Most people who have seen a tiger in the wild have a story to share. My story is definitely unusual, for, I didn’t go looking for one.
I was studying seed dispersal ecology in Bandipur, Karnataka. The project involved my field assistant, Madhan and I searching for trees with ripened fruits and recording its visitors. The visitors were usually birds, and a few tree-hopping mammals like macaques, langurs and giant squirrels. Our work involved estimating the number of fruits in the tree, observing how many fruits the visitors consumed, and what the consumers did to the seeds – carry, drop, swallow or crush. It is a good sign for the parent tree, if the visitor swallows or carries the seed away from it. This increases the chances of the offspring germinating. On the contrary, it is bad if the visitor crushes the seed while consuming the fruit.
One cloudy July morning, we parked our vehicle and set out on foot to record the location and status of fruiting trees. Madhan walked ahead while I followed behind, trying to figure out which among the row of Jamun trees had ripened fruits and would have visitors soon.
Suddenly, Madhan came back running, “Sir, sir, puli (tiger)” he whispered, out of breath. “Marathu male puli thoogitu iruku (A tiger is sleeping on top of a tree).”
Any field biologist or individual who has been on a jungle safari knows the value of sighting an elusive wild creature – be it a butterfly, bird, or a big cat. These sightings barely last a few seconds and if you are extremely unlucky, it might coincide perfectly with the blink of your eye. Given my past luck, I wasn’t hoping for much. A glimpse of a tiger’s tail darting inside a lantana bush would have been sufficient to tell tales to my future grandchildren.
A tiger lay in all its splendour on the branch of a banyan tree, eight feet above the ground. How did it get up there? Did it hoist itself up by climbing the tree trunk with the help of its claws? Unlike its agile cousin, the leopard, I imagine the tiger’s climb to be clumsy due to the large size of its body. I also imagine it to be out of breath by the end of such a physical exertion. Did it have an easy access to minimise its climbing effort – like a gradual slope on the tree trunk leading up to the branch? In any case, the final result was there for us to see. A tiger lay asleep on a tree. I have seen tigers pacing up and down in the zoo, tigers chasing and bringing down their prey in wildlife documentaries and close up shots of tigers in magazines. Nothing compares to the experience of seeing a tiger up close, even with its apparent inactivity. There was excitement and fear, in equal measure.
Madhan and I got as close as 50 metres to the tiger and hid behind a tree. With its eyes shut tight, the tiger kept flicking its tail every once in a while, completely unaware of the two humans spying on it. It dozed like a kitten with its head nodding off the branch occasionally. The body rested on the branch with one leg for support while the other legs hung free. It seemed like a comfortable posture to sleep in – like a surfer basking on her/his paddle in the sea before hitting the waves.
Every few minutes Madhan persuaded me to leave, but I ignored him. I didn’t want to blink, lest I miss a moment. As the tiger slept unaware of our presence, I got foolishly close for a better angle. If the tiger were to open its eyes, the first thing it would have spotted was a strange bipedal with a camera attached to its face. But I wasn’t foolish enough to risk such exposure and returned to the safety of my hiding spot. Meanwhile, it started drizzling and I had no way of protecting myself or the camera from the rain. The memory card in my camera was predictably getting full.
About an hour later, the tiger suddenly woke up, looked straight in our direction and got startled. At that very moment, I experienced fear – a fear I imagine a prey would experience when stared at intensely by a predator. I agreed with Madhan that we should leave, and we hurried back to our jeep, occasionally looking over our shoulders.
That evening, I recounted the tiger tale to Bomma, another experienced field assistant. He said tigers might go up a tree to ambush a gaur passing below. I had no idea what to make of his reasoning about why tigers climb trees. It was so ingrained in me to believe the tiger as a predator that chases down its prey rather than sit and wait for its meal to approach. Bomma’s explanation seemed like a bit of a stretch to me. A week later, we went back to the same site and found vultures on the tree and a gaur carcass below. No tiger, of course. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe not.
So, this is my tale of a tiger sighting. It began quite unusually, while searching for fruiting trees in the forest, on foot. And as luck would have it, I spent 57 minutes, that’s 3420 seconds, watching the tiger asleep on a tree.
P.S. The banyan tree (on which the tiger was found sleeping), at the time of observation, did not have ripened fruits!