Chasing stripes
How I very nearly caught a glimpse of the big cat
By Sumeet Sharma

Sariska: People
Sariska: People excited by what the guides called 'alarm calls' by a Cheetal Photo: Showvik Das Tamal

It was a perfect morning for a chase. Fog drifted past our faces. Our hands, though feverishly gripping digital cameras, were numbed with cold. We were at Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, and we were all keen to catch a glimpse of that elusive, majestic big cat – the tiger.

All 19 of us were piled into an opentop canter. Some of us were shivering – partly with cold, and partly with excitement, and we wrapped our scarves and shawls closer around us. I had heard many a tale of a tiger chase from wideeyed friends and acquaintances, and had eagerly devoured details of thrilling pursuits. I hoped against hope that I would be lucky on my first trip into the wild and get to see a tiger.

We laughed, we chatted and we clicked photographs of nilgai and sambar. We giggled at the sight of podgy little piglets of wild boar, and whooped along with langurs that bounced from branch to branch, showering us with leaves. We marveled at the sight of tree pies and kingfishers, but there was no sign yet of the magnificent beast we had all hoped to see.

And then, a breakthrough.

A camera trap

There were excited whispers between the drivers of the three tourist jeeps. A tiger had been sighted, they said. And we were off! The chase had begun.

Jeeps carrying groups of eager tourists screeched and swerved onto a dirt path and the whole convoy of four jeeps started to race to the place where the tiger had last been seen. The excitement was palpable. Finally, what we had all been waiting for. Trees and shrubs whizzed past, and my heart was racing.

The 'beep beep' of the GPS tracker

On several occasions, the jeeps would stop and the forest guard would shush us, listening for chital alarm calls. Silence and we would be on the move again. This happened a few times, and my excitement began to wane. At one point, we found what looked like fresh tiger pug marks, and tourists that had just passed that spot a few minutes before we got there said that they had spotted the tiger crossing the path ahead of their jeep. And the chase was on again. I couldnʼt help but wonder – were we really following a tiger at all in the first place?

A researcher with a GPS tracker appeared in a jeep, and tried to ascertain where the tiger was headed.

During the weary hours that followed, we often heard the alarm calls of the various deer, but in spite of our technological assistance, we saw no tiger. All throughout, the driver of our jeep kept assuring us that we were hot on its trail, and we should remain silent if we wanted to spot it.

Finally after several ʻnear missesʼ and ʻnearly theresʼ, we gave up and returned to the gate of the reserve. The tiger, it seemed had played a prank on us, and had led us on a wild goose chase.

I was not annoyed, but I was most definitely skeptical. Were we really on the trail of a tiger, or was it all an elaborate hoax? Did the forest guards and drivers all fake the pug marks and manipulate us gullible tourists into believing we had just missed an encounter with the big cat?

Nevertheless, believe we did. And hope we did.

Most of us who were in the canter are possibly more interested in the scandalous private life of Tiger Woods than the decline in the number of tigers in our country and the threats our natural resources are facing. But this experience of chasing stripes, I think, made us all realize how important it is to believe in change. To have faith that no matter what tragic extinctions and catastrophic events may await us in the future, there are no limits to human capability. All we need is a common vision, and the collective will.

Maybe next time, Iʼll catch a tiger by its tail.


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