My eyes carefully pierced through the dense green cover. With each passing moment, the forest grew quieter and my hopes went up. But some parts of my brain also believed that today might not be the day. After all, it was 6 pm and the light was receding much faster than I had thought. But Lokesh, the forest ranger accompanying our jeep, was very calm and quite confident that we would spot a wild cat. For him it was a usual evening — a group of enthusiasts, mostly photographers, holding their gear like ammunition, ready to shoot the moment they spot the wild cat. But for all of us in that jeep, a moment like this was rare. By now my heart was pounding, adrenaline had taken over my body and I was almost ready to jump out of the jeep (in excitement and anticipation,). That’s when I heard a slight rustle of the leaves and saw it. The elusive leopard, moving stealthily across the grassland, almost running after the first few seconds to escape the paparazzi.
This evening, I was right in the middle of the Kabini forest reserve, a part of the Nagarahole Tiger reserve. Previously known as the Rajiv Gandhi (Nagarahole) National Park, it was renamed and now literally translates to ‘serpent river’ in the Kannada language. And rightly so, because apart from the Kabini river, the forest is abundantly blessed with serpentine rivers at various junctions throughout the forest. This tiger reserve is an important one I’m told. Not just because of its dense tiger population, after Corbett and Kaziranga, but also because it shares its borders with the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in the south and the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in the southeast and forms an important corridor for the movement of wild animals. Apart from this, a considerably busy national highway also runs through the forest. And if you’re lucky, you might just spot a wildcat crossing the road nonchalantly.
This was my second safari for the day. The one earlier in the morning was a bit of disappointment, or as my ranger said, “The jungle was still trying to understand you, before revealing itself fully.” This is the thing about forests, you think you’ve mapped it all in your head, but only gradually do the layered secrets reveal themselves. I had hopped onto a canter at around 5 am and slowly saw the cover of darkness vanish with the first rays of the sun seeping through the trees. The eerie silence suddenly paved the way for the chirping of numerous birds, which I could spot flying from one bark to another very swiftly. The sightings in the morning included the greater racket-tailed drongo with its double outer-tail feathers, the Malabar giant squirrel standing out because of its colour, and the Indian-white eye amongst a few others.
While the early morning chirping of the birds was a refreshing change to my ears — accustomed mostly to the city commotion and the honking of traffic lights — these were not the sounds I was hoping to hear. Before my journey to the vast forest down south, I managed to read up a little on jungle rules and the calls of nature — the sounds that indicate the proximity of a wild cat. Much to my dismay, it was only the birds, and some young children constantly hounding their parents, ”When will Bagheera come?” They were, much like me, hoping to spot the rare, elusive, and famed black panther of the Kabini forest — Saaya.
The afternoon safari began at nearly 3:30 pm in the scorching and unrelenting sun. This time I managed to ditch the large canter for a smaller jeep with ‘more serious people’ and somehow also managed to opt for a zone different from the one I explored in the morning. The first hour was mostly driving around, spotting the deer grazing happily, the elephants going for an afternoon swim, and the langurs fully energized. My early morning friends it seemed were off for a siesta.
After about an hour and a half, the pace of the jungle started picking up. And at that exact moment, exchanges between the rangers started happening — if anyone heard a call somewhere, the sightings in the morning and the best possible route to spot a wildcat. Things were building up, like a crescendo almost. Our jeeps crisscrossed through various meandering streams, from under the canopy of the trees and sometimes through dry grass too — all of this for an eventual, ulterior motive. During one of the chats with my ranger I told him about the morning safari, to which he said, “There is a 90% chance that a wild cat spotted you”. And I nodded sheepishly.
By 5 pm we were losing both hope and patience. “Maybe today is just not the day,” I thought to myself and almost decided to give up. That’s when my ranger made a swift turn, a response to a call nearby. Just like the others, my hopes were up again. The jeep roared over the dry grass and we reached right where the calls were, near a waterbody. After nearly 20 minutes of waiting and still no sign of movement. All the rangers collectively agreed that probably the wild cat took some other route. Some photos of the morning sightings were shown and were headed out of the jungle as the darkness would soon fall upon us. But just then, another call was heard and our ranger decided to give it one last shot, despite other rangers’ warning against it. The jeep once again roared and we were at the spot. A few minutes later a strange stillness took over the forest, the grazing deers were now retreating, the langurs climbed higher and my heart was racing. It was all a matter of only a few seconds, a slight rustle in the grass, and there it was, the majestic leopard. The camera shutters went clicking rapidly and all the oohs and aahs followed — the other rangers decided to follow us eventually. At this moment Lokesh looked at me and said, “The jungle has now accepted you.”