Mar 16, 2010

Into the heart of the Jungle....

Almost a meter tall, the big cat was looking formidable and imposing in its rich, orange coat with the bold and clear stripes running at right angles to its bodyline. The feline was poised in a stealthy stance as if readying to pounce on its prey. I could almost feel the sharp claws waiting, retracted within the bulbous toes of the huge paws, lest it should blunt from the scraping on the ground, to shoot out. The Tiger’s tail appeared to be half as long as its entire body. Maybe it provides just the right balance to the sleek structure during the hunting chase. No wonder so many writers wax lyrical over the tiger’s round yellow eyes. Those keen eyes did instill fear and spell-binding awe in your heart, both at the same time.
I was looking right into the eyes of the Tiger and they seemed to be boring into mine.
The yawning mouth revealed large razor-sharp canines threatening to tear flesh in minutes.
One growl and I would have pissed my pants but now I could stand so close, so fearlessly, for I knew it could do no harm to me. The Tiger was not behind the bars of a zoo but was free and yet it could do nothing for it stood there lifeless, dead, just another stuffed effigy, yet another specimen on display!


As students of Fine Arts, the batch of 2000 was taken on a study tour to gorgeous Nepal, to sketch, paint and click to capture the beauty of another world. One of the breathtaking locales visited was the Machhaphuchhare (Fish Tail) peak in the Annapurna Himal of north- central Nepal, reflecting beautifully in the clear waters of the Fewa Lake. My camera clicked away and we halted at many beautiful spots to sketch the picturesque Pokhra environs.

Next on our itinerary was the Royal Chitwan National Park which was spread over an area of 932 sq.kms., in the flat lowland region of Southern Nepal. We spent the night in shacks and were visited by a stray, great, one-horned Rhinoceros while we were dining. All 45 girls were screaming our lungs out until the harrowed caretakers of the resort arrived at the scene and assured us of it being absolutely harmless and that it was a frequent visitor here. Meanwhile some other locals busied themselves at sending the animal away.
“I’m thoroughly enjoying it here” said Maggie my adventurous classmate and I said “Ditto!”
The next day, in the wee hours of the misty November morning, we left the resort in thundering jeeps. Most of us wore Khakis and fatigue print outfits to gel in with the forests, as instructed.  On reaching the venue it came as a surprise that we were to commence our Jungle Safari on Elephant backs! I was thrilled to bits.

We were split into groups of 4, Maggie and I along with Deepti and Pooja together.  From a Machan-like high platform, we were lowered into a rather crude, saddle-like, contraption fastened to the back of a sturdy Elephant. Rupin, the Mahout, then seized an ear in each hand when the elephant obligingly lowered its head. He then hoisted himself up onto the elephant’s trunk. Like a hydraulic lift, the trunk was raised into the air and Rupin adeptly dropped off to be seated like a valiant warrior , atop the elephant’s nape. From this perch, Rupin would talk to the elephant in a cajoling voice while giving soft nudges behind the ears to guide it through the Jungle Safari.

The first 15 minutes of the journey were consumed in getting a hang of riding Elephant-back, overcoming the fear of the height and falling off. All four girls were intently teaching each other how to hang on tight to the frail railing of the seat, guarding us from tipping off the Elephant’s back. In spite of the initial tension I found myself giggling as we learnt to follow the rhythm of the gentle rocking while our great mount took heavy, measured steps. As the elephantine movements trampled the earth, I was busy noticing that these were rich, sub-tropical forests, a striking contrast to the snow-capped mountains to the North. 



