The inquisitive animal transformed into a fierce beast as soon as he saw the flash of light. He placed his ears backwards and enlarged his pupils, keeping his mouth open, with the canines exposed, a set of positions known as the “Flehmen response", as Mr. Chaudhary had told me earlier.
I sat on the tourist coach enjoying a comfortable ride home. I was returning after a weeklong adventure in Chitwan. I had bumped into crocodiles, had a close encounter with a tiger, and learnt a lot about the Tharu culture. Like me, every other passenger on the bus seemed happy. Seated opposite me were two completely different individuals, a young girl, listening to Pink Floyd on her IPod, and next to her, a man listening to a folk song on the radio. She offered him some mint, he introduced her to gutkha. The lost teenager had met a man who was a tourist in his own country, and they had discovered chemistry in a bumpy bus ride. On the other hand, I was happy reminiscing about the wonderful time that I had just spent last week. At that moment, the sounds that I heard during my stay in Chitwan were still fresh in my mind. The chirping of the colorful birds, playful sounds made by the baby rhino, and the roar of the fierce tiger were no less than any song.
Most of my mornings in Chitwan always began on the bank of the Narayani River. The summer had come to an end, and the winters were mostly foggy. The fog never quite burned off, but the sun did eventually come out. At dawn, the Brahmin priest and his children rose with the sun, to purify themselves with a bath. They enjoyed staying awake when the world was asleep, and swam in the sleeping rivers in the silent mornings, before praying in front of the sun god. This, along with many other delightful moments, made my trip an unforgettable one.
I had always regretted not doing a proper jungle safari during my previous visits to Chitwan. Luckily for me, I had the chance to revisit the place where I had spent some great times during my childhood. I was staying at my aunt's home, where I had some wonderful memories as a child. I was an amateur photographer back in the day, and I wanted nothing more than to photograph a tiger. But when I pitched the idea, everyone warned me about the dangers. A Royal Bengal tiger from the National Park had entered a human settlement in Nawalparasi district, creating havoc in the village after killing a couple of villagers, and soldiers were looking for it. Although it was highly unlikely that I would encounter the tiger in the park, it still was a spectacular wildlife destination for animal encounters, so I was excited.
The next day I reached the park in the afternoon, and took a short nap. I was woken by a strange sound, it was similar to the sounds whales made, which I knew from those National Geographic films. Soon, we had a knock on the door. "It's a rhinoceros," said a blue-eyed girl, Julia. Her smile lit her entire face. She was an American student who had come to Chitwan to do research on buffer zones, and became an integral part of the trip. The news broke in that a baby rhinoceros had entered the resort. It may have been a unique phenomenon for us, but it was nothing new for the people at the resort. We went out to see it for ourselves. It was having a good time feeding on the green grass. The rhino had been rescued by army personnel after being attacked by a tiger. Although it was taken back to the wild after rehabilitation, it kept on coming back. "Once they learn to take care of themselves, they stop coming and live out their days back in the jungle," said the resort manager.
We met our guide, Mr. Chaudhary, early in the morning. He worked for the resort we stayed in, so he was like our personal jungle guide. I expressed my desire to see a tiger. "Are you sure? Do you still want to see a tiger after what happened at Nawalparasi? It's not just the locals, every now and then, it might maul even an unsuspecting tourist," he said jokingly, referring to a man-eater on the prowl.
"You met the right guy. I will take you to places of recent sightings," he said. A veteran of many travels through tiger territory in the park, he was proud of his Tharu heritage. Despite encountering several animals during his tours, he never carried any weapons, except a wooden staff. "It can block attacks and offer a wider reach while staying a few feet away from the animal. You will need to watch the Tharu cultural show to know what else it can do," he said with a wink.
The first scheduled activity in our trip was a canoe ride along the Rapti River inside the park. Our journey began on the bank of the crocodile-infested river, and it was there where we saw crocodiles for the first time. A couple of gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) were resting on the river banks on the other side while we were boarding our canoe. We got on a traditional dugout canoe, along with some other tourists, to embark on our adventure to get a closer view of crocodiles. "Look at those beautiful creatures enjoying the sun!" The way our tour guide described the gharials sunbathing on the river bank reminded me of Steve Irwin, the host of the popular documentary series, The Crocodile Hunter. "They will ignore you as they bask in the sun, while we float by in silence," he added.
Gharials are one of the longest of all living crocodilians, measuring up to twenty feet. But, it isn't the most dangerous crocodile species. He warned us about the mugger crocodile. "Do not put your hands in the river: mugger crocodiles could attack, assuming your hands to be fish." Earlier in the week, a crocodile decided to pounce on a fisherman after he put his hands inside the river while catching a fish.
Despite the warnings, some people on the boat deliberately put their hand in the river, hoping the mugger crocodile showed up from underneath the water. Their wish was soon answered, as a blow on the boat caused a thudding sound. It shook the boat and silenced the bird-watching spectators who witnessed the unique incident. I looked below the boat, and I could see the scales of a giant crocodile underneath the water as it gently passed us by. Accidentally hitting crocodiles in the river must be one of sailors’ biggest fears. My thoughts drifted to the infamous scene from the movie Lake Placid, where the head of the crocodile hits the floor of a boat with a heavy thud.
