1st June. It was a hot summer day at Tanhau and around Corbett National Park, though as always pleasantly breezy in the shade. Around five in the evening, Harry and I decided to go out for a drive as we often did; just drive around the neighbourhood around dusk waiting at a few points, hoping to hear a few alarm calls and get a sense of where the neighbourhood tigers and leopards were moving.
We did our usual round, covering Rodarkhai, Chhay Number, Chhoti Fireline, Tiger Point, Bishnapani Bend before turning back from Hornbill Point and heading back up – with not a sign of any wildlife movement, it seemed like we were the only ones out in the heat. At Chhay Number on the way back, we met Harry’s brother Chaman going down home to Bhakrakot on his bike. His question “Koi action?’ (“any action?”) was replied with a bored “Kuch nahi – jungle bilkul shaanth” (“nothing at all, the jungle is totally silent”). And then we moved on up ahead towards Tanhau.
Around 6.15, we were back at Pathoria wondering if should we hang around there for a while, or start off up the four kilometer dirt track towards Tanhau. Quite sure that no animal was going to come around in the heat, we decided to head back.
Suddenly my phone buzzed and it was Chaman calling. I replied and he burst out agitatedly & barely coherently ‘tiger..tiger…road pe…mere upar aa gaya tha…’.(“tiger…tiger…on the road…came right at me”). I just understood his location, turned the Mahindra Thar around & drove it as fast as I could – Chaman was about 5 kilometers away. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Harry grimly trying to hold on as the Thar bounced across the stony, broken track at high speed.
When we got to Chaman, what he said was this – he had been coming downhill on the bike just about to reach the Chhoti Fireline. Suddenly as he came around a bend, he came face to face with a tiger walking on the road less than twenty feet away, heading right towards the bike. Chaman couldn’t even brake hard as the road was littered with small stones and rubble – the bike would have surely skidded. The tiger was as surprised as Chaman – but just as the bike came really close, the tiger jumped across the bike, across the road and went down into the forested hillside below. Leaving behind a Chaman who was both shaken & stirred.
From Chaman we figured that the tiger had been walking up the road, in the direction of Tanhau. My experience with tigers is that if they have somewhere they want to go, they’ll rarely change direction even if disturbed. More often, they lie low and wait for the disturbance to pass – and then continue the same way. Tigers have quite a different concept of time from us, and seem quite happy sometimes even waiting for a few hours before coming out only once they feel the disturbance has moved away.
Now that we knew the direction the tiger seemed to be heading, we started driving slowly back up the road the same way. As some of you may know, Tanhau is located at the top of a hill that has the Ramganga river valley on one side, and the Kosi river valley on the other. On both sides, the hillsides are densely forested right down to the valley floors – these are the buffer forests of Jim Corbett National Park. There is only one road, and from around the Chhoti Fireline onwards, this runs along the ridge of the hill. I felt that there was a possibility that the tiger may come up and cross the road at one of three possible places – Tiger Point, Chhay Number or Roderkhai.
As we reached Tiger Point about two kilometers ahead of Chhoti Fireline, we parked the Thar and got out to see if we could get any sense of the tiger’s whereabouts. As we were scanning the forest below, we heard from about a hundred feet to our right, the alarm call of a goral. This was repeated a few times, though we couldn’t see either the goral or what it was alarmed about. After a couple of minutes, a monkey starting calling as well from the same direction – now we felt that we were definitely in business!
Ten minutes went past & as often happens, the calls died out. We were convinced though that the tiger was nearby, so Harry and I split up to scan the forest in different directions – he went ahead of the Thar while I started scanning the forest behind the Thar.
All of a sudden I heard Harry make a ‘cuck’ sound, roughly approximating the call of a chital or spotted deer – the commonly used signal used in the jungle to signal that there’s an animal close by. I looked around to see him backing away from the edge of the road and signalling me to go towards him. Excitedly I ran towards him, while he gestured to me to be quiet and slow down. As I reached him, he pointed at me to look over the edge of the road down into the forest below.
