As the monsoon clouds surge over much of northern and central India, a tinge of sadness hits the wildlife enthusiasts. Shucks, all the national parks and sanctuaries will be shut down now. There is nothing I can do, seems to be the common refrain. For most, it's time to pack up their DSLRs and binoculars and wait for the national parks and sanctuaries to reopen after the passage of rains. So you can't really do anything while these areas are closed to tourists, right?
Wrong! let me tell you from personal experience – which stretches to good 40 years – that monsoons should not deter the determined wildlifer from pursuing his interest. I myself have had some of the most remarkable wildlife viewings during the so-called "off period''. This is also the time to sharpen your wildlife skills, or what the late, great Jim Corbett called the 'jungle sensitiveness'.
True, you cannot venture inside the tourist zone during the rainy season – but the wildlife is not aware of the fact!
I know this may sound cryptic to some of my young readers, so let me elaborate: wild animals do not accept man-made boundaries, and are prone to appear at the fringes of protected forests at odd hours. The fact that usual tourists are absent from the scene during this period also somehow make the animals behave more like their natural selves.
Driving down from Ramnagar to Mohan and beyond towards Marchula, along the boundary of Jim Corbett National Park, I have lost count of the number of tigers, elephants and leopards I came across on this particular stretch. This region always seems pregnant with possibilities, and offers incredible encounters - rains or no rains. The ever popular Dhikala and Bijrani zones are closed for visitors during the monsoon, but the equally fabulous Sitabani and Jhirna regions are open throughout the year.
During the monsoons of 2014, while having a drink on the lawns of Jhumar Baodi – the RTDC run hotel situated within Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan – I had a memorable experience. It was still two hours to midnight and silence had crept in unannounced (as it usually does in places situated near a forest), when a spotted deer gave an alarm call some half a kilometer away. I didn't think much of it – a frightened cheetal often gives one or two calls and then stops. But nevertheless, I ordered another serving. The fact is, even a single deer call is sufficient to arouse a wildlifer, and I am no exception.
Ten minutes later, the cheetal resumed its alarm call – and soon it was joined by a Sambhar deer! Meanwhile, the calls began to get louder. And then I heard that unmistakable sound which all wildlife lovers yearn for in a forest – the deep 'awmmm' of a tiger growl. It came only twice, but that was all I needed.
"Looks like T24 has started patrolling,'' I muttered to myself. T24, the handsome male tiger of Ranthambore, had a habit of venturing out of the forest at fairly regular intervals – and could often be seen on the Ranthambore road, on the outskirts of Sawai Madhopur town. It by then was branded as a notorious tiger, which had killed three people in recent years. Of course with the fourth killing of the forest guard, it was caught and is now living in the exile at Udaipur Biological Park in captivity.
At that precise moment, a hotel bell-boy came rushing to me with the news, "Sir, T24 has come out on the road.'' I bolted inside the building and sprinted to the first-floor terrace of Jhoomar Baodi, to its very edge, from where it's possible to look at the grounds outside its main entrance, right till the wide parking lot situated some 70 meters on a downward slope. Luckily, I was armed with my high-powered torch.
It was pitched dark in the parking space. I waited for another growl. Seconds passed in agonizing slow motion. Twice I decided to switch on the torch, but killed the impulse. I knew a silly premature move could deprive me of the chance – however slim it seemed at that time – of sighting the tiger.
My patience was finally rewarded. The third growl reached my ears after 10 minutes or so, and almost instantaneously my thumb – as if acting on its own volition – pressed the blue knob on the torch. The parking lot was awash with white light and in its middle stood T24. He threw one carefree look in my direction, turned back and vanished into the darkness.
The actual encounter with his highness lasted a few seconds – or thumping heartbeats, if you will – but it left an indelible impression on me. Taking things into totality– the deer call and the hopes it raised, the sheer excitement of anticipation, leading to the grand finale – was perhaps one of my finest tiger sightings in recent times. So what if it didn't last longer and I could not take a photograph? Trust me, at times these things do not count one bit.
I remember reading a great photographer's quote somewhere: "There will be times when you will be in the field without a camera. And you will see the most glorious sunset or the most beautiful scene that you have ever witnessed. Don't be bitter because you can't record it. Sit down, drink it in, and enjoy it for what it is.''
This is exactly what I did on that starry night at Jhoomar Baodi. Monsoons make the jungle much more beautiful, and offer great opportunities for adventure. The Chilla area of Rajaji Natioinal Park in the Shivalik hills of the Himalayas is an excellent place to be in during the rainy season. Don't be upset because the main Chilla forest is closed for the monsoon. Stay in the forest rest house or GNVN Tourist Bunglow situated on the banks of Ganga Canal, both are excellent. In the early morning or late afternoon, drive down through the immaculately maintained road connecting Chilla with Rishikesh.
The superb vista, with a canal on your right and acres of green forest on the left, should be enough to make your drive enjoyable. Chances are – again, I am speaking from a sense of experience – you are likely to come across a herd of elephants, spotted deer, sambhar, and even that elusive and moody prince of the Indian jungles – the leopard!
Humility is a quality which every budding wildlife enthusiast should have or strive to cultivate, for one has to accept what nature offers you. It can't be demanded and grabbed.
Many a time, a sure-shot 'sighting' is spoiled because a child sitting in a Gypsy starts laughing or crying uncontrollably, and the moment is lost forever. It's impossible to envisage all those things which can go wrong – so take things in your stride and do not impose your will on nature. It never works. Corbett's 'jungle sensitiveness', which I mentioned in the beginning of this article, is an invaluable tool for wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. The sensitiveness which Jim Corbett developed during his jungle journeys in the hills of Kumaon and Garhwal saved his life twice. Over time, this same sensitiveness has pulled me out of some extremely dangerous corners. But that is a story for another day.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National
Geographic channel, Doordarshan National
channel and Doordarshan (India), please log
on to www.rahejagroup.org)