Today, in the mad rush for “tiger sightings”, most of India’s wildlife tourism has been channelled to what we sometimes call “star reserves” — Ranthambore, Corbett, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and what have you. Sadly, the obsession with a “guaranteed tiger sighting” and getting that perfect tiger image in this DSLR age has made most tourists and wildlife photographers forget the sheer joy of experiencing a forest — that incredible feeling of being one with nature and all its myriad creatures. We also seem to have lost that spirit of exploration, the quest to go off the beaten track to little-known forests and uncover the gems they withhold. To those who are willing to brave the hardships involved in travelling to obscure forests where no luxury resorts mushroom, where often a lone chowkidaar manning a rustic forest rest house is the only human soul around for miles, where you must carry all your food supplies, where water must be fetched from the nearest nullah or a well (if you are lucky!), the forest rewards them with a glimpse of its undiscovered jewels and an experience of a lifetime. I am among those lucky few to have had such an experience some years ago in a little-known wildlife sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh.
As you move from Bhopal to Itarsi either by train or by road, barely 50 km from the city, you cross a vast carpet of green, criss-crossed by sharp cliffs and canyons, jutting peaks and rocky escarpments that eventually merge into the mighty Narmada’s right bank. Whenever I crossed this forested patch, I would wonder if it had any wildlife, or if it was one of those forests that have been emptied of all large mammals. A little enquiring, and I found out that this was a derelict wildlife sanctuary, albeit a fairly large one with an area of 907 sq km spread over Raisen and Sehore districts that border Bhopal. It had been proposed as a tiger reserve, but nothing had come of it. On expressing my desire to explore Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary, I got the usual warnings — no food supplies or conveyance, no electricity; water will be an issue too — coupled with the usual refrain “there is no wildlife, you could spend your time in some ‘better’ forest”. I stuck to my guns, packed my supplies, hired a bike and rode off with a friend.
Our halt was a rest house 8 km inside the wildlife sanctuary which goes by the name of Barrusoth. On my first visit to the forest, as we rode along the kaccha road, it was clear that this place was an incredible little wildlife haven tucked away from the public eye. A herd of cheetal here, the lone stately sambar stag there, a nilgai bull bolted as soon as he spotted our bike while a surprised group of delicate chinkaras froze for a few seconds before running helter-skelter up the ridge — the wildlife was shy and completely unused to motor vehicles. The habitat was excellent and varied, every nullah and waterhole that we came across had ample hoofmarks of herbivores. Yet, there were no signs of the big cat. We were nearing the rest house now, and the sun had begun to set, when I spotted something on the tracks and the bike came to a screeching halt — huge fresh pugmarks on the fine dust coating the dirt-road. A tiger, unmistakably a tiger! I was ecstatic, Ratapani’s faunal richness was way beyond my wildest imaginations. I felt as if I had discovered a long-lost treasure. We reached the rest house just as darkness closed in and the creatures of the night came alive.
At the Barrusoth rest house, we were welcomed by Krishanlalji and his brother, who were the chowkidars at the rest house. Pleasantly surprised by our arrival, Krishanlalji, a stocky experienced worker, apologetically informed us that they had no supplies but welcomed us to have their food. Thanking him for his kindness, we informed him that we had brought supplies. A fire was kindled, and with the four of us huddled around the chulha, Krishanlalji cooked us a delicious dinner, all the while regaling us with tales of tigers and leopards and how they came right up to the rest house often. In the morning, we were shown a few days’ old tiger pugmarks in the nullah that skirts the rest house and staff quarters, hardly 50 feet from where we cooked our dinner the previous night.
This visit marked the beginning of my friendship with Krishanlalji, and my love affair with Ratapani. A few months later, I returned to Ratapani with my cousin, at the end of a long road trip, and it was on this visit that I had what I regard as the best “tiger experience” of my life till date.
Barrusoth, staying true to its remote ambience, doesn’t get mobile signals. So one must walk, drive or cycle 5 km from the rest house to the Ratapani dam or talaab as its locally known, climb up the roughly 100 foot high watchtower — which affords a spectacular view of the forest, including that of crocodiles basking in the sunlight on the banks of this waterbody — and if luck favours, one might get a faint mobile signal. We knew a tiger was in the area, he was leaving tell-tale signs all around and we had had quite a few near-misses with him. But I needed to make an urgent call, so we decided to ride up to the dam. The sun was low on the horizon and the dial on the clock showed 4.30 pm. I wasn’t particularly worried. Having gone down that road many times, I figured I would be back to the rest house by the time the sun began setting. We reached the dam a few minutes short of 5 pm. I climbed up the watch-tower while my cousin stayed back with the bike. But, alas, there was no network coverage.
