Vignettes


Sher Khan and the Wolves


By Brian K. Weirum

    

Bandhavgarh, INDIA

            It’s early morning and the dappled sunlight is just breaking through the trees of the deep Bandhavgarh forest. We’re driving down a small dirt lane between Sera and Rajbera Meadows, behind the massive plateau from which Bandhavgarh takes its name. Our road is suddenly blocked by the massive grey bulk which is Gautam, the lead elephant used for patrols, tiger monitoring and tourist forays into the jungle. Atop Gautam is Kuttapan, the renowned mahout who has been at Bandhavgarh for 24 years and who knows more about its tigers than anyone. Kuttapan gets my attention and points to something on the road. It’s the distinct impression of a tiger’s body which has recently laid down on the road. The imprint -torso, fore-paws and tail- lies clearly over any tracks or disturbances which may have come in the night

            Off to the right we hear the distinct “bleep-bleep”- the alarm call of the chital, or spotted deer, announcing the presence of a predator. Kuttapan and Gautam go off to investigate and we begin to drive around to intercept them on the other side of the forest. Not ten yards down the road, a loud “varoom”- the call of the tiger, is heard, and we slide to a halt on the dusty road. Walking directly towards us at a distance of 100 yards is a large male tiger. It’s one of Bachhi’s 3-year-old males known to share this territory with his brother.

            We sit in stunned silence and open jeeps. Some cameras continue to whir and click and some knuckles begin to whiten as grips tighten on the seats and roll bars of the jeep. The tiger continues his insouciant stroll directly towards us. About 20 yards from our jeep, he walks into a small clearing off the road, turns to mark a tree with his scent, then comes back out on to the road and walks past us within 3 feet of the jeep. Suspension of all breathing is the easiest thing in the world at a moment like this.

            When the tiger is about 50 yards past us, our reverie is broken by a commotion in the forest across the road. Anil, our Nepali naturalist, whispers loudly, “WOLVES!” There, propped up like little statues in a clearing in the forest, are two Indian grey wolves. Rigid, alert, clearly in a state of alarm and agitation, they begin yelping at the tiger. The tiger spins around on the road and charges off into the forest after them.

            We drive down the road to where it curves back to where we were originally headed to meet Kuttapan and Gautam. There in an open clearing stands the tiger, looking around as if to ask “Where’d they go?” We park the jeeps and watch an incredible silent drama unfold.

            As the tiger turns to walk away, out of the forest comes the larger of the wolves, probably the male, and scampers up to within a few yards of the tiger. The tiger turns his head and the wolf scampers back into the forest. The tiger continues to walk away down the road. Out of the forest comes the larger wolf again and scampers up to within what is apparently a safe distance from the tiger. This time the tiger turns around and glowers at the wolf, probably assessing the distance between them and the speed it would take to catch the wolf. They stare at each other for a few seconds, the tiger is still, and the wolf is nervously pacing back and forth. The muscles of the tiger begin to twitch and off goes the wolf into the forest again. Finally after one more of these encounters, the tiger has now moved some distance away and the wolf disappears one last time into the forest. One can only assume that the aggressive and bold behavior of the wolf meant he was protecting some pups and wanted to be sure the tiger was driven out of his territory.

            The tiger, now left in peace, continues his stroll. He moves off the road into a patch of golden grass ablaze with sunlight, marks the spot with his spray, turns around, crosses the road in front of our jeeps, and disappears into the forest. This marking of territory and turning around was not whimsical. A few hundred yards down the road, Kuttapan and Gautam have found the tiger they were looking for, the brother, relaxing in the dry leaves of a bamboo forest, his nose still visibly scarred from a fight with Charger.

            Kipling could not have scripted this better. Though he never visited the forests of Central India, his fabled jungle stories took place in these hills- what is now Madhya Pradesh and the forests of Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Shere Khan and the wily wolves in a taunting, even mocking, dance of survival.

 

TWILIGHT REVERIE

 

Chitwan, NEPAL

            The sound of a vehicle brought me out of my reverie. We had come to a junction where we would drive back to the Lodge for the much anticipated cold beer. We literally slithered, lumbered, and fell off the elephants to get into the waiting jeep. If there is a graceful way to get on and off an elephant, I haven’t mastered it. Chuck McDougal was driving. Chuck is a long time friend who has lived in Nepal for over 30 years and is world renowned as THE tiger expert in Nepal.

            On the road back to the Lodge we slowed to cross a small stream just before entering a massive sal forest. The setting sun was now a massive ball of flames balancing on top of the distant trees. The intensity of the heat had been mercifully tempered by shade and an occasional breeze. A langur monkey was perched above us cradling a small baby in her arms. A spotted deer drank from the stream. We passed a small ox box lake where the day before I had seen a log moving in the water which turned into the face of a tiger cub swimming to reach the far side before scampering over a log into the jungle to join her family. A massive one-horned rhinoceros stood near that same log and was loudly chomping grass. Its prehistoric appearance almost looked beautiful glistening in the late afternoon sun. Far off on the edge of the forest the Indian Cuckoo was singing its melodious yet maddeningly repetitious refrain. All was becoming very still. The jungle was preparing for the night.

