In the last week of January 2015, while I was packing up my cameras for a long awaited trip to Corbett, I had no inkling that this visit would get me one of the most thrilling experiences for my Jungle lore.
Nowadays, it is really difficult to get a booking at the Dhikala range in the park. So I sought help from a close friend, Dr Sameer Sinha, who is field director of the park. He obliged me by helping me to get my preferred accommodation at the old FRH in Dhikala.
I, my younger brother and my nephew reached the quaint little town of Ramnagar around 1.30 pm. After having lunch at Ramnagar we proceeded to the Dhangari gate of the park, which is 20 minutes distance from there. While the formalities were being taken care of at the entry gate, I came across Jai Kishan, a forest guard who was posted at Gairal range of the park during the monsoons, where he had a miraculous escape from a tiger attack.
He recalled a rainy day in August, while he was patrolling with three other forest guards near Gairal tiraha on the banks of Ramganga River. Suddenly, a tiger pounced on him from behind. Ram Kishan fell down on his face. Before the tiger could get a chokehold on his neck, his three companions bravely waved their sticks and shooed the tiger away.
Ramkishan was badly injured with deep claw gashes from which blood was spurting out. The three picked him up and he was rushed to the hospital at Ramnagar. He is thankful to God for his divine escape, though he has not yet recovered completely. My brother, Dr Sunil M Raheja (presently the Medical superintendent of GB Pant Hospital, New Delhi), gave him his visiting card and advised him to visit the hospital for a thorough check up.
Having completed the formalities in the meantime, we started in our open gypsy with cameras ready. It was very familiar terrain, reminding me of every patch of Sal trees, grassland and wildlife encounters I had had over the last 40 years. I remember how Sunil and I had come to visit Corbett for the first time on a scooter during our college days. We turned right towards Gairal from the familiar tri-junction. By the time it was already 3 pm, and I decided to have a good look at Gairal Chaur, where several stories about a new male tiger had been circulating recently. I was told that this young tiger is bold, brave, beautiful and not camera shy, unlike other tigers of Corbett. Though we could locate its pugmarks on the dirt track leading to the Machan, the tiger was nowhere to be seen, despite the fact that big thickets of lantana bushes had been cleared recently by the forest department. I also decided to take a good recce from the machan but no luck.
It was a cold winter afternoon; the sky was overcast with clouds and occasionally, a light drizzle was reducing visibility. Having crossed Sarpduli, after 2 kms my eyes caught on a familiar rock, with a sign on it, “Shoot Nothing but Pictures, Leave Nothing but Footprints”. I wondered if it is relevant even today, after having crossed it hundreds of times in the last 40 years during my visits to Corbett. For the footprints had changed into gypsy and elephant tracks and the bullets morphed into digital and electronic shots. Nevertheless, this reminder on the rock has become synonymous with the Corbett legacy for many.
A few yards ahead I instructed my gypsy driver Danny (Danish Mohammad), to take a right turn onto Champion Road. For this is an area where I have sighted numerous tigers. Even if I miss a tiger sighting here, I am always gifted with the sighting of 3 ghariyals, who are found basking at a safe distance on the river bank. That day, I was lucky enough to photograph 3 ghariyals and a Crocodile. We emerged from Champion Road on to the main road and had hardly gone 300 metres ahead, when a langur calling out from his perch on a treetop caught my attention. It was followed by a spurt of frantic monkey alarm calls a 100 meters away. This was enough to tell me about the presence of a tiger. The gypsy was put to a halt and while I was trying to guess the direction of the tiger, 3 more gypsies full of tourists joined us in another 10 minutes. As they had also heard the monkey calls they had suddenly rushed in, announcing that the tiger is moving downwards toward Ramganga River. Danny also wanted to follow but I stopped him.
My decades of experience with tiger behaviour, particularly at Corbett, gave me a strong conviction that the tiger is moving parallel to the road and in every likelihood it will come out once it is convinced that there is no vehicle lying in wait. Accordingly, I instructed Danny to move ahead and park on the next visible higher elevation point on the road, about 200 metres ahead. We had hardly moved 50 yards when three tigers simultaneously emerged onto the middle of the road. On looking at the suddenly approaching gypsy, one of them bolted to the right while other two went to the left. I instantly asked Danny to stop the vehicle as the tigers would cross the road again to be together. By the time the gypsy stopped, another tiger had bolted from left to right. The equation, though changed, still had the same opportunity for photography. And then the tigress came out just 15 metres ahead of the gypsy. While the other two, purportedly fully grown cubs, were nowhere visible in the thicket on the right, the tigress not only registered our presence but also expressed her displeasure by baring her jaws twice at us. I told Danny to give her space, otherwise she could attack the open gypsy and where we were fully exposed. I had hardly repeated the warning and before Danny could even turn the ignition key, the tigress charged. There was no time to react as the attacking tigress reached the gypsy within a fraction of seconds. We were all frozen by her repeated thunderous roars and the cameras fell out of our hands. My HD handy-cam could only record the initial shot and the thundering sounds of the charging tigress. It stopped short within one meter of us and turned back. The entire encounter was over within a few seconds;we were left stunned, enthralled and spellbound with our eyes wide open. By the time we regained our composure, the tigress had gone. We saw it crossed the road 50 yards from behind the gypsy to join her two adult cubs. Luckily, the inexperienced cubs did not join the charge.
What stopped her from ripping us apart after having come within a metre of us, and that too while charging with full rage and force? Was it that I looked into her eyes and faced her one to one while she charged? Was it a mock attack? Was it divine intervention which diverted her?
This was the fourth time that a tiger charged me in Corbett, from my more than 300 tiger encounters. The first charge happened in the early 1980s at Thandi Sarak in Corbett, when I was accompanied by my wife and little son. I remember sitting on the window of my Fiat car. As I took the left turn from grass chaur into Thandi Sarak, a tiger jumped straight out from over my car hardly 2 metres away….Before I could realise what happened, my wife had pulled me inside the car.
The second encounter was in May 1994, on a stretch on High Bank road, when I was accompanied by my Nainital site engineer, Mr Varshney, in my Maruti Car. The third encounter was on 13th June 2002, at Rohini Padau. This has already been covered in the media and in one of my jungle stories. I would say this attack was much more real and dangerous. I wrote this story on 26th January after returning and attribute my survival to the large-heartedness of the tigress. It also confirms my warnings that human beings must keep a safe distance when a tiger is mating, is feeding over a kill or is accompanied by cubs.
Many thanks to her, many thanks to the Almighty…there is still some time left for more jungle adventures and more stories to relate for my readers.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org)
Navin M Raheja,
Chairman & Managing Director, Raheja Developers Ltd, is a wildlife enthusiast and passionate photographer. In the past 35 years, he has made several contributions in the field of conservation at various levels. A former Member of Project Tiger’s Steering Committee, under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, he has worked tirelessly to ensure that the big cats survive in India. He is also Chairman, Wildlife Conservation Society of India. One of the leading developers in the country, Raheja has a holistic vision and believes that development and protection of the environment can happen simultaneously.