A Night in the Wilderness

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

― George Gordon Byron

Life, to me, always seemed easier in the wilderness. There is a natural order to things. There is a fine balance that holds it all together. And what is a better way to observe the nuances of the woods, than to spend a day (and night) in the wild. So, I participated in the water-hole Tiger census held on the brightest (ensuring maximum visibility) and the hottest (ensuring high probability of animals in the locality visiting the water-hole) night of each year; that is the full moon in the month of May. Yes! It is an absolutely breathtaking and mermerising experience. Each participant has to spend 24 hours on top of a wooden plank, constructed on a tree, near a water-hole and they have to document the movement of all animals that they can spot through the day and night. Riveting, right?

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Having done it once before, this year we picked the teak forests of Tadoba Tiger Reserve in central India and me and my sister were allotted the coveted Telia Lake Machan (made famous by the Discovery Channel Documentary: Tiger Sisters of Telia). We started at noon, dressed in our camouflage attire, crouched on the ‘Machan’, on the hottest day of the year, geared up to observe the under-handed dealings of the animals in the wild; to witness the ‘Law’ of the Jungle as described by Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem “The Law of the Jungle”:

“NOW this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back —
For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

…. Now these are the Laws of the Jungle, and many and mighty are they;
But the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the hump is — Obey!

The afternoon went by peacefully, with all the animals lazing around or napping and the occasional herd of spotted deer or sambar deer trotting down to the water body for a cool 20160521172301drink. A flock of Woolly-Necked Storks kept us constant company. A group of Indian Gaur came down to wallow in the refreshing waters of Telia Lake. Following that a troop of Langurs marched down to the lake and drank to their heart’s content while they all took turns acting as the sentry. They were followed by the wild-bores, the jackals and a pack of wild-dogs. There were a few alarm calls during the day which signaled the presence of one of the big-cats; but none appeared.

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The thing that stood out to me was a strict time-table followed by the animals so that no two species interfered with the other. It was like, in spite of just being animals, they knew that everyone is entitled to quench their thirst on the hot days and so none took more time than required; lest their brothers go away thirsty.

Then came the evening; the subsiding golden rays of the sun turned everything it touched to gold, much like the Midas’s Touch. The big round moon came up looking for company, but sadly the stars were away, as if they knew they would be out-shined by the moon that night. It made me wonder that how the persons who shine the brightest always end up 20160522052359being alone; success never loves company. But I digress! Back to the wilderness, the night in a jungle is not as silent as you’d expect. It came completely alive as the moon rose high. There was a cacophony of calls running a continuous commentary, as if to shout out that the day is not done. As the light dimmed, our eyes adjusted to the light of the moon and we could easily make out shapes and figures at the lake. It was bright enough to make out the species, anyway. Although, with not much use of our eyes, our hearing senses heightened. The most prominent sound was the constant chirping of crickets. At times, the noise of the cicadas was almost deafening as it reverberated through the entire forest. As the night progressed we became more aware of the sound of hooves on rocks and the sloshing sound of water made by the animals as they came down for their mid-night drink. At one point we heard alarm calls of a canine species (we assumed it was the wild-dogs, since we had seen them a few hours ago). We could hear the clicks of antlers entwined together, as a couple of spotted-deer fought. We also heard wild-boars and wild-hares squealing and snorting as they scurried underneath our machan.

The forest, at night, it plays tricks on your eyes. Every movement; every shadow; every gust of wind; it all holds a promise of something exciting. You can see things that aren’t actually there. I had to cross-check every thing, I thought I saw, with my sister; lest it turns out to be just a figment of my mind. The forest, at night, magnifies your imagination tenfold. You start conjuring up animals which turn out to be rocks or grass swaying in the wind. As I said, the forest, at night, plays tricks on your eyes.

“All forests are one… They are all echoes of the first forest that gave birth to Mystery when the world began.”
― Charles de Lint, Spiritwalk

89711ebe9411a20e185c0b10599ab689Oh! sitting on a wooden plank, on top of a tree, completely surrounded by wilderness, in the dead of the night is a unique thrill within itself; something that we just cannot mimic in the crowded cities, or even the quiet country-side. It is exhilarating; it is electric; it is mysterious; it is magical. I have never been so aware of my own heart beating as we sat there; in total darkness; plunged in the midst of nature; knowing there wasn’t another soul around for miles, just us three girls (me, my sister and the forest guard). There was a different kind of solitude present. However, at no point of time did I feel completely alone. It was safe, it was a comforting kind of solitude. I have never felt so relaxed, yet thrilled at the same time. I cannot, however hard I try, pin down that feeling in mere words. It is exciting; yet tranquil. It is a paradox within a paradox.

Jim Corbett’s words rang true to me then:

“The book of nature has no beginning, as it has no end. Open this book where you will, and at any period of your life, and if you have the desire to acquire knowledge you will find it of intense interest, and no matter how long or how intently you study the pages, your interest will not flag, for in nature there is no finality.”

The night went by and dawn arrived. Now, as all forest aficionados know, morningsnothing-is-more-beautiful-than-the-loveliness-of-the-woods-before-sunrise-quote-1 are when the forest is the most active. There was a continuous stream of animals at the lake as the first sanguine rays of the sun touched the water. We were observing the morning ablutions of our dumb-cousin when suddenly they all scurried away and everything became very still. The trees stopped swaying, as if they too were holding their breaths. And then it happened! Out of the corner of our eyes, both, my sister and I saw a swift movement of an animal cantering towards the shelter of the trees. A movement, that could be only described as feline, yet so so powerful; and we knew that it had to be a Tiger. It was the big male tiger called Bajrang meaning ‘the strong one’. We were happy! Now, being avid wild-life lovers, we do not require a tiger spotting to make a wildlife trip worthwhile; we are content even on seeing birds and just being in the forest; but seeing one of the big-cats is like cherry on an already very tasty cake! 