            As we approached the park boundary at a place known as Bhimle checkpost a large shadow moved out of the grass and crossed the dirt road several hundred yards in front of us. Could it be a tiger? we all thought - too small to be a rhino and too poised and majestic a motion to be anything else. We drove slowly to where the animal had crossed the road, slowed to a crawl, and stopped. To my disbelief and wonderment there was a tiger, sitting at the edge of the road, watching us from the tall grass.

            I gazed upon this face of incredible beauty- not more than 30 feet away- and looked up to the North. The Annapurna Himalaya- not 50 miles away but more than 26,000 ft. above us- was turning alternate shades of pink and grey in the fading light.

            My reverie was broken by a whisper from the back seat “Is there any chance this tiger will charge?” asked Robert. “There is always that chance,” I replied. Georgia shifted slightly in the front seat to get a better view and that broke the delicate balance.

            Out of the grass came the tigress! In one powerful motion, with incredible speed, grace, and a total absence of malice, she cut the distance between us in half then turned off into the tall grass. Before I could even begin to mouth the words “Oh, _ _ _ _!” she was gone. We looked at each other and it took a moment for eyes to pop back into their sockets and mouths to close into one big smile.

            I don’t know what the tiger sees, looking up at vertical two legged creatures sitting in green steel boxes on wheels or atop elephants often with little black probes seemingly attached to their faces. Perhaps she decided in mid-air that we weren’t dinner.

            It was night. The time of the tiger. Time to begin the dance of survival between predator and prey.

            To those who are indifferent about the fate of the tiger, to those who think extinction is inevitable, I invite them to sit with me at the foot of the Himalayas and watch this magnificent animal move through the forest.

 

 

RANTHAMBORE

 

Rajasthan, INDIA

Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, India, once a jewel in the golden years of the tiger under India’s Project Tiger, today sits sadly as a shadow of its former self. During my brief visit, the forest guard checkposts were all empty except one which was being used as a ‘rest stop’ by a group of tourists. The entrance gates seemed unofficial, in disrepair, and were reputed to be ‘porous’ through the night. Groups of poachers ran into the woods to hide from our vehicle- all carrying axes for cutting precious wood. Population pressure from without, and even some corridors within, seems overwhelming. It seemed strange to me that it was the dramatic losses of tigers at Ranthambore that so alarmed the world in 1991 yet so very little is being done to prevent the last tiger from disappearing from it’s spectacular fortress, lakes, and forests. Yet there is hope.

            I spent my time driving around the park with Belinda Wright and Fateh Singh Rathore. Fateh, former Field Director at Ranthambore, was instrumental in creating Ranthambore when it was a model for success. He has petitioned for permission to set up Tiger Watch, an anti-poaching organization which will patrol the periphery and have government approval. I asked Fateh how many tigers he thought were left. “Six, maybe eight,” he said sadly, “but some cubs have been seen.” His eyes twinkled. Tigers are resourceful, resilient, and reproduce well. If protected and left alone they will come back!

            The following morning, Belinda, Fateh, and I were driving down a dusty lane and came upon several vehicles. They gestured frantically for us and, in a gesture of respect, all moved out of the way so Fateh could come forward. There, on the road, a massive tiger was resting in the shade. This was the Bakola tiger, thought to be about 500 pounds. He took one look at us, got up, walked a few yards down the road, then turned into a meadow only to lay down in the open as if to pose for us. I don’t know if my camera or my heart was making more noise. After about 15 minutes he got up, walked toward our jeep, and gave us a disdainful glance of annoyance as he passed in front of the right bumper. We sat for a moment in silence. I looked over at Belinda and she had tears in her eyes. “THAT’S why we can’t give up!” she whispered as the Bakola tiger melted into the forest.

 

[Ranthambore has come back from the brink 3 times in the last 20 years. Latest tiger numbers in May of 2008 show 32 adult tigers and 20 cubs]

 

 

SITA and her cubs-1998

 

Bandhavgarh, INDIA

            Word came at lunch that a forest guard had spotted evidence of a fresh kill high atop the 900 ft. plateau that dominates all views from the forest below. The Bandhavgarh Fort is a beautiful collection of ancient ruins from civilizations past and home to an eccentric holy man who has lived there alone for 28 years.

            As we approached the top, the stomach of a large sambar deer was spotted along the side of the road. Nanda Rana, our guide/naturalist, got out of the jeep to have a look. Much to his surprise, just below the road at a watering hole, lay the tigress known as Sita and her three nearly full grown cubs. Startled, as were we, the tigers scampered up into the rocks not 50 yards away on the nearby hillside. Then all was still.

