Our van pulled up to the park gates at 2 p.m. We had been broken into groups the night before, and over gin and tonics at the lodge, our assigned naturalists showed us maps of the parks and pictures of the wildlife we might see. The parks of the northern province of Madhya Pradesh are teeming with endless exotic species of flora and fauna, but we were mainly concerned with one: tigers.
At the briefing, our naturalist Yajuvendra Upadhyaya (Yaju to us) attempted to set reasonable expectations. The purpose of our next day’s journey would be to experience an immersion into a radically different ecosystem, and although tracked electronically by the park, tigers were rarely seen on expeditions relying on human eyes and ears like ours. There could be months between sightings, and the group today had been lucky enough to spot one — the odds were stacked against us.
Yaju cheerfully collected us at the gates and we loaded into a convertible jeep with stadium seating to ensure views were excellent for everyone. He was in the front, the driver, armed with his trusty camera. Behind us was the tracker. They communicated only in Hindi with each other, and while our guide was young and enthusiastic, you could tell the tracker had been listening to these jungles for decades. We thundered off through the gates and down sand pathways forged in the dense wood. Yaju pointed out rare indigenous tree species, birds some of my car mates seemed excited about, and a deer that looked exactly like the ones I had grown up with in Ohio. I checked my watch — nearly two hours left to go. It was a pleasant afternoon, but not being particularly outdoorsy, after a few monkeys and some alligators we saw after taking a short boat ride down a tranquil river, I was ready to head back.
Then we heard it. A shriek from a nearby bird. Yaju explained that this was a distress call, and it almost certainly meant a big cat had been sighted. The tracker yelled to drive faster down the path to our right. We were in pursuit of a threat, not even knowing what animal we were chasing. A few other groups had heard the same calls and soon we were clustered in a valley, all frantically searching the dense hill in front of us.
The only sound that could be heard was the quiet hum of the jeeps. Yaju maneuvered around the other vehicles and followed a narrow sand path at the side of the hill. He explained that the tigers preferred walking on the soft sand of the man-made lanes instead of the forest underbrush, due to the soft pads of their paws. And sure enough, about three minutes later, a lanky tigress walked into the road maybe 20 meters in front of us. There was a flutter to get cameras and lenses adjusted to capture this majestic creature. We followed the elegant feline quietly, kept our distance, and eventually lowered our cameras to enjoy a peaceful, mindful coexistence with the tigress. And then we let her carry on.
Back at the luxuriously appointed lodge, we told stories of our sightings to each other and shared blurry photos (luckily, Yaju captured the animal brilliantly and had our email addresses). I was now a safari junkie, so absolutely won over by the thrill of the chase and the notion that these magnificent creatures and I existed in the same unfettered space if even for a few moments.
In an effort to learn more, I posed some questions to our naturalist Yaju:
Traveller: What is your favorite part about the job?
Yaju: In the beginning, it was the whole idea of living in complete wilderness that attracted me to this career, living in a forest filled with wild animals, unreliable electricity, no mobile networks. Now I enjoy being in the forest early in the morning with the dawn birds’ chorus and the other sounds of the forest, and amidst that, tracking a tiger in the wild.
T: So we’re in the jeep. What next? How do you know where to go and what you’re looking for?
Y: Unlike in Africa, use of walkie talkies is prohibited during safaris in India. Every day we have to rely on fresh tiger tracks and alarm calls to track predators.
T: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever seen in the park?
Y: In the beginning of this year, we encountered two massive male tigers fighting in an open meadow — it was a bloodied battle.
T: Can you speak a little to the state of tiger safaris in India and the tigers themselves?
Y: Well, tiger safaris in India are getting popular, but at the same time, our forests are shrinking every day. But you learn so much more about a tiger watching it hunt than you ever could in a zoo, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be in the forest, see these animals in their habitat, and learn about the natural world as you become a part of it.
Text by Laine McDonnell Translated by Rui Chen