty that every time in last 32 years I have been on verge of seeing a tiger my heart pumps like I just ran my fastest 100-meter dash ever. This time was no different. The moment we reached the area from where we thought the call came, we all stood up, our eyes searching for any movement in the bush or shrubs. We eagerly wanted to hear some more alarm calls but none. After about 10 minutes in the area, the heartbeat started to settle down. We did not find any pug marks either crossing the tracks.
So, we decided to return to the Ghaanka chowki area. Suddenly my guide hushed and indicated to a bush on the side. I looked in the direction and my eyes met the most powerful and piercing eyes in the jungle looking right through the opening at me. Tiger. His hypnotic, fiery, yet calm stare said, “I have seen you cross this road 5 times, and you could see me only now?” He was a focused picture-perfect predator.
For a beginner in a jungle, it is unfathomable how a tiger manages to hide behind a tiny shrub or a bush. His biggest strength is his motionlessness. He has mastered this art over 2 million years of existence, for without stillness he cannot survive in the jungle. Like you cannot notice the breathing movement of an enlightened meditating monk, so is a tiger invisible when in camouflage.
Jim Corbett once said, you see a tiger only when a tiger wants you to see him. How right was he. I would say that for every 20 times a tiger sees you, you can see him only once. Absolute zero fuss, completely in tandem with his surroundings and merging as if he is an integral part of the foliage. To say that he is at home between bushes is not exaggerating a least.
When he wants to hide, he moves in a way that his pugmarks aren’t visible on the soil. He has the ability to place his foot in areas where the impression of the pug is not visible except for a highly trained eye, even the wind fails to get his scent. The highly intelligent prey animals miss him many times. Wondering where humans are on the ladder? You got it right, at the bottom when it comes to sensory awareness of one’s surroundings, so we stand virtually no chance in finding him, we always need his (tiger) help in finding him.
My guide broke the trance I was in, and said, this is T-21, a sub-adult tiger of about 39 months. His majestic face was like stone, but his eyes were saying something which I could not hear or decipher. He was sitting, and I could just about see his face, so I decided to take a record shot.
Some vehicles gathered in the area and the tiger decided to get up and go back into the bush. The guide mentioned that he will either go to the Chowki if T-9 is still there or go towards the anicut if she is not there. We decided to go towards the Ghaanka anicut. We reached the place and, impatiently waited for about 15 minutes for his majesty to show up, and he did. He was smelling the air, and at times sniffing the ground to get a smell of T-9 to know if she crossed the area, and in which direction. He went back and forth smelling for tracks of T-9 tigress. Then he had some water and decided to cross the waterhole.
T-21 crossing the still water through the still jungle gave me some excellent reflection shots of this majestic male tiger.
He crossed the waterhole and moved through the bush in search of the tigress. We lost him, and we stood numbed by what we had just witnessed. All vehicles who had gathered to see the show he put on were gone. But I stood there in pure ecstasy appreciating the entire episode. The purpose of seeing a tiger in Sariska stood fulfilled, but the joy it unraveled was not willing to settle.
We were joined by a forest guard who was patrolling the area on his motorcycle. The next half an hour was extremely engrossing listening to his encounters with T-21 when he was on a bike. He shared incidents when he was suddenly surprised to see a tiger sitting on a bend, but the tiger seemed least interested in him mostly. He said, that he has had many sleepless nights when he has encountered the tiger by himself on the tracks. One is compelled to think that what tigers usually do when you meet them on tracks during safaris or patrolling, and what they can do, are two entirely different things. They choose not to do.
I slept peacefully that night having seen a sub-adult tiger moving comfortably in his erstwhile home. But this sighting of T-21 heightened my eagerness, and I wanted to see him again the next day. Was this an indication enough that the tigers had indeed reclaimed their lost bastion, I thought of exploring that the next morning.