The air was crisp with the morning chill. Sparkling dew had settled on the hard, cold, rusted metal of the machaan. The shrill call of the white throated kingfisher awoke me from my fitful slumber. The deer, whose starry eyes had dazzled me thought out the moonless night, were also awake. They stared at me through their large brown eyes as I joined the gaggle of tourists to set out for the early morning safari.
The curtains were opening on Nature’s latest drama. Birds, from diminutive sunbirds to the larger treepies, from the lone prinia to the gregarious seven sisters, from the seed eating munias to the hawk eyed Shikra, were engaged in providing the background score for this composition. Monkeys would occasionally, join in with their cackle, adding the element of mischief to the play.
Today, we decided to track down the king. His Majesty had been teasing us since the past few days, what with fresh pugmarks and claw markings on teak trees. But finding Him in the tall grasses was an uphill task! Once we were even forced to wade through slushy mud. He laid us off track then, mesmerising us with hundreds of his courtesans- the butterflies, all dressed in blue, enticing us to follow them instead. The spell is yet to wear off.
Another time, on our way to a machaan, he got the better of us by sending his slaves, the deer, bounding across our path. We waited, hoping against hope that he might leap across the path too. In vain.
But today was going to be different. I could sense it. The birds kept striking up a chorus every now and again. The slaves were agitated, restless. His sentinels, the handsome sambhar deer, greeted us at the doorsteps. Then, the kingfisher’s loud, shrill cry rang out through the forest, announcing the arrival of His Majesty. A little ahead, stood Him.
Awestruck, we gawked at Him. He wore a coat of gold. Elegant black bands adorned his attire. The juvenile pink of his nose, had matured into the adult black. Two hundred kilograms of pure muscles rippled through his body. His fiery eyes gazed back at us. And so we continued in rapt silence.
The tiger soon grew tired of watching us lesser mortals. He had more pressing needs- fighting off males, mating with his queen, protecting the future kings and queens of the jungle. With one last look, He turned His back at us and walked off. Staring after Him, His graceful walk resembling that of a model on the ramp, I realized how the term ‘catwalk’ must have originated.
Like all good things, the stay at Tadoba came to an end. I returned home, to the grimy, dusty, fast paced life of the city. The memory of the jungle was hidden in my mind’s recesses, and as days passed, I visited it but rarely. Till one day, the newspapers announced- Tiger poached at Tadoba.
The report further specified the recovery of a tiger skin hidden inside a bamboo grove and seizure of tiger bones from the same area. I could not sleep that night.
Could it have been Him? He was young, strong and thus, valuable to poachers. What had they used? Poison? A single gunshot? Electrocution? Trap? Did He moan in pain for several hours before death? Or did they plunge a spear down His throat to drown out His cries?
The drama that began with the Tiger as the king has developed a new angle now. His empire has been threatened by foreign knaves, who only understand the language of ruthless dollars, and who yearn for supremacy.
The King is still fearless, puissant, but the hunter is sly and possesses the infernal human mind. The King has agility and grace; the hunter, only the crude weapon of death. The King feeds on deer; the hunter on human greed and misplaced notions of fashion. The King rules the jungle, but only when the hunter allows him to.
The last act of the drama nears. The spineless mortals, who had promised the King help, continue to look the other way. The king is fleeing, persecuted, hungry, driven out of His home, alone amidst the spiteful villains of the world. His family has been attacked when they ventured out of the forest since time immemorial, now the mob has moved into his palace, and is tearing it apart.
What does the future hold for the King? Extinction? Or salvation? Only time will tell. But in the meanwhile, the show must go on...
Ramblings on wildlife sharing spaces with non-wild humans