            A noise from above brought the tigers out and, one by one, they made their way up on to the high rock cliffs above us and disappeared again. Photography cannot do justice to the brilliant color and beauty of a tiger moving through it’s natural habitat.

            We got out of the jeep and sat on a large rock and waited. Glimpses of tigers silhouetted along the cliffs were occasionally possible with good binoculars bolstered by a healthy sense of imagination.

           

            After some time vultures began to circle the remains of the kill and alighted on the trees above. One by one the tigers began to move down out of the rocks to protect and regain their meal. At one point all four tigers came to rest on the same rock directly opposite us. Four faces of exquisite and indescribable beauty.

            Sita’s cubs are now nearly 2 years old and will soon disperse to a new habitat and an uncertain future. It was a moment of incredible good fortune and magic.

            We sat in stunned silence gazing at the four tigers resting on the rock. A whispering voice from the rock below summed up the moment... “my God, how could anyone kill something as beautiful as that.”

 

 

Sheela Kumari Pant never had a chance.

 

Chitwan, NEPAL

            The tiger came north into Nepal across the dry barren hills, emaciated from hunger and thirst, and entered Shilobas Village on the southern edge of the Madi Valley on the night of April 1st, 1999. The Madi Valley is a small area south of Royal Chitwan National Park in what is known as a ‘buffer zone.’ It contains several small villages dependent on subsistence agriculture and was carved out between the lush forests of Chitwan and the Indian border to the south.

            Pug marks showed that sometime late in the night of April 1 the tiger circled a small hut in search of food. Buffalo meat was inside but the door was secure and the tiger could not get at the meat. Pug marks were found approaching the hut, completely surrounding it, and deep scratch marks were evident on the mud walls of the building. Frustrated and hungry, the tiger headed south back into the hills and attacked the first sign of life.

            At approximately 3:30 AM on April 2nd, 69 year old Sheela Kumari Pant was sleeping next to her husband on a cot on the porch of her home when the tiger pulled her off her bed, dragged her 20 ft. around the corner of the house, and ate most of her head and upper torso.

            Thirty-nine hours later, at 6:30 PM on the evening of April 3rd, still in the full light of day, her widowed husband, Gyan Bahadur Pant and a friend, Dhan Bahadur Romawat, were sitting on the same cot on the same porch. To their utter amazement, the tiger walked right past them, into the adjoining hut, and attacked a sleeping helper named Devi Adhikari. One can only guess what combination of shock, rage, adrenaline, and fear drove these men into action, but they went through the one small door of the hut and chased the tiger away with sticks. It’s a miracle that others were not killed in that small house, but Devi Adhikari later died in a local hospital from the tiger’s attack.

            On the morning of April 4th, a bull was staked in the front yard of a home about 200 yards closer to the foothills across a dry riverbed. The tiger attacked the bull but was repelled by the bigger and stronger animal but the bull died later in the day from a deep wound to the neck .

            Two villagers arrived at Tiger Tops Lodge during the night of April 4th to tell this tale and ask for help. On the morning of April 5th I traveled to Shilobas with Chuck McDougal, Nepal’s renowned tiger expert; Kristjan Edwards, manager of Tiger Tops; and Sukram Kumal, perhaps the best tiger tracker in the world today.

            Upon leaving Shilobas in the afternoon of April 5, all the villagers were excited with the arrival of four huge elephants and two trucks filled with forest officials, guns, and a wooden cage. That night the tiger returned to finish eating the bull, was darted with a tranquilizer gun, and now resides in precarious health at the Kathmandu Zoo.

            A month before, another incident occurred at Kantipur village just 6 kilometers east of Shilobas. A tiger killed two people and was summarily poisoned and buried on the spot.

            It’s difficult to generate local support for tiger conservation when something like this happens. Walking into a village and pulling someone out of their home is not typical tiger behavior. To return to the scene of the crime and walk into another house the very next evening not only tempts fate but speaks of normal tiger behavior gone awry.   McDougal and the Warden of Royal Chitwan National Park both agreed that these tigers must have come north from Valmiki Tiger Reserve in India. Driven by lack of food and water they came through a degraded habitat into an area with no sustainable forest cover or prey base for tigers and where no tigers had been known to live. They came across land which once did sustain lush forests and prey species for tigers.

            Sheela Kumari Pant never had a chance.

            But then, neither did the tiger.

