Watching wildlife in the UK is not usually a hazardous occupation – mostly a matter of quiet country walks, sitting comfortably in bird-hides, or looking through the kitchen window at the visitors to the bird table. You have to brave the weather of course, especially in winter, but the wildlife itself is not likely to be dangerous. This is not necessarily the case in India, and now I come to think about it, there have been occasions when I might have been wiser to proceed more cautiously than I did. But when presented with the excitement of the new – and the possibility of a good shot (with my camera of course) – I did not hesitate.
Our second adventure in Periyar (see Old friends in India for the first) was to set off into the reserve on foot, with a party led by a local adivasi (tribal) guide. We walked, Indian file (naturally) through the jungle – a patchwork of open areas, of tall grasses and of shady woodland. As we rounded some bushes we spotted, some distance away, a group of gaur – cows with calves and a substantial bull, blue-grey, horned, and massive.
My instant response was to raise my camera to shoot – only to find that my zoom-lens had jammed ! Out came my pen-knife in an instant. Out came the screws to let me get in to the beast to un-jam it. It had done this before so it was a well practiced drill and in a minute it was fixed.
I took my shot.
I saw at once that the gaur were at too great a distance for my meagre lens. They would be mere specks of grey. I needed to get closer. Our guide quickly led us into an adjacent line of forest with the clear plan of getting us nearer to the gaur using the trees as cover. I followed immediately behind him with my camera adjusted and at the ready. The rest of the party trailed behind us. Then I somehow found myself in front of our guide, plunging through the undergrowth, anticipating the appearance of the gaur ahead at any moment. The plan was perfect, the possibility irresistible – until we came to the end of the trees and out into the open again. There was nothing to be seen. The gaur had gone.
It was probably for the best that we did not take them by surprise. Not that they are known to be unnecessarily aggressive (I have on another occasion stood hardly thirty yards away and taken photos of them until I could take no more while they remained quite unperturbed). Also, given their size, they don’t have much need to be timid if taken by surprise by an overenthusiastic tourist.
There was also the time I chased after a tiger for a photo.
Ranthambore National Park, in Rajasthan, is famous for its tigers. At the end of my student year in South India I headed north to visit an American friend studying Langur monkeys there. Unfortunately even before I arrived my friend and her fellow researchers had been ordered out on the basis that, being American, they must be CIA spies. It was an easy accusation to make in those days. In fact it was due to some local jealousy or feud aimed not so much at my friend and colleagues but at their host, the Chief Forest Officer, Fateh Singh Rathore. Fateh Singh was India’s leading in-the-field tiger expert and conservationist. He wore a military moustache, with a great smile beneath, but he could be tough in protection of his tigers. He was also a most kind and generous host. I met him in Delhi and he at once invited me to come and stay in Ranthambore, despite the problems with the American researchers. For most visitors that meant staying in the nearby town of Sawai Madhopur and being bussed into the reserve and driven round for a while once or twice a day. For me, however, it meant staying in what had been the Maharaja’s hunting lodge, overlooking a lake full of crocodiles in the heart of the reserve, and then walking out on foot – alone.
In the heat of the day I sat in the shade of the veranda watching the crocodiles and writing my diary and letters home. Morning and evening I would take a walk – well armed with binoculars and camera. Fatah Singh, meanwhile, had very kindly lent me a substantial telephoto lens to go with my camera, far superior in magnification to the lens I arrived with.
I was ready to shoot a tiger.
Fateh Sing had advised me that the tigers were safe enough – unless they had cubs. What I had to worry about were leopards, bears and wild pigs – the problem with pigs being that if you took them by surprise they were as likely to run straight at you as away. It was fortunate then that I never did meet either a leopard or a bear. I did come upon wild pigs though, a number of times, and on one of those occasions I ignored Fateh Singh’s advice. It was too tempting. I had seen them, but they had not seen me. They were close by. I was screened by an intervening bank some four feet high and a few bushes. I crept forward with my camera set to shoot. There were a dozen or so adult pigs and piglets rooting in the dry grass. There was no obvious boar. I had the advantage of height. I aimed and shot. At the click of my camera the startled pigs panicked in all directions – except, luckily, in mine.
How easy it would have been to get a meal, I thought, had I been a tiger.
Fateh Singh’s advice had not included anything about either snakes or crocodiles. Perhaps he had hardly thought it necessary. I came upon a pair of snakes on one of my early morning walks. They were lying together in the sunshine in the middle of the path and stayed there as I approached. They weren’t very big, they were obviously sluggish, and they weren’t obviously cobras – which was all I knew about poisonous snakes in India. I poked them with a handy stick. This finally provoked them to action. They slithered away.
