River Kabini winds through the wooded treasure of peninsular India, a dividing line between the two most important national parks in that area: Nagarahole Tiger Reserve and Bandipur National Park. The banks of this river are home to an unparalleled richness of fauna. Although the sight of any wild inhabitant is enough to excite the senses of a wildlife lover, it is the leopards that are the brand ambassadors of this area. Seeing photographs of leopards lazing or dozing on trees made me want to travel there. In August this year, we got our chance. After a short visit to Bannerghatta National Park in Bangalore, we reached the Kabini River Lodge late in the evening.
The Maharaja Bungalow at the Kabini River Lodge. This magnificent heritage building was once the hunting lodge for the erstwhile Maharaja of Mysore.
Puff-throated Babbler, in the Lodge’s campus.
Kabini is set in the foothills of the Nilgiris and forms a part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Since it was the monsoon season, the jungle was lush green, with plenty of undergrowth. This made ground sightings difficult on safaris, so we instead looked for animals on the road or on the branches of trees.
The gateway to the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve.
We were instructed by our naturalist to look for branches that spread away from the trunk, as these were the preferred roosting spots of leopards. We spotted elephants, gaurs, bonnet macaques, ruddy mongoose, sambar and herds of spotted deer. We also spotted many birds: Crested Hawk-eagle, Crested Serpent-eagle, Malabar Parakeets, Racket-tailed Drongo, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Orange-headed Ground Thrush and Brown Fish-Owl. Only one group that day was lucky to sight a leopard. Leopards, which are well adapted for arboreal life, easily avoid confrontation with tigers by climbing tall trees; branches are a safe place for them and their kills.
Barred Button Quail
The Changeable Hawk-eagle, a common raptor in Nagarahole.
The boat safari was another way in which we experienced these jungles. This being the monsoon, it wasn’t the best season for these safaris, because the river Kabini was running high, and animals would have the option of quenching their thirst within the vicinity of the forest. It was a cold morning as the boat sailed through the swollen reservoir with beautiful marigold plantations and other fields on both sides. We photographed this idyllic pastoral view, but soon, the scenery changed. We entered into the forest, with Nagarahole National Park on one side and Bandipur on another. Deer herds were grazing ashore. Water birds like Cormorants, Darters and Fish Eagles nested and perched on the dry trees still standing in the catchment area of the river. A playful group of bonnet macaques frolicked in the water, creating ripples that sparkled in the golden glow of dawn. We also spotted a small herd of elephants bathing in the water, so far away that they could be mistaken for boulders.
A Crested Serpent-eagle.
Wild dogs (Dholes) in a playful moment. Dholes normally hunt in packs and even dare to appropriate kills made by big cats.
Five days spent like this, in the lap of nature, passed by very quickly. The leopards remained elusive, but we decided to extend our stay for two more days. We set out on our next safari and for the first one and a half hours, we tried to spot some movement or alarm calls, to no avail. Just as our eyes were tiring of scanning the branches, my husband suddenly whispered, “Leopard!” I felt a spark run down my body. The leopard was lying on a fallen log, enjoying its nap in the solitude of the forest. Its beautiful coat glowed in the golden light of the setting sun, and it was totally unfazed by our presence. Seeing a leopard up-close, in such a lovely ambience, was a dream come true.
A leopard dozing on a log.
The next evening, we were again out on a safari, and were rewarded with another leopard sighting. We saw the leopard sitting on the branch of a tall tree, quite far away from the road. Against the wild green canopy of the forest, the leopard stood out in perfect contrast, and we got some good photographs.
Leopards adapted to arboreal lives are like brand ambassadors of the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve.
The next morning, we returned to the same area in the hope of seeing that leopard again, but this time we were attracted by other wildlife. A herd of chital grazed nonchalantly. Flocks of Malabar Parakeets performed spectacular acrobatics as they feasted on Parthenium seeds, and seemed to oblige us with different poses. Suddenly, the jungle stirred, as a chital shrieked in alarm. We were jolted from our trance as the herd dispersed, shrieking, in different directions.
A Chital fawn suckles while keeping an eye on its beholders.
A Malabar Parakeet on Parthenium weed. Flocks of these birds are seen foraging all over the park.
“A leopard on the prowl!” was our first thought, but, to our pleasant surprise, a full-grown male tiger appeared out of the bushes. The tiger’s ochre coat was resplendent against the lush greenery, and its elegant walk bewitched us. It soon vanished into the thick vegetation; it was a small but satiating encounter with the king of jungle.
The king of jungle, amidst lush greenery.
Soon, we were ready for our last safari of the trip. As soon as we entered the jungle, we heard that a leopard had made a kill. Neither the leopard nor the kill was to be seen. Not wanting to alarm the creature, we drove away and returned after a while, only to spot our subject on a tree. The leopard seemed to be quite fidgety compared to our earlier encounters. As we watched, it climbed down and concealed itself in the undergrowth. We were surprised and drove ahead to see more clearly. Almost immediately, the leopard leapt up on the tree and snarled at us. We soon realized that it had been hiding its victim, a spotted deer, in the undergrowth. We respectfully retreated a few hundred metres, and continued to watch the leopard, when we suddenly saw a herd of elephants approach from the other side of the road. We were now anxious, wondering what would happen. The elephants started with a calm stroll on the road but, as they neared, they lifted their trunks and smelt the scent of the predator. They then quickly veered off the road and disappeared into the vegetation to avoid confrontation. Since it was growing dark, we too left, watching as the leopard still sat on the tree, guarding its kill.
Elephants raise their trunk to sniff the air and sense any possible danger of confronting a carnivore.
It was a dramatic end to our trip into the woods of Kabini. In just a week’s time we saw almost all the important animals of the forest, be it the king of the jungle or the prince, the birds or the other animals. The jungles have so much to offer us; all we need is a good eye for spotting, respect for Mother Nature, and, above all, patience.