 

 

Death of a Tigress

 

Bandhavgarh, INDIA

            On the night of March 28, 2003, the tigress known as Mohini (Bachhi) was mortally wounded when hit by a vehicle. Rumors about the incident have swirled for months, but at this point in time it’s academic exactly where the incident took place or what type of vehicle it was. It was either out on the Umaria-Tala Road or in the NW corner of the park at a place called Badrasilla (Charger Point). What is known is that she suffered severe face and head injuries, broken canines, was disoriented, and in an obvious state of pain and agitation. She attacked a guard post at Garhpuri around 6 am the morning of March 29th- startling the poor chap cooking breakfast. Her teeth were found in one of the wooden posts. The fellow said she seemed enraged and confused as she crossed the road, attacked a metal sign, and entered the park. Shortly thereafter, Mohini came upon a row of seven jeeps, eagerly awaiting a photo opportunity that had been heralded by chital and sambar alarm calls. Four jeeps noticed that the tigress was severely injured and yelled for the others to get out of her way. They were either unable or unwilling to do so.   I have seen a photo of the bloodied snarling tigress walking toward a camera. Had the other jeeps respected the fact that this was a tiger in a state of severe distress, headlines saying “Tigress Mauls French Tourists in India” would not have hit the news wires. Those of you who have been to Bandhavgarh know that a healthy tiger would have walked past the jeeps unconcerned. People kept yelling at the jeeps nearest Mohini to back off. But cameras continued to roll. There was loud growling- some who were there think Mohini and her nearby cubs were calling back and forth. Suddenly Mohini crouched and leapt into the back of one of the jeeps. The guide and driver ran off but two French tourists were pinned underneath the angry tigress. Some of the other guides came running over, hitting her with bamboo sticks and one pulled her off by the tail- Mohini literally falling on top of the lead guide, a local lodge owner. A brief scuffle ensued and finally Mohini walked off into the forest. She has not been seen since. The tourists and guide were treated at local hospitals and released with ‘relatively’ minor injuries. This would not have been the case with a healthy tiger. It is thought that Mohini was trying to get home to her three 18-month-old cubs. She never made it.

The Morning Drive Was Uneventful

 

Bandhavgarh, INDIA

            The morning drive was uneventful. We took our time leaving Tiger Den Lodge to avoid the 6 a.m. mass of jeeps waiting at the front gate of the park. We had decided to forego looking for tigers this morning in order to visit the ancient Fort and ruins atop the Bandhavgarh plateau. Bandhavgarh gets its name from the massive plateau rising 900 ft. from the meadow floor. It means ‘brothers footstep’ originating in the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Within minutes of entering the park, we passed the small Shiva lingam shrine that our guides always pay their respects to. Just beyond, at a lovely meadow called Siddhibaba, several jeeps are parked along the side of the road. An elephant was out in the meadow and someone was standing up filming movement in the grass. A large tiger emerged in clear view. This was a VIP group of the CEO of Coca-Cola who had hired jeeps and elephants for several days. His guide was an old friend from past visits and he asked if we wanted to get on the two idle elephants. No one else was around. All the other jeeps had gone on their assigned morning routes before coming back to find the elephants and tiger. The large male tiger was B-2, or Banda, the reigning monarch for this part of the park and near him was the lovely tigress named Chorebera. They followed each other across the meadow, through the grass, and up into a small ravine. Suddenly a loud roar broke the morning quiet as the tigress attempted to spurn Banda’s amorous intent. Several of my group watched the whole affair. Filmed it even. The shame. No word yet on the success of the coupling. Banda ambled off into the hillside and the Chorebera tigress went to lay up on a rock striking a gorgeous angle of repose.

So off to the Fort we went. The other jeeps were still nowhere to be seen. The road has been opened so you drive to the top instead of hiking up from the Temple of the Sleeping Vishnu at the base of the cliff. The Fort is a fascinating place. You pass massive wooden doors with large metal spikes intended to fend off attacks by armies on elephants. Caves and long-emptied rooms contain thousands of bats. Statues and stone carvings speak of civilizations living there long before and during the reign of the Maharajas of Rewa. A temple inhabited by one lone sadhu, or holy man, sits at the edge of the cliff looking down on the meadows and its tigers. We parked our jeep and got out to walk around. We came out of a small temple to Lord Rama, walked along a massive water storage hole hundreds of yards wide, and wondered aloud how many slaves it took to dig this for the Master. Tom and Judy were ahead of me with one of the park guides. Suddenly I noticed the guide frantically pointing to something in the grass, and, not 30 yards in front of us, out walked none other than the reigning matriarch, the Chakhadara Tigress. It all happened so fast but for a fleeting moment we moved toward to the tiger as if in some excited reflex action to check out something cool. Reality set in and we froze in our tracks. By then the tigress had given us one good stare, turned and disappeared into the grass, probably happy to get away from Those That Walk on Two Legs.

But the morning wasn’t over just yet. On the way back to the lodge for breakfast we stopped at Siddhibaba meadow and went for another elephant ride to gaze at the beautiful Chorebera tigress.