Waiting outside the gate of Bandhavgarh National Park in Central India, you feel the crisp morning air leave your lungs as your breath shows itself with each exhale. Your Gypsy, an open-aired, four-wheel-drive safari vehicle necessary in the back roads of this subcontinent, provides a raised seating area where you wait with a hot water bottle and Nat Hab blanket on your lap that are keeping you as warm as possible as the sun begins to peek over the horizon.
Palpable energy builds with the locals as they realize the park is about to open the gates—this is when they rush back to their assigned Gypsy. Your driver situates themselves behind the wheel while a local guide takes shotgun and bids hello to the group. Next, your naturalist Expedition Leader jumps in and reiterates the names of everyone in the vehicle, as you’re about to engage in a once-in-a-lifetime experience together: tracking tigers in the wild.
This isn’t your first game drive in this park looking for big cats, and despite a lack of sightings so far, you’ve come to appreciate the “chase.” With this anticipation, a smile develops on your face, hidden under a Nat Hab buff.
The gates open and the ride begins as a collection of Gypsies hit the gas. Over the next 15 minutes, the Gypsies part ways as each vehicle, and its subsequent guides, blaze a new trail for the day in hopes of tracking the elusive striped cat.
Your Expedition Leader turns around to tell you and two fellow Nat Hab adventurers that he has a feeling we should scout the territory of a large male, as there are a few females within the same territory, and they have been active in recent days. That territory is a 45-minute drive with periodic stops. Those stops are to enjoy the serenity of a spotted deer in the early morning golden hour and to watch langur monkeys shake the branches above, as a kingfisher becomes spooked and perches in a more tranquil tree.
Kingfishers are far from the bottom of the list of birds you’ll see in India, a birder’s paradise, which you can attest to as the last few days have yielded rare and exotic sightings seemingly every minute. For bear enthusiasts, the potential for a sloth bear spotting, made famous by the Jungle Book’s Baloo, brings excitement in its own right. Failure to observe and enjoy these creatures of India with a blind focus on cats would be regrettable.
A fork in the road presents itself, and your driver instinctively stops the vehicle and turns the engine off. This being your third game drive in India, you’ve become accustomed to such stops, which is when everyone goes silent to listen for jungle clues. The sound of activity and movement, such as birds chirping and deer grazing, is a good sign that other animals, such as predators, are stirring this morning as well. Perhaps what your guides are listening for more than anything is the sound of an alarm call animals create when a predator is nearby. You’ve heard these alarm calls on previous outings and fancy yourself able to distinguish such calls if they resound again.
At this stop, you listen for strange sounds. You listen to the morning dew dropping from the highest leaf to the next and the next until it reaches the jungle floor. You inhale the sweet smells of local foliage mixed with the smoky aroma that India seems to be known for. The jungle is alive today, so you internally celebrate that good news, but alas, no alarm call is heard. This is the common result of such stops, so the Expedition Leader discusses with the local guide and driver to determine that left is the direction you need to go.
The vegetation is thick, and while tigers have vibrant colors, you know that they can hide in an instant. You intently watch the landscape in hopes that a pair of cat eyes will catch your attention from the bushes. The driver suddenly hits the brakes and points down to the sandy road: tiger tracks!
With a closer look it’s clear that the tracks are fresh, which you know because your Expedition Leader taught this to you yesterday while on a game drive. The natural corners that the tracks make are sharp, and over time those tracks will smooth out—the smoother the footprints are, the farther away the cat likely is. You also notice that there is some grass that must have blown on the road nearby but not in the track itself—this is another sign that a tiger paw created the indention within the last hour or so.
The pursuit is on!
Your vehicle continues along, and your eyes are affixed to the tracks the tiger left for you to follow. While the tracks may appear too narrow and too few between to be a big cat, your Expedition Leader taught you the night before that many animals, including tigers, follow their own footprints to remain as stealthy as possible. This means the front paw will feel for a safe and quiet spot to step, and the hind paw will naturally find the exact same spot. This assists in hunting and is evident in the tracks you’re following right now. The process is so precise that tigers will rarely look down at their paws while walking and stalking.
The Expedition Leader gives a slight whistle and the vehicle stops. He points to a tree with claw marks five feet from the ground. You’ve not seen scratch marks on this adventure yet, so he takes a moment to explain how tigers mark their territory in numerous ways. Scratch marks provide a visual cue, and there are also glands in tigers’ paws that release a scent, marking trees. Your fascination with the natural world grows with each new tidbit of interpretation, helping you understand the innate mindset of wildlife.
You continue farther along and come upon some droppings. Your Expedition Leader points out that these are the droppings of a sloth bear, but what’s further intriguing is his observation of the tiger tracks. The tiger clearly inspected the scat—your guide highlights the tiger tracks which show circular movement within them, suggesting the tiger turned around in an attempt to learn more about the creature who left the deposit. Your mind’s eye paints a picture of this tiger, perhaps standing in this exact spot just minutes ago.
Feeling threatened or simply territorial, the tiger sprayed a nearby tree to mark its territory yet again. Your Expedition Leader, with a keen nose and eyes to match, spots the spray residue on a leaf. This tiger is active today!
The driver continues with increased enthusiasm and your guide tells you to hang on. The adrenaline is pumping through your veins as you’re on the trail. There are rocks and roots on the road but it’s barely slowing the vehicle down as you bounce through the jungle. The tiger tracks then disappear into the forest, so the brakes are hit. Yet again, you know that this is the time when you must remain silent; birds chirp, some leaves fall from more langurs clumsily picking off fruits, and then a loud and distinct “owm” sound emerges above it all and everyone’s eyes go wide. “Owm” again!
It’s the alarm call of a spotted deer which nearly always means there’s a predatory cat nearby—a leopard or tiger. Now trackless but catapulted by the sound, the team is racing through the jungle to locate the originator of the alarm call.
The late morning sun paired with the exhilaration of your tracking has allowed you to remove your warm hat and jacket carefully while weaving through the forest. Over a hill, around a fallen tree, dust is filling the air as you breathe through the buff, yet your eyes remain unblinking.
Suddenly, you turn a corner and it washes over everyone at once; your driver hits the brakes and you skid to a stop; pure silence.
It’s not what you see ahead that stopped the vehicle because ahead is merely more dirt road. It’s a smell that hit the noses of everyone in the Gypsy at the same time. Recognizing the question you’re not asking, your Expedition Leader turns around and whispers with restrained excitement, “that’s the smell of a carcass. It’s not fresh, maybe a day or two old.” Tigers don’t waste their food—this is leftovers and a tiger wouldn’t venture far from their kill.
Then, a low, barely audible growl reverberates from the adjacent foliage. Your heart stops, breathing halts and you slowly turn your head in that direction.
By Nat Hab Adventure Specialist Joey Sudmeier. All photos © Joey Sudmeier.