Wise as a Tiger

My eleventh visit to Bandhavgarh began on an ominous note.  

At the tail end of the first safari, we arrived at Gopalpur Meadow to find an extremely genial English gentleman, whom I was to later identify as John Aitchison, a wildlife cameraman who’d won an Emmy for my then favourite documentary, Frozen Planet.  He was here to continue filming for a tiger story centred around Kankati for the BBC, which had been underway since 2011.  

John said there was a tiger in the meadow and even offered us his binoculars to afford a closer view – the first time I’d seen a filmmaker being so gracious to tourists, who are usually a professional cameraman’s biggest impediment in filming freely, and whom most of their tribe, therefore, avoid like the plague.

The tiger’s paw was all that we could see, as he  lay in the meadow with his belly up – a position locally known as aasmaan rokke sona!  

But the position, along its moniker, was the only thing funny about it, because the sleeping tiger was not Bamera.  We were sure about that because Bamera was seen quite elsewhere by tourists at the same time as this tiger was resting peaceably in broad daylight in Bamera’s bedroom.  Grave.

By evening, the park was abuzz with the rumour that it was Bamera’s own son from the Chorbehra female’s last litter (which was later established it wasn’t) – a tiger I had last seen back in 2010 who was now a handsome hunk reported to be shuttling between Magadhi and Khitauli, sometimes seen on the Tala-Umaria Road in the crepuscular hours.  Hearing this sent me on a tizzy of emotions.

Orphaned along with his sister when their mother was infamously slain by Kankati in early 2011, had he now come to avenge his mother’s death by killing Kankati’s cubs?  Was he here to do to Bamera what Bamera had done to B2, creeping in to Sidhbaba and then slowly clawing away at his father’s territory?  Was he here to become the new king?

It seemed like the script of a film and the poetic justice of destiny, but the effect it had on the sightings was most deflating.  Bamera seemed to choose caution over valour, and kept away from his heartland for the next two days.  Kankati, sensing clear and present danger,  took her cubs up to the fort, completely out of our reach.  And the new male himself was not a very social person, and religiously eschewed public view.

Four safaris passed and we didn’t see the meaty part of a tiger.  The GoPro I had borrowed from Phillip was recording only miles of fruitless meander, save for the pleasure there is always to be gained from being in Bandhavgarh.

I thought the fifth one was going the same way when we reached Lal Mitti in Rampur early morning, only for a bunch of excited kids to ruefully tell us that we had just missed one of Banbehi’s boys crossing the vehicle track over to a kill that lay in the jungle on the other side.

Vikas thought it prudent to check Ghodademon to see if Bamera would follow, and we just reached to hear a kooki (a loud whistled signal used to betray the presence of a tiger), whence we just came!  Vikas fired the engine and transferred us back as quickly as he safely could, but reaching there, we found only the pugmarks of a tiger imprinted on the soft, red sand that Lal Mitti takes its name from.  The kids, suppressing their elation, informed us considerately that it was Bamera we missed this time, who had gone to the kill to join his son, just as Vikas had predicted.

We were still lamenting the two missed chances when someone spotted a movement in the bushes from the side where both tigers had gone, and the magic word was uttered.  In a blink, Bamera had emerged from the short bamboo thickets that abounded there, and stepped onto the road even as the kids enjoyed their third sighting of the morning with glee.  He crossed the track barely looking either way, giving us only a few seconds to admire his size and might as he did so.  He might have been challenged, but he was still a big and mighty tiger.

When the adrenaline had subsided, I thought of the subtler lessons of life that Bamera’s amazing story held for us; of balancing wisdom and courage and brain and brawn; and in the game of survival, of the importance of wits as much as guts.

On one hand I found it reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, seeming almost a practical demonstration of it, while on the other, of Taoist principles of acceptance, going with the flow and adapting to change.  

These moments of reflection filled the idle time as we waited to see if the Banbehi boy would follow in his father’s pugs.  A few minutes later, he did.  Being the shier of the two Banbehi cubs, he regarded the prospect of having to cross a vehicle track alone with much circumspection – a study in stark contrast to the disdain with which his father had dealt with the matter a few minutes before.  But after some hesitation, he walked right across the frame affording a clean portrait.

The shier of the Banbehi female II’s first litter cubs crosses near Lal Mitti in Rampur, May 2013

Then Vikas chauffered us back to Ghodademon, where Bamera emerged on the lip of the gorge, leading to the creation of  The Golden Lining.  

Bamera male walking over the Ghodademon Gorge, Bandhavgarh

With three sightings in the bag that morning, it wasn’t a surprise we had a childish grin at the end of the safari.  And some wisdom from a tiger.

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