Rewind: Forget the swelter of Delhi’s April heat.

Recall the leaves of the Sal forest in Corbett National Park, a few hours north of here. Visited back in mid-March. The wind loosening the yellow planks of vegetation, dropping the leaves to the ground with a steady tic-tic… almost like rain. And then the rain did come, as we boarded an elephant to search for a tiger in the woods. The mahout, the elephant driver, smiling, confident. “I know where there’s a kill. We should find the beast,” and then we moved out across a field of tall grass. Elephant grass, where we found a herd of wild pachyderms lingering near the edge of the jungle. The wind blowing harder now, and the sky black with cloud. A stroke of lightening, a thunder clap, and we’re crossing a field on the back of a 20-foot animal, our heads just a little below the level of the tallest Acacia trees. Oh my!

That safari didn’t produce a tiger, but it was an adventure, wheeling through the woods, following the drag marks, where the killer cat had moved its latest meal. Under this tree, over to that bush, a small piece of deer meat left behind here, and hoof there. The tiger had been this way. And the rain falling the whole time. The mahout providing us with a tarp, which makes scratchy noises against our hats and hairs so that the whole world sounds like it’s wrapped in plastic. The elephant pulling up small trees, wrapping her trunk around leafy branches and stripping them bare. We double back, the ground muddy now, the pug marks washed away in the downpour. The mahout confers with another elephant driver; we are working the forest, crisscrossing in search of a glimpse of orange fur in the undergrowth. Not here. Not there. Hiding. Always elusive. The tiger.

I’ve had good luck in the past seeing India’s most famous fauna: In Assam, 2003, a tiger poked his enormous head out of the grass to look down the road after our jeep as we birded Kaziranga Park. I spotted a tiger in Corbett from elephant back earlier that same year. Now I was beginning to worry that we would be skunked; this photo safari cursed by unseasonable rain – and with my father in tow (although we’d already spotted a tiger in Ranthambore Park the week before), how embarrassing!

That evening in the park dining hall, three American girls with a digital camera, one with quick-film capacity, share their tiger sighting. A flash of orange in the bush. A warning snarl, a scream as the camera get jostled, and a charge that would have stopped our collective hearts had we been there personally. The tiger having had enough, warning the elephant-born bipeds, stay back. We are overcome with some pale green shade of envy; fortunately, we have another day to make up our deficit. We can still bring my tiger-sighting average up to .400.

At dawn, the sky clear, we head for our mount. Same mahout, same elephant; we are happy to know them. Fed her fruit after yesterday’s ride; tipped him nicely even without seeing a tiger. We make a quick circuit of the jungle, smelling something ripe right by a watering hole, hoping for tiger. Watching the shadows for something living. With the sun rising, I begin to despair. The rain-swept countryside is beautiful, though. The Himalayan foothills, lined in tall straight Sal trees and pines higher up, shiny and full forested to heights of 3,000-plus-feet, and the bigger mountains, snowcapped out of sight. Birds call, and a jackal breaks from the bush. Deer browse the grasses at the edge of the woodlands, which makes me doubt that a tiger could be lingering nearby.

After an hour, the mahouts decide to gamble on tigress known to inhabit the far side of the Ramnagar River, just a short ways from the lodge where we have been sleeping. We make our rough way down the slope, the elephant's thick pads providing surprising traction, and soon we are riding across the river when I notice an anomaly in the light on the shore upstream. I point, tentative at first, and wonder aloud “Tiger?” Our guide, then the mahout take up the call as soon as the word is out of my mouth. "Tiger! Tiger!" She’s moving, but the three elephant drivers are quick to corner the cat, who jogs up the river bank to the tall grass, breaking by a small tree.

I admit there’s something a bit sad, and also absurd, about wrangling a tiger with the help of elephants. Certainly, it makes the old sport of hunting tigers from elephant back seem a bit less sporting.

We don’t witness a charge, and after everyone gets a good look (and I snap a few photos) the big cat swims the river and vanishes. We’d spot an additional, final tiger on a game drive that afternoon, a bigger cat, lounging in the sun. Sleeping with his/her paws up and the white fur of its belly shining in the light. Such memories will certainly define my time in India when I look back on these days.


At April 8, 2005 at 12:51 AM, Blogger The Stitchin' Sheep said...

Hey, Dan, it's Krista (from UT). I get Christina's updates, and I have been doing some writing myself lately and randomly looked up your name on the net after getting curious about your writing style. Look what I found! Fun. Now I can read India from your perspective as well as hers, which is kind of neat. I too have a blog (the link given to you by Blogger), which is just a silly little knitting (and other random thoughts) blog to amuse me and keep me sane while hanging out with people too young to hold a real conversation. By the way, I enjoyed reading what little I had time for. I'll have to blogroll you for others to see your stuff. I've probably got a whopping readership of at least five to ten (although, maybe it's just one person reading many times a day).


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