What puzzles me now is why it never occurred to me to take a photograph.
I headed on to a nearby lilly-covered lake where I hoped I might see some sambar, or swamp deer, the largest Indian deer and a favourite food of the tigers. Or chittal, the most attractive of all deer with their sprinkling of white spots and delicate features. What I found instead was a crocodile chasing a coot. The coot was paddling among the weeds obviously in search of breakfast. The crocodile, however, was intent on a game of chase. Starting at some distance, the crocodile set off at full steam ahead towards the busily occupied bird. Frogs flew in all directions as the bow-wave from the crocodile’s snout hit the lily leaves. The crocodile’s powerfully thrashing tail sent still more waves rushing away across the water. The coot was soon forced to abandon its breakfast and take evasive action. It went flapping and running on its long, flanged feet over the surface of the lake with the crocodile in pursuit. It soon outpaced its tormentor and, now removed to a reasonable distance, resumed its search for food. The crocodile waited, floating quietly for perhaps half a minute. Then it began the chase all over again. I watched this game continue for a full quarter of an hour.
It occurred to me then that if there was one crocodile, there might also be another. I scanned the water for suspicious-looking logs. Nothing. But then it also occurred to me that I had deliberately chosen to sit in a sheltered spot in order to be hidden from any animals that might be about. But if I was hidden from them, they would also be hidden from me – leopards, bears, tigers, for example, as well as crocodiles.
It was time to return to the open path.
My two weeks in Ranthambore were nearly over and I had still not seen a tiger. Fateh Singh, meanwhile, had provided bait one evening in the form of a tethered buffalo calf, but when we returned in the morning, while the calf had been consumed (look away now if you’re squeamish), there was no sign of a tiger.
This was not done for my benefit by the way, but for a party of trainee forest officers that had come to stay.
I kept looking.
My tiger finally appeared while I was strolling down a jeep-track not far from my lodgings. It stepped out of the bushes and on to the track perhaps a hundred yards ahead and walked leisurely on and away from me. It was a full grown adult. It neither saw me nor knew that its rear end was about to be bagged. My reaction had been instantaneous. The tiger was in my viewfinder. Unfortunately it was not in focus. Nor was my camera correctly adjusted in terms of exposure time and aperture. (You had to work at getting your pictures in those days). Even as I made the necessary adjustments the tiger hopped off the track and back into the bushes.
My disappointment lasted only a moment. I knew that I was still in with a chance. I was familiar with these tracks by now and, given the location of the nearby lake, it was very likely that the tiger would cross a path which left the jeep-track a short way beyond where it had stepped back in to the bushes. I ran down the track, past where the tiger had gone, until I came to the path in question, leading off towards the lake. I turned in and hurried down the path until I reached a point where I had a clear view for about thirty yards ahead. The path was narrow with scrub on either side. I raised my camera, adjusted for light and distance, and waited.
Hardly half a minute later the tiger appeared at precisely the required position at the end of the clear stretch of path. As it padded across, I clicked. It froze, swung its head and looked straight down my lens. Then, in a moment, it was off into the bushes and away. The following moment I was off too – in pursuit. I followed it in to the bushes, I pushed through the foliage, until I found myself surrounded by head-high grass through which I could see no more than a couple or three yards ahead. It was at that point that it occurred to me to wonder if chasing an adult tiger through semi-penetrable jungle was such a good idea. My anxiety was quickly relieved as I glimpsed the tiger bounding away in the distance and into the forest.
I used up a good few rolls of film in Ranthambore. The tiger shot was to be the star. Unfortunately, when the film came back from processing I found that there had been, catastrophically, a mechanical mismatch between my camera and the telephoto-lens that Fateh Singh had lent me. They were the same make, but of different generations. The result was that nearly every photo I had taken was woefully under-exposed, with little or nothing to be seen in the darkness. This included the tiger. I have shown the photo many times. I have pointed out where the tiger is in the patterns of shadow and dark. I have left people wondering, is there really anything there ? Did he really chase a tiger ?
Well yes – I’m afraid I did.
PS Okay, you say, show me the photo then and let’s see. Well here it is. But it is now enhanced by the wonders of digital technology. The original was very dark. I even had to point out where the tiger was supposed to be.
I hope you are now convinced.