Saturday, September 19, 2015

Almost

Nagarahole Wildlife Sanctuary
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Early evening in the forests of southern Karnataka sees our safari vehicle enter through the Dammannakatte gate. I am the only entry level DSLR on this jeep, with a minor zoom lens that I can hand-hold. My four co-passengers are armed with massive wildlife photography focused lenses that need bean bags to rest on. Not only are they dressed in complete camouflage gear, they have camouflage covers for their camera lenses too. I feel woefully under-prepared. 
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That fear is soon put to rest. My jeep mates are very friendly with the noob on their team today. They talk of wildlife trips taken in the Brazilian Pantanal to photograph jaguars and of having seen dozens of brown bears congregate in a narrow stream in the Russian Kamchatka salmon fishing. I too have my handful of Alaska yarns to share, enough for this one time meeting. All in all, it's a happy partnership.
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Then there's the jungle. Oh, what a jungle! The monsoon has arrived in Nagarahole the day before. I don't know if there is a scientific method to measure a tree's happiness. If there is, it would get some chart topping numbers in that forest that evening. The grey of the clouds has only amped up the greenness of the green and the animals wandered about in a dazed crazed sort of happiness. It's not for nothing that nature documentaries use those uplifting melodies as background score when showing the monsoon's arrival. The whole darn place feels... uplifted.
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 Chital, often ignored for their sheer numbers and the ease with which they can be sighted, are one of the beautiful deer on earth. In their spotted grace, they roam these forests by the scores, giving our noisy vehicle the startled doe eye. A pair of mongoose hurry on by, too busy to pose for pictures and the brilliant colour of a Malayan giant squirrel clambering from tree to tree is hard to miss. A rather lazy leopard (more on that in a later post), imperious crested hawk eagles, the strikingly blue Indian roller, a restless dhole pack, elephant herds bathing in the Kabini and massive muscled gaur, all feature in the star cast of this matinee show.
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Up and down the bumpy forest trails we go, the forest department guide assigned to our vehicle half suspended out of the driver's cab scanning, searching, seeking - finding an unusual pattern where we see only green or hearing a tell-tale sound when all we hear is a generic insect buzz and motioning the driver to stop. A little more effort on our part and we finally see what he is expecting to see.
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On this particular occasion, there seems to be a strange urgency to his indications. Looking back to the tourists in his vehicle, he brings his finger to his lips. We aren't talking anyway; our mouths have gone dry with anticipation. 
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Only because on the trail in front of us, dozens of very scared looking chitals are falling over themselves to crowd onto one side of the trail giving short shrill barks of warning. Up in the trees, the langurs are raising an almighty racket shaking branches and hooting at their loudest. You don't have to be a naturalist to tell the reason for all this commotion and tension. Someone wearing a golden striped suit, it seems, is coming.
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The engine of our vehicle goes dead, choked by a quick turn of the key. All banter and chat and smiles are now on hold. I feel a quick jab of the elbow to my chest. One of my co-passengers points towards the direction in which I am already looking and silently mouths the words "Be ready. 100% sighting."
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The wait lasts interminably. The focus and intensity required for 8 men to zero in one point in space & time with one common objective is mentally taxing. Even as we watch, we detect signs of the dissipation of the state of high alert. The body language of the deer still crowded together takes a turn towards the casual and the langurs go quiet. The king, for today, has decided to take an alternate route, not crossing our line of sight.
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The disappointment is apparent in our vehicle as shoulders collectively slouch. Men who have seen wildlife in all its glory in every remote location in the world multiple times over still feel a pang of regret at missing this particular chance to glimpse the magnificent animal that chose not to make an appearance. That the tiger has such a deep hold on human imagination and excites us so is reason enough for us to fight for its preservation and that of its world. 
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With a shudder, the engine comes back to life, ready to go exploring again in this natural temple of plenty. Our guard shakes his head in disappointment at this turn of events and smiles wryly. Looks around to us and says "Sir.... missed call!"
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