I decided to wait a few minutes, though we were getting late. The setting sun was now beginning to cast long shadows across the forest canopy. Suddenly, a cheetal began letting out loud alarm calls from somewhere in the forest, and I realised that they were emanating from the direction of the road back to Barrusoth. Another cheetal cried, a peacock called, the tiger was on the move. By now, the last golden rays of light were gone, and the sun was a glowing orb of red, fast disappearing into the far end of the dam. I was still relatively relaxed, convinced that we would be back before dark. Just then, it all started going wrong. No sooner had I started the bike, it started shaking and wobbling. To our horror, we saw that the rear wheel was completely flattened. The bike could not be driven anymore.
The sun had gone down now, and the winter evening was quickly giving way to nighttime. Another alarm call came straight ahead of us. And suddenly, it dawned on me that we had absolutely nothing on us other than a tatty mobile with its dim torchlight. I had casually left behind all our gear at the rest house. We wasted another few minutes trying to fix the bike, only if up to the rest house, but there was nothing that could be done other than dragging it along for the next 5 km through undulating forest roads. By now it was completely dark, and the forest was quiet again. We decided to keep the bike’s ignition on for its headlights was the only source of light we had, and the noise generated would hopefully keep the tiger at bay in case he was still around. I handled the bike, while my cousin walked along pointing his dim mobile-torch on the undergrowth flanking the road. And then we saw something that truly unnerved us — massive tiger pugmarks over our bike’s incoming tyre tracks. He was walking somewhere ahead of us. We paused, exchanged anxious looks. All the while, I kept telling myself: “Don’t let go of the clutch if we come across him. Just don’t.” You wouldn’t want your bike’s engine, and consequently its headlights, to go off with a tiger staring you down in the night. Nor would I be able to kick-start the bike again under such a situation. We moved cautiously. Every rock on the bend seemed like a crouching tiger, every other minute I would feel I saw something move in the foliage, every bush illuminated by the faint light of the bike seemed to be morphing into a big cat. Our minds were playing tricks on us, and how.
Suddenly the tiger’s tracks disappeared. Had he sensed us? Was he lying in wait to check out the source of this unfamiliar presence in his demesne? We were now looking around us even more intently. More ghostly rustles, more mysterious tiger-shaped rocks, more bushes metamorphosing themselves all around us. Then a few hundred metres on, the tiger tracks re-appeared on the road. Cautiously, we kept moving. The terrain, the dead weight of the bike and our hyperactive senses had made our progress pretty slow. One-and-a-half hours later, the headlights faintly illuminated the clearing on the far end of the road that marked the rest house premises. We were almost there.
A few metres on, suddenly, the tiger’s trail disappeared again into the undergrowth to our left. I didn’t care anymore, the rest house was just a few hundred metres away, and we made a dash for it. Krishanlalji had been waiting for us anxiously. We told him the story, and 10 minutes later, after we’d gulped down a good amount of water, the three of us decided to check the last bit of the road. No sooner had we walked 100 feet, we saw something that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up — tiger pugmarks over our barely 10 minutes-old tyre tracks, that retreated and then disappeared into the darkness. That is when it all became clear. The tiger, in all probability, knew of our presence all along. When we were just a little away from the rest house, he veered off the track and hid himself in the undergrowth. As we rushed towards the rest house, we must have crossed him as he lay hidden. As soon as we had crossed, he re-emerged onto the road, observed us reach the rest house and then turned back and disappeared into the benighted road.
It was an incredible experience, but it wasn’t the end. Early next morning, as I went down to the well on the bank of the nullah that skirted the rest house, I saw the same pugmarks, just a few hours old at most. The tiger had yet again paid us a visit, in the darkness of the night. Over the course of three days, we didn’t see the tiger, but I’m pretty sure he saw us several times each day. This male was one of those good old tigers, the likes of which captivated naturalists and forest lovers of yore such as FW Champion, Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson. No wonder they spent days trying to catch a glimpse of the animal and wrote pages describing its stealth and elusive nature.
Recounting that entire experience four years on still gives me goosebumps. I doubt I will ever have a better tiger experience, but I’m pretty sure that if I do — and I hope I do — it would yet again be in some long-forgotten godforsaken forest.
Kazmi is a Jharkhand-based conservationist, interested in raising awareness about lesser-known tiger reserves and neglected forests of India.