So it was settled. Today was going to be my first elephant safari. The folks of Tigergarh had pre-arranged it for me. This was a rare treat as there are only a few elephants and only VIPs get to ride them and take the jungle tour. One gets limited time – half an hour per trip, but I had never been on top of an elephant and so, this was a rare treat. We were up before dawn and headed for the jungles of Bandhavgarh.
Today, I spotted many deer and sambars and got up close to them. We moved swiftly through streams of flowing water and small watering holes in search of a female tigress who had just given birth to a few cubs. She was supposed to be deep in the bush surrounded by bamboo trees. The elephants and their mahout had got a whiff of them. We stopped our jeep and suddenly, loud noises and calls from deer and langurs broke the silence in the air. Yes, sir, there were tigers around and not very far from us. Then, as if from nowhere, loud growls of the tigress herself reverberated in the jungle air. These were followed by shrill growls of the baby cubs. She was feeding them her milk, as they were too small to have meat. She was lying down on her back milking her babies. The forest guards were informed not to go near her or disturb her until the cubs were grown. The only way to get to her was through the elephants and my safari time had come.
The mahouts are elephant keepers and drivers. By pressing their feet on the left and right ears of the elephant, they can manoeuvre the beast and guide it through the jungle where there are no paths. They stomp on the head of the elephant to make him stop. It is like pulling on the brakes. I climbed on my jeep and then into the saddle, which was more like an iron cage. Now, I could see the entire jungle with an aerial view from a vantage point. The elephant moved about lazily from the dusty tracks into the shades of the forest. It would pluck out or break tree branches with its trunk just to make sure no high branches hit me on the head. They took that much care of me. All the time, the mahout whispered instructions into the ear calling out her name. Yes, the elephants were trained to respond to name calls and simple instructions. However, one thing that they made a mess was potty. They would shit at any time. I even tried to bribe my elephant rider that I will give him a gift if he helps me spot the tigress or even her baby cubs.
We walked through streams and thick bushes, but no tiger in sight. We could hear jungle calls and suddenly, the langurs would get into action jumping from tree to tree, but no, the Queen of Bandhavgarh remained a shadow, at least for me. After the time was up, my elephant headed back for my jeep. “Not to worry, nahi, come in January. Winter time, you will definitely spot the tiger.” A local jungle guard dressed in khaki police uniform told me. I gleamed from ear to ear and started to take his interview. This was my first forest guard interview and the man had even fought with a tiger using sticks and stone and chased it away from the road.
On the way back, we saw a peacock and another herd of sambars. This place is full of them. The taste of elephant safari gave the entire safari a fulfilling experience but my most prized catch still eluded me – the Tiger of Bandhavgarh, when will I see thee.