As I looked down, first I noticed nothing other than the dry forest floor. Then Harry whispered “Duur mat dekho, bilkul paas hai…tiger” (“Don’t look far, the tiger’s right here”) and that’s when I suddenly saw – a huge Bengal Tiger looking right up at us from less than twenty feet away. The tiger was on a well-defined game track & had obviously been heading up to the road when Harry’s head suddenly popped over the edge.
For a few seconds, it seemed like we were all literally frozen in the moment, with the tiger and the two of us just looking at each other. But there was no anger or aggression on the tiger’s face, just mild surprise. And then, she decided that we were too close to each other – she unhurriedly moved down away from us and then sat down on the forest floor, looking up at us from about fifty feet below.
After a couple of minutes of just looking down at her & taking a few photographs in the fading light, Harry & I decided that she clearly wanted to come up to the road, and would do so only if she felt that we had left. So I went back to the Thar, and drove it about fifty meters ahead of where we expected her to come up to the road. We were hoping that she would assume that we had left. And then we settled down – me sitting at the back of the open Thar, and Harry sitting in the middle of the road – out of sight of the tigress (by now we had figured that the tiger was a lady), but where he could stick his head over occasionally to check on her.
After about half an hour, a pickup van went noisily past us. Within a couple of minutes, Harry looked over on another routine checkup to see the tigress’ position…and the next moment he has silently running towards the Thar. Just as he arrived next to me, finally the tigress stepped out on to the road!
She initially took a couple of steps along the road in our direction, but once she spotted us, she crossed the road and went up the ridge on the Kosi side – walking in our direction, but now along the forested ridge above us. As she walked past us about twenty feet above, we could hear the dry sal leaves rustling under her paws and we could occasionally see her as she looked down towards us.
Well, knowing the area like we do, we had a pretty good idea of where she was headed and the next spot at which we could posibly see her again. So we got into the Thar and drove ahead about a couple of kilometers towards Tanhau, to the point we call ‘Chhay number’. Then we settled down to wait – with our legs dangling out over the road as we sat at the back of the Thar. We were waiting at this point because here the ridge came down to the level of the road – so if the tigress came along the ridge, she would possibly come down to the road in front of us here.
After ten minutes of waiting, it was dark and we were struggling to see anything. Suddenly frantic sambar alarm calls starting ringing out from the ridge above…and then, we could barely figure out a patch of white moving down the slope of the ridge towards the road. It was the tigress, and we were seeing the white of her belly as she came down the slope! As she came down on the road, we were just about fifty feet ahead of her – and expected her to see us and change direction or stop. Instead, disconcertingly, in the dark she just didn’t spot the Thar parked ahead and continued walking straight towards us.
When she was about 20 feet away, we decided it was too close for comfort & I coughed. Immediately she stopped, saw us and thankfully crossed the road back to the other side once again – and continued walking past us once again along the ridge.
As she disappeared into the lantana, we knew where she was headed – so we drove ahead to Roderkhai & waited there – and sure enough, a few minutes later, the tigress came out on to the road right there. This time though, she was half expecting us there – so she stayed on her side of the road & walked straight past and entered the ‘bhatiya’ at Roderkhai.
By now we had been watching & tracking her for close to two hours & across four kilometers, and it had been absolutely exhilarating. Though we can never get enough of seeing a tiger, we decided not to pursue her any more & instead let her go her own way in peace.
Watching her absolutely undisturbed, miles away from any of the umpteen ‘Jim Corbett’ resorts or safari vehicles, virtually in our own backyard, was a completely different high – and one that became immediately addictive.
This was our first visual sighting of this tigress who we’d end up naming Maharani (Hindi for Queen) – so regal and majestic was her appearance. Large in size & with heavily muscled shoulders, she always looked like a male on first appearance. I’ve often wondered whether her mountainous territory made her so well muscled.
Maharani gave us some other very special sightings over the next couple of years as well, and some unexpected surprises too – but those are different stories!
Apologies for some of the photos being poor quality, they were taken either in very low light or after dark.