Kabini, the place about which I had heard so many stories – the pristine forest of the Nagarahole National Park, majestic tigers, elusive leopards and the rich avifauna. I got to experience all these on my recent trip to the forest.

In line with the legacy of Jungle Lodges & Resorts (JLR), the staff of Kabini River Lodge gave us a warm welcome with their large smiles and helped us settle in. After a sumptuous lunch we were just about to doze off while we were called for the evening safari, our first! The safari started at 3PM along with four other guests and a naturalist from JLR.

The pristine forest of the Nagarahole National Park

As soon as we entered the forest gate, a bevy of beautiful peafowl welcomed us on both the sides of the road. We drove on to reach a junction where a few jeeps were waiting, all eyes fixed on some bushes. They were eagerly looking for any movement, suspecting it to be leopard. The naturalists focused on listening for alarm calls, including that of langurs who, more often than not, clearly give away hints of a leopard or a tiger under the tree canopies.

A langur perched at the right height to spot a predator or two

With no sign of a leopard, the vehicle wheeled from the highway route towards the tourist zone of the forest. While the naturalist was busy explaining every detail surrounding us, we encountered a unique tree, called Matti, which stores water in its trunk. Apparently, when travelling through a forest with no water or water body around, people puncture the trunk of this tree to drink water.

The Matti Tree, also known as the Crocodile Bark Tree

A little further, two Stripe-necked Mongooses ran from the road towards the bushes. This was my first ever sighting of the species and was left in awe by its beauty. It took me a while to take off my eyes from my binoculars and shoot some photographs.

As the evening progressed, the volume and intensity of bird calls increased. The forest was filled with the calls of Plum-headed Parakeets and Racket-tailed Drongos. Colourful flamebacks crossed our route every now and then. Everyone in the safari vehicle was searching for a big cat, but we requested to stop for a minute when we spotted two Streak-throated Woodpeckers. One of them flew to a tree trunk from the ground where it was foraging and gave us a thorough look.

A Streak-throated Woodpecker stops to look

I was sure we must have missed seeing many little creatures and birds because of the sound of the vehicle, but we encountered a tusker feeding on the undergrowth and a Wild Boar digging the ground. We encountered both of them at the same time, boar on the left and elephant on the right. Like vultures, I learnt that boars too are the saviours of our forests. They primarily help in seed plantation while they forage the ground and dig it up to feed on the the nutritious roots. They also play a pivotal role in preventing diseases as they clear up rotting meat of abandoned carcasses.

Wild Boar digging the forest ground

We drove out of the forest and headed back to the highway, listening to the calls of parakeets all around us, when we spotted another magnificent bird, a Crested Hawk-eagle, preening away, undisturbed by any number of activities around. A Bronzed Drongo was flying around the eagle, and it looked really tiny in comparison. We moved from that spot but my eyes were still fixed on the mighty eagle until it faded away in the forest canopy.

Back at the same junction, we saw a few other jeeps waiting because someone had seen a leopard cub in the bushes, but it was too dark to spot anything by then.

A Crested Hawk-eagle and a Bronzed Drongo

Next morning, the safari began early, and the forest was still covered in fog. It was difficult to spot anything but we could hear birds calling. We stopped again at the previous evening’s leopard spot. Bird calls were mixed up with alarm calls from langurs, when we heard a different and loud sound – Wuh-Whooo. I turned to the direction of the sound and heard the call few more times when the naturalist mentioned it was that of a Green Imperial Pigeon. After a while, a big whitish pigeon-shaped bird flew above us, probably the same bird which was calling.

As we drove on, the forest grew deeper and deeper; the paths we drove on were filled with mud and slush when the driver spotted a tiger pugmark. Although it was huge, I was told by the naturalist that it must be of a sub-adult because adult pugmarks apparently are even bigger. I tried to imagine the size of animal that could leave a pugmark that large. We followed the trail of the pugmark until it faded away in the grass by the edge of the road. The driver speculated that the tiger must have gone down the steep path to drink water from a nearby water hole. Soon, we left the spot and entered the thickets. Bushes were overgrown on the route as well, suggesting that it had been a while since any vehicle crossed this route.

A large male Indian Gaur

A little further, we met another big guy, a male gaur, the largest among extant bovine species. We wondered aloud how tigers manage to hunt such a big animal, arguably a ton and half by weight. It also amazed me how such a calm animal can turn ferocious giving the likes of a tiger a run for its life.

The songster of the forest, a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo

The fog started to disappear, raising the curtains of the pristine forest while the early morning sunrays touched the ground. A lot of bird activity seemed to be underway around a single tree. We stopped to take a look. Sunbirds were flying from one tree to another; a nuthatch was hanging upside down foraging on the tree bark and a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo sat on a dry branch mimicking a different bird. Before we could guess which bird it was mimicking it would switch to another sound. This bird is known not only to mimic birds, but also cats, alarm calls of other animals and even a manmade tractor!

While the Kabini trip came to an end without seeing a tiger or a leopard, it opened up many gates to experience one of the richest tiger ecosystems in the country.