Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

A Morning In Tiger Country: Rohith Ashok's Adventures In Panna National Park

The author recounts the surreal experience of spotting a tiger

A tiger sighting
A tiger sighting Shutterstock

“Do you hear that?” asked Devendar, our driver and guide on an early morning safari in Panna National Park. “That’s a warning call from a sambar deer — a predator is nearby!”

We had entered the park under the cloak of darkness on a cold January morning. When the sun eventually came up, only a few warm rays trickled down through the dense cover of trees. We drove through the forest for nearly two hours, bouncing around on the back of an open Gypsy until we reached more open grasslands.

Chital strolled across the trails casually, while the more cautious sambar chose to watch us from a safe distance. A wild boar was busy digging, trying to find a wholesome breakfast, completely unperturbed by the vehicle parked close by. The peacocks and langurs arrived in numbers to bask in the sun — defrosting, I assume, after what had been an extremely cold night. The sounds of the jungle grew louder with every passing minute.

Once again, Devendar heard something I didn’t — another warning call. “It is coming from the eastern side,” he said while simultaneously putting the pedal to the metal. Ten minutes later, we parked beside three other safari vehicles. All the guides scoured the horizon in search of the elusive predator. But, there was nothing to be seen.

This whole routine was repeated eight more times, at least, without any luck. And by the time we took a break to eat an hour later, I was beginning to wonder whether these ‘warning calls’ were real. Could it just be pretence to make the experience more exciting for tourists? After all, it’s definitely nicer to believe you ‘almost saw a tiger’ than to think that you travelled all the way to just see deer, right?

Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we were packing up the boxes, Devendar’s ears perked up again. “Let’s go quickly, sir. This call is very close.” We reached the location — and this time, he insisted that we wait. Ten minutes passed in complete silence. By the time, the 20-minute mark passed, I began to lose hope.

And then it happened. Devendar tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to the left of the vehicle. Less than 100 metres away, there was some movement in the grass. A few seconds later, a male tiger appeared. He paused to watch a few birds in flight and then continued his masculine strut without paying any attention to us. Almost as quickly as he had appeared, he vanished.

Seeing a tiger in real life was entirely surreal for me. It is truly an embodiment of grace and composure. While I am yet to entirely process the magnificence of what I saw that morning, I can tell you this much — it was thrilling, and instantly addictive. Instead of simply ticking a sighting off my bucket list, I am now hooked. I know that I will keep going back for more — and I will be forever grateful to live in a country where there are so many opportunities to do so.