Thankfully Rupin turned out to be a genial and intelligent fellow contrasting the grumpy riders we saw leading our other classmates elephants. “What a boor!” Pradnya had described their Mahout, later that evening over dinner.
Rupin told us that our Elephant was a very loving animal, quite pleasant natured at most times, had the proverbial sharp memory and responded to the name ChampaKali.
“So bhayya you are the only guy here in our team!” observed Maggie and Rupin gave a gurgling laugh. We maintained as low volumes as possible, as instructed and the five of us chatted away to glory.
As conversation flowed one wise crack followed another and Rupin boasted proudly “She follows Hindi very well. Try it!”
I didn’t realize what got over me and I started actually addressing ChampaKali myself. Without a second thought I jovially reprimanded her, “This leisurely stroll through the jungle is getting a bit boring ChampaKali.” I said, “Why don’t you show us what you know! Take us where the dreaded Sher- Khan lives.”
At first we didn’t believe that ChampaKali had fully understood what I’d said, so we laughed but there was dead silence from Rupin. He never turned back and we realized ChampaKali had given a sudden jerking swerve to the left. She stepped off the well-trodden trail into the dense thicket. 
We noticed Rupin’s voice was caught between delight and alarm as he said, “She’s following your instructions Maydum.”
The words were out and they couldn’t be taken back.

ChampaKali was seriously leading us off into the depths of the tropical forest, away from the routine track for I noticed that over the past five minutes none of the other Elephants accompanying ours were to be seen. No human sound reached us. What we could hear was just the rustling of the leaves against the Elephant’s body and the gurgling of a stream nearby. The cooing of the birds, high up in the branches and the constant chirping of the crickets made the background score for our adventurous scene. I could sense the girls were a bit scared at the idea of approaching the tigers for real but I wasn’t. For their sake, I was almost about to request Rupin to abort the reckless plan but I didn’t find my voice, out of excitement.

As we neared the stream, ChampaKali slowed down and I saw that her feet were now mucky with the softened soil from the river bank. Rupin strictly asked us to maintain pin-drop silence. “Not a word!” he glared at me, raising a finger to his lips. We had now reached a clearance at the bank of the flowing stream, where ChampaKali suddenly ground to a sharp halt. Her body swayed and quivered. The poor animal had followed orders but was also very frightened at the finale. Just across, on the opposite river bank, a Tiger was lapping up the water, thirstily!

 Despite the distance, he’d noticed us and had looked up, almost immediately, at our arrival. I was looking right into the eyes of the Tiger and they seemed to be boring into mine!
 Despite the distance I could feel the fiery yellow eyes, keenly observing us. At that intoxicating moment, blood rushed to my feet and I felt faint. ChampaKali had afforded us a glimpse of the feline in flesh and blood, in all its resplendent grandeur, in its own habitat!




Here in this famous museum ‘The Panthera Tigris’ is poised on a grand pedestal, the board beneath reads, ‘Felidae family’ and all this seems like an irony to what I reminisce!
Here I can almost laugh at the fear I’d felt at seeing the Tiger eye to eye. At Chitwan, literally in the heart of the jungle, I’d fallen in love with our chance sighting. I was reveling in the fact that we even caught a glimpse while others had spotted only a paw mark in the earth somewhere or deep claw marks and long scratches on tree trunks.

When ChampaKali made an about-turn, Rupin had started telling us in a hushed, sad tone, “Until 1950, Chitwan was the favourite hunting ground for the Nepalese royalty. Extravagant camps would be set up for the big game hunters and their entourage who would shoot hundreds of tigers and panthers over the next couple of months.”

Though poaching cases are said to have considerably reduced, more than 200 tigers were killed recently. The malpractice is still rampant, of trading the Tiger’s pelt, bones and claws to China, Korea, Japan and many other eastern countries where it’s of great medicinal value or to Tibet where it’s traditionally used in religious ceremonies or costumes.

Rupin also told us tales of how the dwindling forests caused the Tiger to enter the village in search of prey. A step for its survival, led it to its death at the hands of the villagers. “It’s the same plight in India too!”, I’d replied and today it is worse!
With only 1411 left in India, what is the future of our national animal?
Sachin Tendulkar dedicated his 42nd test century at Hamilton to the cause of tiger conservation.
He did his bit.
I wish to do more than just stand here and stare into the feline’s eyes, which seem to beg me to protect its brethren from annihilation but how?



This story was also published as my 3nd entry at KathaSagar Short Story Contest 


Image borrowed from www. uffech.wordpress.com
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