The safari vehicle came to a jolting halt. The forest guide had seen something. “Tiger…” Our heads swivelled from side to side, desperately trying to lock into the ‘sighting’. The guide pointed at the dirt trail we had been following.
A black lump. A glob of tar?
“Tiger droppings!” the guide educated us.
We sympathize with forest guides. The pressure on them to show tourists a tiger in the wild is immense. They must carry the collective weight of expectancy as they purr down trails, wondering if a striped feline would pop up obligingly around the next bend. They know that a forest full of animals just does not match up. If a tiger or a leopard fails to show up, the verdict at the end of the drive will be: no sightings.
So what do they do when the big cats play truant? They stop to point out tiger pug marks and speculate wisely if they are fresh or a few day’s old; if they belong to a male, a female or cubs… Tiger droppings are scrutinized too. The one we saw was relatively fresh, or so we were told.
Often the vehicle comes to a halt and the song of the wild – the twitter of birds and call of insects – fills the forest canopy. But the music is lost on the guide. He strains to pick up the warning call of spotted deer and sambar – the favourite food of the tiger – as they might hint at where the tiger is lurking.
So we sat in a safari vehicle in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, waiting for the forest to give us a clue of the tiger’s whereabouts. And the guide’s cell phone trilled. A tiger had been spotted at the entrance of the park.
We were off on a ride that any amusement park around the world would have envied. Trees blurred past on both sides of the vehicle. We bounced ungainly in our seats and were hurled from side to side as it negotiated steep curves of the dirt trail without bothering to slow down. We grappled with internal turmoil, wondering if the reward of seeing a tiger was worth the risk of losing a limb or two, maybe even our lives.
Sultan, the tiger, was majestic. He strolled across the road in front of us and settled down by a clump of rocks, totally indifferent to the chaos around him. Vehicles honking; drivers and guides shouting at each other; tourists standing up to get a better look; photographers claiming privileges because they carried phallic-style lenses…
Yes, this was a true ‘sighting’ … far better than a black clump that looked like a blob of tar! It was a riveting tiger tale that we shared with fellow guests around a camp fire at Sher Bagh, a luxe Relais & Chateaux tented resort on the fringe of the forest.