Tracing Pugmarks

Avid traveller and documentarian Vijaya Pratap recently went on a quest to catch another glimpse of the regal, endangered Royal Bengal Tiger. Read on to learn how it all turned out.

Tremendously excited, I checked into “Tiger” – my cottage at the Bandipur Safari Lodge, part of Jungle Lodges and Resorts in Bandipur National Park, Karnataka. Each cottage is named after a wild animal, and boasts a huge, lifelike mural of said animal just behind the bed. Mine had a tiger, with pugmark-patterned curtains. The ambience was “tigerriffic”, as though it was designed to make the resident breathe and dream of tigers!


 
Many years ago, I saw a huge tigress in Ranthambore National Park on a cold winter morning, and I still remember the magnificence of that majestic animal. We were very close to her at the time, and I was too awestruck to manage a picture; all I could do was stare. Her coat glistened in the early morning sun – splendid – and she was scenting for her cubs to follow. That’s when I fell in love with the tiger, and the memory is fresh even to this day. Some may not agree, but I believe that tiger-gazing can be a most gratifying experience for someone in love with the beast (like me).

And so it was the tiger that enticed me to the jungles of Bandipur, as it does in every jungle I visit. I was scanning every lantana bush so intently that I even stopped blinking, I think. The guides were hopeful as sightings had been good that week – a tigress with four cubs, they told us, was making her presence felt, proudly displaying her growing offspring. She was enjoying the last few days of being close to her young before they went off on their own paths.


 
At one point, the driver told us that an adolescent cub had retreated upon seeing our vehicle, expecting it to come back. We waited, but to our dismay, nothing happened. Taking another route, we combed through more areas and came back the same way. We then saw fresh pugmarks, those of a big cat. We had just missed her and were now breathing the very air through which she had just passed. The pugmarks gave me goose pimples. For a wildlife enthusiast such as myself, the very ground she treads on is worthy of worship. I quickly photographed the trail of paw prints, eager not to miss the smallest proof of her presence in the vicinity.

There are people who camp in tiger preserves for days at a stretch, hoping to catch just one glimpse. It may seem strange, but the experience gives you a kind of high – a mere look can change your perspective on life! Recollecting the day’s escapades by a fire every evening and reminiscing about past sightings became a sort of routine for my group.
After three safaris, our American company left, having given up on the tiger.


 
I promised to send them pictures the moment I sighted one. We were into our fourth day, but our naturalist Gurudutt wouldn’t give up. He tried every trail and smelled every scent, keenly listening to every sound and deciphering every call. Covered in layers of dust, we drove on every path but had no luck. By the end of our trip, my eyes were accustomed to scanning the bush with complete concentration. On each of our many four-hour safaris, we’d focus on one thing – spotting the tigress. It felt like meditation; there was something peaceful and rejuvenating about it. My eyes wouldn’t blink unless absolutely necessary. Following alarm calls, identifying tiger droppings, tracing pugmarks – I had mastered the art. On one such sojourn into the wild, the jeep in front of ours suddenly stopped.

They signalled to us, we looked to our right, and there she was, sitting by the waterhole in all her splendour. Beyond the moss-covered emerald water lay Gauri, mother of four, resting contently. She had an imperial air about her, part of her body immersed in the water. A flurry of activity followed as everyone scrambled to get a good look and loads of pictures, all in hushed tones and contained excitement. The ecstasy of the moment cannot be put into words.
 
As last the whirr of the cameras stopped, I gazed at her and became philosophical. Admiring the magnificent creature, my heart was filled with peace. The silence was divine; I felt wholly and benevolently blessed.     – Vijaya Pratap