I am new to the wild, perhaps on account of journalistic scepticism. Having worked in too many newsrooms in which the only wildlife news on the agency ticker was tear-jerkers about global warming, mass extinctions and species attrition, I have assumed that it’s all over already. Besides, like the majority, I have not seen lions or tigers except in the zoo and on TV. Like the majority, I know people who have encountered big cats in the wild, and I know people who know people who have encountered them. It’s quite fishy, like the tales of fly-fishers who insist on fishing alone.
So when the family decided that it had had its fill of picturesque ruins, mountains and beaches and headed for the wildlife sanctuary at Sariska, I went with an open mind. Healthy scepticism encourages belief in the worst, including but not limited to the theory that the tigers which are sighted there occasionally are actually forest officials on all fours, clad in the skin of the last tiger ever, confiscated from the last poacher who ever flourished. Such apparitions could appear for a moment, strut their stuff and scoot off into the undergrowth before the fraud can be detected. Just doing their bit to keep wildlife tourism from collapsing.
However, all that scepticism could not prevent me from sighting a big cat — the real thing. It was even more fleeting than a fake encounter with a forest official in a contraband tiger skin, and all the more authentic for its minimalism. It was a leopard on a steep hillside, and the only sign of its existence was a ripple of light and shade in a moment when the rest of nature was perfectly still. It was visible only for that moment, because the first man to sight it raised an almighty yowl of triumph, causing the hundreds of tourists in the trucks and Gypsies on the trail to start yelling questions, surmises and warnings to children, and the leopard left in disgust, melting away like a hole in the air. A great pity, since people go to Sariska with the sole intent of seeing carnivores. They may be surrounded by thundering herds of the neelgai, sambar and cheetal that the sanctuary is known for, or the swarms of apes and peacocks that infest the Alwar region, and they’ll still yearn for tigers and leopards.
No matter, if you stay near the sanctuary, the wildlife may overturn the natural order and come to see you. We stayed at the closest possible place, the ferociously named Tiger Den of the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation. The amenities range from so-so to dreadful but the natives are friendly and, more importantly, you can drive to the sanctuary gates in about 10 seconds. The gates are open to private cars on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with the caveat that you mustn’t wander off the main path or step out of your vehicle, on account of the tigers. Interestingly, just below the warning are entry ticket rates for motorbikes and cycles. How exactly do you step out of a two-wheeler? Besides, can’t the tiger step in?
But we digress. The point was that Tiger Den is a stone’s throw from the sanctuary gates, almost part of the neighbourhood, and one suspects that the wildlife comes out occasionally to mingle with the tourists. I couldn’t sleep a night because of the incessant barking of the establishment dog, a seasoned veteran with a shiny bald patch on one haunch, perhaps a relic of an encounter with the wildlife. He was like a weather vane, turning slowly as the night progressed, his gaze seeming to follow some unseen intruder from the gates of the hotel, down the curving drive and along the frontage. For a moment, I saw its shadow pass as it walked across the porch above my room, picked out by a light in the upper storey. It seemed to be a large cat, with a tail more than three feet long. But having flunked trigonometry in school, I wouldn’t swear by it.
In Sariska, visitors whom the tiger eludes take home memories of its pugmarks. They are found in the dust of the forest trails, each helpfully circled by the tip of a human forefinger. The guide who finds them considerately leaves his mark for the benefit of his peers, and the truckloads of visitors they bring in every day to harass the local fauna.
It’s a well-known tradition, but seriously, wouldn’t it be easier to print the pugmark, including the forefinger artwork, instead of wearing your eyes out looking for spoor? Pugmarks in a circle cut into a sheet of foam would do the trick. Attach it to the business end of a bathroom plunger, stick it out of the car window, pump it into the dust and lo, the tourists are beside themselves. Such desperate measures might have seemed inviting a decade ago, when tigers vanished from Sariska. But never again, hopefully.