The winter rain poured as I sat huddled under the outstretched hood of my gypsy. It did its job of keeping me dry, but nothing could’ve kept my spirits from dampening. Back then, about five years ago, my maniacal zeal to spot a tiger in the wild ran irrationally strong. The untimely winter rains had conspired to keep the tigers of Corbett National Park at bay, and, given that a year had passed since my last tiger sighting, my latest “failed” foray into feline territory had left me miffed.
As Usman, the driver of the gypsy, and I made our way back to our lodge, we pulled up alongside another gypsy. The gentleman driving it had no news from within the park as he had spent his morning roaming its outskirts in search of avian delights for his birdwatching guests. In turn, we conveyed our disappointment at not having sighted a tiger inside the park on our third consecutive attempt. This was met by a sheepish, sympathetic grin — he told us that he had spotted a tiger that morning, gesturing to his left, towards a patch of jungle flourishing outside the park’s demarcated confines. I knew he wasn’t bluffing, since I had heard the sambhar’s deep-throated bellows, emanating from the same forested sprawl the night before.
The forests on the fringe had served up what the much-touted interiors of the park had failed to dish out. I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that such encounters were the exception to the rule — if luck-laced sightings did indeed play by any rules. Still, I resolved that, hereafter, my time in the park would be evenly split between the outside and the inside. And, thereon, the more notable of my encounters have all transpired on the side less trodden.
The forest of the fringe wasn’t the kind to easily give up her secrets. Hasty attempts proved unyielding if one didn’t bide one’s time, and wait for the forest to bestow her favours. The first of these took the form of a pair of yellow-throated martens which, on a fine sunny afternoon, came trotting my way. Unperturbed by my presence, they kept their course, turning but once, to cast an inquiring glance in my direction — looking every inch the handsome, nimble-footed hunters we know them to be — before strolling past me.
It isn’t rare to catch sight of a mini traffic jam on the tarmac road abutting the outer edges of the park. A closer look at this congestion, more often than not, reveals a lordly elephant leading from the front — rightfully claiming its right of passage. I found myself in a similar melee once — stranded between an elephant marching towards the rear end of my gypsy, while straight ahead stood two cars, stuck alongside one another, as neither could find room to move past the other. Fortunately, the deadlocked cars broke free in the nick of time, enabling our speedy exit.
The cats inhabiting the fringes — unlike their shutter-friendly counterparts inside the park — were reclusive. One was always made aware of their presence, courtesy of their ever-vigilant quarry, who blared their alarms with gusto in the dark. The only place shorn of any cover was the road preferred by the elephants. But unlike the elephants, the cats ventured onto it only to cross it swiftly. Finding myself at the right place at the right time on one such instance, I watched a leopardess scurry across, with a cub in tow, as I was left tending to a battery of emotions, from rapture to relief.
Its smaller cousin — the leopard cat — evoked no such conflicting emotions, as I watched it strut across the road, before settling down besides it, on a lush bed of grasses. She sat there in a meditative pose, barely a metre from the road — a picture of dignity and poise, her rosetted coat accentuating her feline grace. What she lacked in size, she effortlessly made up in persona and pomp.
The largest of the cat family in Corbett, and also its most popular denizen, has almost always given my sight the slip, its full-blown guttural growl having graced my auditory senses once. The closest I’ve come to glimpsing its striped form is when I watched its wraith-like silhouette bound across the icy waters of the Kosi river on a dark winter night.
Speaking of game-spotting and riverine settings, how can one not mention the fringes’ most solitary occupant — the crocodile of Marchula. When not submerged in the limpid pools, fashioning its abode, one can catch sight of it lazily basking on a sandbar, letting out the occasional, gaping yawn of boredom.
But it isn’t only the charismatic lot that thrills. The sight of a jackal duo frolicking is no less uplifting than that of a goral (commonly known as mountain goats), intently picking its way through a precarious precipice, or that of a scuttering porcupine, heaving its formidable burden of quills.
The feathered denizens of the fringe give one company at all times, across seasons — whether it is night or day, sultry or dry, sunny or cloudy, chilly or clammy. The piercing cries of the changeable hawk-eagle guides one’s gaze to a spectral vision: a blotch of white, dazzlingly displayed against the dark green canvas of a brooding jungle canopy. The haunting strains of the spot-bellied eagle owl leaves one groping in the dark, in vain, for a glimpse.
The more diminutive of the feathered tribe leaves one feeling no less indulged. The wallcreeper soothes sore eyes as it flashes past in a blaze of crimson and grey, and alights — as its name suggests — on the impossible perch of a perpendicular wall. The sapphire-blue of the niltava, the emerald green of the dove, and the ruby-red of the minivet, are all heady additions to ever-changing riot of greens and yellows bedecking the fringe.
So, if your quest to spot tigers in Corbett next time fails to fructify, set out (with your safety ensured) to uncover the secretive, but no less satisfying sights, persevering on the oft-ignored forests of the enduring fringe.
Indranil Datta is a Delhi-based writer.
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