It started calling from around 2:30 pm. And kept on at regular intervals every 15-20 minutes or so.
Imam and I had tea on the veranda of the rest house. We figured the tiger was maybe around 500 m away.
Then we decided to go for a walk on the track through the sal forest at around 3 pm. We walked some distance. One of the forest guards came along.
We flushed some chital on the way, and spotted a barred owlet on the way, I took some photos.
It kept calling, but now it seemed closer to the Chowkham rest house and we thought it could be moving now along the road beyond the rest house towards Choubeli.
I was in some of the most beautiful magical forests I had ever seen (after Namdapha) in the Lansdowne Forest Division, Uttarakhand and it was not even a protected area, although it was contiguous with the forests of Corbett.
So I optimistically told Imam let’s hurry, and maybe we would get a glimpse of it further along the road. The guard pooh-poohed us, rightly, saying a tiger can change its mind and go anywhere and need not come out where we might think it would.
We turned back anyway, hope eternal. And as we hurried up near the rest house, Imam kept on walking past the chaur. I stopped him and suggested that the tiger had not crossed the chaur and that we wait before it, as it might come out on the road near there, otherwise it would turn back on realizing we were on the road ahead.
Imam, ever polite, said ‘Humme lagta hai, woh aage chala giya aur rasta mein baad mein ayega, lekin aap agar bolte hai toh yahin ruk jaate.” I deferred to his superior knowledge and said ok, if you think it’s gone ahead, let’s keep going. The guard meanwhile had been desultorily trailing behind us. Imam turned and told him to go back as he was coughing a lot. He called the chowkidar who had walked with us in the morning when we had gone along the trail that also lead to Halduparao. I wondered why we needed to take more people along, but kept quiet. We walked on, excitement gathering and me alternating between wild hope and telling myself, one does not see a tiger so easily like this – it could go anywhere. After sometime, it stopped calling. But Imam and the chowkidar seemed confident that it had been moving parallel to us through the sal forest. At one place, we heard a sound and Imam went up the bank on the road to look. Nothing. After a few minutes of walking, they both conferred and felt that there were only two possibilities – either it would come out at one junction a bit ahead or much farther ahead where the road is a crossroads of sorts and one track leads to Halduparao in the Corbett Tiger Reserve. As an aside, I must tell you that Halduparao is etched in my mind as a magical place after a memorable visit many many years ago as a student.
Imam and the chowkidar decided that we should go up on the bank above the road and sit and wait behind a sal tree. They said there was a big chance that it might come out from the forest onto the road at that point. I was impressed by their surety though a bit sceptical. We all sat down, with me thinking of many such futile sit-and-waits for all kinds of expected animals in many forests over many years, most of which do not yield anything except lots of tick, leech or mosquito bites.
We had waited maybe around 1 or 2 minutes. It was past 5 and the sun was about to set. Both Imam and the chowkidar suppressed inexplicable urges to cough that happens at such times. And then there was a slight sound in the grass and I knew it had come. Imam gestured and whispered to me that it had come and I should get my camera ready. I feared that the tiger would get disturbed and run away and shushed Imam that yes, I too had seen it and not to speak anymore. It came so silently, lost in its evening stroll. I had a small point-and-shoot digital zoom and was almost out of battery – just about enough for 1-2 pictures. I took one picture, but was more than happy just to watch it.
And then it did what I did not expect. It turned left on the road towards us (back in the direction from which it had come), I think all of us had expected it to turn right up towards the Halduparao side. I felt even more excited, although the sal tree and Imam blocked my view of it for some seconds as it turned.
I wanted to watch it to my heart’s content, before it would look up and probably flee upon seeing us sitting behind the sal. We were just 20 m away. It had not seen us. And then, just as it was walking down the road, and maybe about to look up and notice us, the chowkidar sitting to my right coughed loudly. Very DELIBERATELY! The tiger took one startled look up at us and bolted, sprang and leapt back into the grassy floor of the sal forest. I just could not believe it. I just stared at him in disbelief and threw up my hands and said why the hell did you do that? The poor man was astonished. He thought he had done the right thing. He said, “It was too close, what if it had jumped on us? I saw its eyes looking straight at me and so I coughed to chase it away!” I was so unbelievably disappointed at the sudden rude abrupt ending to such a quiet magical moment in the forest and at ‘violating’ the peace of the forest for the tiger while it walked in its domain.
I would have also probably got another better picture of the full animal, if it had been allowed to continue walking its way. But getting another picture was not so important. It was just the most exciting sighting I have ever had of a large carnivore in the forest where it was not just a chance sighting. I have seen tigers and other carnivores in other places, but not like this. I had spent a fabulous week walking these forests with Imam, his son and some of the forest guards – we had seen lots of goral, barking deer, sambar, and had super sightings of otter groups apart from many many birds.
I told the chowkidar that one of the first rules in the jungle is to keep quiet on sighting wild animals and watch them. He replied, “On the contrary, we always make a lot of noise when we encounter tigers/elephants as we fear them while having to trek long distances in the forest, often alone.” Then I understood that from his perspective he was right. Just the previous day I had been chatting with several of the forest guards about the difficulties they faced while trekking up and down from Koluchaur and Naudi patrolling in the monsoon months. And how they feared encountering tigers/elephants on foot. As Imam said later maybe it was a good thing he coughed like that, as the tiger was too close and what if it had attacked (but I think he was just saying that to console me).
I guess, I could not be angry for long, as it was thanks to Imam and the chowkidar that I saw a tiger in this incredibly special way in the first place.
It was ironic that Imam had sent back the other forest guard because he was coughing too much:)