‘This reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book,’ Mike reminisces. And indeed, watching the convoy of elephants lumbering through the dense forest cloaked by early morning mist, you can almost hear Colonel Hathi’s Dawn Patrol or Elephant Song and imagine Mowgli following at the tail end… Mike is a retired history teacher, with a love of nature, wildlife and travelling, and we are sharing an elephant’s back on a trek through the jungle in Chitwan, Southern Nepal, on a quest to spot some grazing rhinos and the ever so elusive tiger. Of course, we are sure to see deer and hopefully some wild boar or mischievous monkeys, but to catch a glimpse of the evasive tiger would be a highlight of any trip.
Mike takes out his camera to shoot a little video so his Facebook friends can get a flavour of riding through the jungle on an elephant. ‘I have tried out almost all possible modes of transport,’ he reveals, ‘and riding an elephant completes the list.’ He feels a little smug at his accomplishment, brushing away the invisible cobwebs hiding in the low-hanging branches which are slyly sneaking up on him. Although I would not consider being squashed in a wooden box with three other bottoms on top of an elephant a comfortable ride, it is a vast improvement on my last elephant adventure sitting astride a large pachyderm in Kerala – my legs took hours to get back into normal position.
Trumpeting its loud protest, our elephant is cajoled and encouraged to wade through the crocodile infested river and into the darkness of the rain forest. We hold on for dear life as with sudden speed and an unexpected spurt, it obliges the commands of the mahout. We hobble through the jungle, being jolted left and right, forward and back again, as the elephant squelches through the slippery paths, muddy and slick after the heavy monsoon rains, and plods through algae-covered slimy ponds. Sitting well above ground level, we scour the dense thicket for tell-tale movements in between the leaf cover and the mahout scans the forest floor for familiar paw and hoof prints. And there, just at the edge of the river, the mahout points out a tiger’s paw prints, fresh looking paw prints and a sure sign that a tiger is not far off.
‘These are not any tiger’s paw prints,’ the mahout explains in Nepalese. ‘These are the paw prints of the tiger that attacked and killed a local woman only last week. She was in the jungle collecting food for her livestock.’ Lucky for the two non-Nepalese speakers in the box, Mike and me, one of the other tourists is happy to translate. Even if the stories of a prowling tiger are true, the early morning bush is brimming with local Tharu women ignoring the dangers to forage for food and medicinal plants they can sell in the markets. They fill their enormous bags, fastened around the head, with heavy loads as they live in symbiosis with the jungle, the tiger their nemesis.
However this is not the last time we are entertained with the killer tiger story, only there appears some disagreement about whether the victim was a woman gathering firewood or medicinal plants or a man doing a spot of fly fishing. And the timing seems a little vague: was it indeed only last week or did the fatal tiger encounter happen a few weeks ago? Do all visitors to Chitwan get fed similar stories? But recently a tigress with three cubs has been spotted in the area, a mother fiercely protective of her brood making her a dangerous animal to cross. At least we are sitting high and dry on our elephant should the tiger make an appearance now… In the event, we see no tigers or rhinos, but are rewarded with sightings of deer and a lonely wild boar accompanied by the noisy twitter and tweets of the birds’ dawn chorus.
In the afternoon, when the heat of the day has subsided, I continue my game watching with a guide and take to the river in a canoe hollowed out from a huge tree trunk. We look around expectantly for rhinos drinking lazily at the river banks after a day’s grazing. But only the crocodiles play ball, lurking just beneath the surface of the water, eyes unblinking, waiting for the right moment and the right prey. When we get out of the canoe to start our jungle walk, I keep an eye out for crocodiles sunning themselves on the sandy river banks, just in case. We trample through the soggy mire of the forest floor but only come across deserted termite mounds, a herd of fleeing deer and a camera-shy wild boar. We admire parasite trees looping and snaking around twisted, gnarled tree trunks and watch huge orchid leaves on the branches, waiting to spring into bloom. Rhinos and wild elephants, we see none. We make our way to the Elephant Breeding Centre when suddenly we spot another tiger paw print on the marshy path; I feel just a little on edge with this morning’s stories of Sher Khan still fresh on my mind and my guide just carrying a long stick for protection. But although plenty of evidence of tiger is abound, very few people have actually ever seen one and in his fourteen year long career in the jungle, my guide has tallied only about twenty sightings.
To complete my day’s ‘Jungle Book’ experience, I take up my guide’s offer of watching the sun set over the river. It was to have been the closure of my previous day, but then heavy, leaden rainclouds blocked out the sun and hampered any chance of a worthwhile sundown. Today we reach the spot just in time, together with a handful of other tourists who have come to delight in the spectacle and maybe a last glimpse of the wild animals that are drawn to the rivers and waterholes now that the air is cooler. A lonely canoe traverses the river, cutting through the golden shadows on the water and the blood red river in the sun’s fading moments.
And suddenly some commotion! On the other side of the river, a creature crawls from the shallows of the water. ‘Is that a wild boar?’ a woman asks her guide, who quickly trains his binoculars into the direction of her pointing finger. ‘No, it’s a tiger!’ And as I am standing just next to her, I whip around to see the animal, but it is too far away to be sure. I grab my camera and take a photograph and then zoom in to expose the distinct features of a tiger. Having just pulled itself up from the murky brown river water, the tiger’s coat looks matted and bedraggled, its zoo-familiar stripy pattern concealed by the mud clinging to its body and paws. But its face leaves no doubt that it is a prime example of the Royal Bengal Tiger, a real Sher Khan, strutting across the riverbank I walked on just over an hour ago! And all I was worried about was sleepy crocodiles..
The news of the sighting travels ahead of me and at the hotel I am greeted with awe as if merely being in the proximity of a tiger endows me with celebrity status. ‘You are one very lucky lady. No one ever sees a tiger..,’ they sigh. Or could it be that very few people who see a tiger, live to tell the tale…