Shortly afterwards, a second crocodile appeared, then three more, until we were surrounded by these beautiful creatures. Although they were half the size of the crocodile that struck our boat, they were enough to get our hearts pounding. However, we didn’t just see the crocodiles; we saw some amazing birds, too. The park is famous for birds like the Bengal bustard, storks, swamp francolin, and several species of grass warblers, but it was the grey-crowned Prinia that Julia was most excited to see. After enjoying the beautiful views, we reached the Budi Rapti River. The boat then tilted towards the shore, as Julia took a deep breath. Some of us got off the boat and walked towards the grasslands.
Before officially setting out on a jungle walk, Mr. Chaudhary told us about the kind of animals we could encounter, to keep us aware of the risks involved. The man who sounded like Steve Irwin had already entered Bear Grylls territory as he narrated his survival tips "You should never run when you see a tiger, because like all cats, it enjoys a chase. He also told us a story about a Dutch tourist who survived a tiger attack by climbing high on a tree. But, it was his guide he had to thank, who was injured while trying to lure it away. "Get as high as possible," he said.
He led the way, and a sense of attentiveness rose in us every time he stopped. After walking for a while, he stopped and pointed to a tree. We could see deep longitudinal marks on the trunk. He lowered his voice and said, "This is where the tiger attacked the tourist. The tree is tall, so it made it awkward for the cat to climb." Julia was a bit suspicious at first, because she had heard of tigers marking out territory through the scratching of trees, but the height of the marks made me believe his story.
“Bistarai, bistarai,” whispered Mr. Chaudhary – “Slowly, slowly.” He stopped and crouched down in a trench. "Come here," he said, pointing at the tiger paw prints. "Can you smell it?" he asked, touching the grass. He was referring to the smell of urine of the tiger that lasts up to 40 days, according to him. He was simply doing his job, but I had an insane desire to seek out the source of that enticing scent.
We were in tiger territory, where they once walked freely, but I wondered if we were a bit too late to spot them. The sun was setting, and we were running out of time.
We had walked for hours, explored, contemplated, and observed many things, but still hadn't seen a tiger. It was an exciting afternoon, but I still wasn't satisfied. As we returned to the resort, Mr. Chaudhary said simply, “Beautiful things don't ask for attention.”
Later in the evening, we boarded an open jeep and drove through the jungle to watch the Tharu cultural show, a musical extravaganza of the indigenous Tharu community. Mr. Chaudhary was right about the wooden sticks. It could indeed be used in many ways, as showcased by the performers on stage. The two-hour musical highlighted the colorful culture of the southern plains. The dancers performed the Bhajayati dance with long sticks, and Thakera with short sticks, to spiritual folk music. It was a beautiful evening.
By 7:00 a.m. next morning, I had already packed my bags, but before I left, there was just one thing to do: meet Mr. Chaudhary. I saw him in the reception having a conversation with the manager. There was excitement on his face. "They have caught it! They have caught the Bengal tiger!" He was referring to the fierce tiger. They had finally caught the animal and kept it at the Kasara breeding center. I knew seeing it in the wild would have been something else, but I wanted to get a glimpse of the fierce beast even if it was in captivity. After all, it had created a fear of mythological proportions among the locals. I wanted to say my goodbyes to Julia, but apparently, she had already left for the elephant safari. And so I went to get a good look at the beast from the south.
The Crocodile Breeding Centre was established at in 1978 to protect gharials, since their population had been declining rapidly. It also housed endangered vultures, but I was interested in the temporary shelter to the most feared tiger at the time. After looking around the center for a while, I finally heard the grunts of the beast and followed the sound. The guards had warned me not to get close, as it wasn't caged, but simply surrounded by a structure made of wooden planks. I walked past the breeding center and finally saw it. There it was, twice the size of any tiger I had seen in the zoo. It was moving around restlessly. There was a self-supporting step ladder close to the planks surrounding the beast, and I gently climbed it. I saw it up close, as I was elevated. It was less than five meters away from me. When your eyes meet with the tiger's eyes, the feeling is out of this earth. Initially, I could hear loud grunts, as he studied me to see if I was some kind of a threat. As I took out my camera, the grunts turned into groans. I was very amateur back in the day, but I did realize that the moment wouldn't last long, so I took out the camera and turned the dial to auto mode, instead of manual.
I peeked through the viewfinder and couldn't take my eyes of the tiger. I looked like a hunter measuring its pray. One thing I forgot was that, the flash is automatically activated in the auto mode. The inquisitive animal transformed into a fierce beast as soon as he saw the flash of light. He placed his ears backward and enlarged his pupils, keeping the mouth open and the canine teeth exposed, a set of positions known as the “Flehmen response" as Mr. Chaudhary had told me. It was the loudest roar I have ever heard; it was short, but had the sound intensity of a plane taking off. The birds in the nearby trees flew making loud noises. He repeated his roar a couple of times, and I could literally hear my heart beat like the sound of drums beating, my hands started shaking, and I felt like he would break through the planks at any moment.
I put my camera inside my bag and watched as the tiger marked its territory. I finally had my moment. I wasn't good enough to compose myself to take a well-composed photograph, but I had realized to live in the moment of pure admiration—moments that needed to be treasured fully and consciously—not with a thought of capturing it in the camera.
Tigers can be vicious, and when encountering them in the wild, you must show respect and keep your distance. You have to be crazy to get close to a tiger; there were thin wooden planks between us, but they were simply imaginary lines for the beast. It could have broken free if it was still hungry. It was an adrenaline rush to say the least, but wow, what a memorable experience. Seeing it in the wild could have been spectacular, but seeing the beast up close was also a beautiful experience indeed.