The game of cat and mouse
The cat and mouse story has been around for generations but this one is different, in this story we are the cat and the tiger is the mouse. One of the most interesting perks that come along with the job is a drive in the forest. A forest in the life of a Naturalist can be considered as an important tool to study the biodiversity of an ecosystem.
Out of all the drives so far, I particularly remember one where the odds of getting a glimpse of the elusive big cat was very bleak. This was a drive in the Deolapar Range of Pench, Maharashtra. We entered the Park after completing the formalities and by that time few vehicles have already gone inside. Hardly 10 mins into the drive and we came across pugmarks probably made in the wee hours of dawn but it was heading in the opposite direction. The look on our guest’s faces was priceless when they looked at the pugmarks, disappointment was written all over their face. A word of encouragement and they seemed slightly better, the struggle to keep the hope alive. We moved on slowly, scanning the grassland and the hills around for any sign of movement.
Our job of locating the big cat is made easy by the grass eaters, the herbivores have to be on alert all the time and any sense of threat they would call out in alarm. Unlike the Indian Muntjac commonly called the Barking Deer, their calls in trying to pin point the location of the big cats cannot always be relied on, they are very skittish by nature and will even call out in alarm if they see a two legged creature. However the Chital or the Sambar almost always calls out in alarm when they sense a big cat around, to pick up such calls we stop in places like near a nullah or a water hole or in other locations where they are known to frequently cross.
After spotting the first pugmarks we would’ve hardly driven for 15 mins when we came across pugmarks again, this time from a different tiger. This time the guests could not control their patience and expressed their disappointment at seeing their hopes of seeing a big cat fade away. This time too the pugmarks were heading in the opposite direction; there is a rule in the Park, which states that a vehicle cannot turn around. I tried to explain that all is not lost and there is much more to the forest than the Tiger, which one usually misses out observing in the quest to zero in on spotting the big cat.
The thrilling experience of tracking a big cat, keeping in mind their elusive nature usually overshadows the inquisitiveness of spending time in observing the other commonly seen animals like the Deer and the Gaur. Our spirits were at a low ebb as we were running out of time and so far we could not pick up any alarm calls. I kept looking at the sun and the time every now and then, tigers usually prefer to walk in the wee hours of the morning or at dusk and I knew this time of the day was the best time to commence their walk after a day’s rest in the shade.
It was around 4:30 pm and we were slowly heading towards the exit when our Guide called out Tiger, Tiger! There was no way none of us could’ve spotted the big cat as it was clearly visible sleeping on a slope right above the nullah. The big white belly in the middle of greens around was very prominent and did not take a long time to spot it.
The gloomy faces of our guests in no time turned into super happy faces, we too were feeling none the less. To top it all, we were the only ones around, not that we did not want others to see, but with too many people around it can become quite noisy. It did not move and kept sleeping till other vehicles arrived, that’s when it looked up to see the ones who dared to disturb the tiger’s evening siesta.
We spent a good 30 mins with the Tiger before bidding adieu to a drive to remember. All the while the pugmarks indicated that the big cat was moving in the opposite direction, but the forest still had this surprise waiting for us.
This was my third sighting of the big cat in this Range and in each one of them they were found sleeping until my luck changed miraculously in the next drive.