Later that morning, a big Sloth Bear also came meandering down near the lake, digging the ground for termites and ants. Like Baloo from Jungle Book, this one too was all about the food, completely oblivious to our presence. 

All in all, we spotted a whole lot of wild-life. But the thing that I took away from the whole experience was the singularity of a forest.

“Old-growth forests met no needs. They simply were, in a way that bore no questions about purpose or value. They could not be created by men. They could not even be understood by men. They had too many parts that were interconnected in too many ways. Change one part and everything else would change, but in ways that were unpredictable and often inexplicable. This unpredictability removed such forests from the realm of human perspectives and values. The forest did not need to justify or explain itself. It existed outside of instrumental human considerations.”
― Steve Olson

Indeed! Totally cut off from the rest of the world; I could die there that night and still not regret one bit of it. It was like witnessing a whole other universe, completely in sync with one another; some invisible force keeping everything in order. They didn’t need us. They didn’t need anything other than what was already there. I am not one to believe in God; but if there is a chance that he is real, I’m pretty sure that he is nature personified.

I did not want the day to end, but like all good things, time came to get back to civilization.

Like Mr. Frost penned down in his poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening”:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”

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Watch the Queen Conquer…

One of the most profound experience that someone can witness in the wild is a confrontation between two dominant and territorial species; the lone tigress versus a pack of savage wild-dogs. The wild dogs or more commonly known as Dhole are social animals and prefer to live and hunt in packs of mostly 12-14. Known for their distinct hunting style, they do not use the traditional killing bite to the throat, but prefer to surround their prey and then proceed to eat it up one bite at a time while the prey is still alive (savage, right?). Tigers on the other hand are solitary creatures and prefer to eat, sleep and kill alone.

As I was saying, a confrontation between the two highly sovereign and commanding species is a sight to behold, and I was fortunate enough to have witnessed it. So, a few years ago my family and I were visiting the Nagzira Tiger Reserve,  located in the heart of Central India. Spread over 150 square kilometers, the Sanctuary is a haven for wildlife and wildlife lovers such as myself. Situated only a couple of hundred kilometers from my hometown, I practically grew up there, spending the majority of my vacations at the wildlife park.

The tigress called Mai (meaning  mother) or A-mark (so called because of the distinctive ‘A’ mark on her left hind leg) was the resident female in the central forest dominating her territory from other females in the region to secure the lush area around the central lake, teeming with prey. During the evening safari, almost everyone cruising through was able to spot her basking in the evening sun in a water hole.

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Apparently disturbed by all the paparazzi, the Queen of Nagzira decided to take shelter behind a bush. Late to the party, we reached just a few moments before she left the scene. While the others left, we stayed put hoping to get a better shot of the majestic tigress. Almost the size of a young male tiger and the mother of the largest tiger in India called Jay, she was always a sight to behold.

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While we stood there with awaited breaths, a herd of wild-dogs came sauntering down, hoping to get a cool fresh drink from the water hole to quench their thirst on the dry summer day. Upon spotting the tigress, they started to try and draw her out, by sending menacing calls and provoking her by threatening gestures. Now, tigers normally do not like to pick fights with wild-dogs due to their sheer number and tireless pursing techniques, but they also form formidable opponents, having the ability to take out a dog with the single strike of a paw. A-mark now had the choice to either fight the dogs or leave. Merely 20 feet for our gypsy, we could not believe the scene unfolding in front of our eyes; a clan of wild-dogs challenging the tigress who sat crouched, behind a bush, ready to pounce in case of an attack, while a couple of Sambar deer stood, dumbstruck, in the middle of the two rivals, helplessly giving out alarm calls (I mean, seriously, of all the animals in the wilderness, only the Sambar are dumb enough to get caught between a tiger and wild dogs!) It gave rise to an interesting saying in my house: as dumb as a Sambar caught between the tiger and wild-dogs. After about ten minutes of provocation, A-mark took matters into her own hands or paws if you will, and slowly stood up. With one purposeful step after the next, she slowly started moving towards the pack as if to say “Try coming at me, you dawgs!”. It was that slow walk that was scarier than an out front attack. It contained the promise of a fearsome battle and not the idle threats of the dogs. Perhaps the wild dogs sensed that she was not a cat to be messed with, or perhaps they knew they didn’t stand a chance against the grand old lady or perhaps they didn’t think the fight would leave anyone a winner; whatever the reason, they retreated. We could still hear their defeated cries in the distance. We all watched the Queen Conquer!

At that moment, I realized that a Lion may be the King of the Jungle, but their big-cat cousin, the Tiger  certainly rules it. The stately walk, the royal gaze, the regnant stance; nothing screams “Kingly” more than a Tiger. And what is scarier than a King: a queen trying to protect her own.  A-mark neither fought the clan nor did she back off; all she did was let them know that she was in-charge and and that a queen does not respond to threats; that it is she who makes them…..

Filled with a feeling of joy and awe, I could not help but wonder, that like A-mark, if we just stand our ground when we face our pack of wild-dogs in life, if we don’t give into our temptations, fears and cowardice, if we can only just rise above the chaos and the dirt….

… we won’t just survive, but we will rule!

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