Tiger fire


The forest is a true temple, and worthy of our devout worship. But will we do our utmost to conserve this priceless treasure?

Sitting with the late Kailash Sankhala, the then Director of Project Tiger, I learned for the first time three decades ago, that langurs in the northern half of our subcontinent have their tails curled in a large ‘C’ bent over their backs. However, in the South, their tails form a large ‘S’. Why? No one has quite been able to explain.

I also learned from this amazing naturalist that the Hanuman langur possesses a three-chambered stomach that helps it to digest the difficult-to-digest leaves that constitute the bulk of its victuals. Evolution granted it forward pointing eyes to judge distances, so that a leap from one branch to another becomes less life threatening. Colour vision and an acute sense of smell help the langur to know when fruit hanging on a favourite tree turn ripe. Langur “Aunts” in a troupe and young female sub-adults play surrogate mother to infants, so that the real mother can feed without let or hindrance. And when a herd of chital deer wander by, the langur will not drift away, choosing instead to feed close to the deer, thus benefiting from one of the forest’s most effective joint-predator alarm systems. And yes, they have a language of their own. Subtly varied alarm calls warn troupe members of threats from tigers, snakes or humans. Armed with long canines, more for fruit cutting than fighting, langurs use teeth to great advantage by baring them in an aggressive display designed to avoid physical conflict.

Among wild creatures, langurs have adjusted their behaviour remarkably well, and have even begun to take advantage of the human tendency to feed them. It’s anyone’s guess, however, if this langur will ever understand that it will die when it eats the food-stuffed plastic bags thrown by thousands of mindless tourists and Hanuman worshippers who throng the forests and temples in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve.

When I now visit forests, I am always caught between two poles. Should I celebrate the obvious beauty I see before me, or mourn the destruction that is imminent? Every once in a while, a primal instinct pushes me to parts of the planet where I can experience raw nature. It is here that I feel most alive. Where I can remind myself why the gift of life was granted to me.

The birth of such urgings was probably triggered by countless family trips to Calcutta’s Botanical Gardens, where the famous banyan tree became a seven-year-old’s universe, and the mere sight of the Hoogly River’s mud banks sent young adrenaline pumping, because crocs lived there. Such urgings stayed with me through the seventies, before Sanctuary was ever a gleam in my eye.

I saw my first tiger over 30 years ago, in Kanha. It was the month of June and the air was pregnant with promised rain. We were tracking tiger pugmarks in the pre-dawn gloom, drenched by tall-grass dew, and assaulted almost continuously by the smells and tummy expletives of Ram Pyari, our riding elephant!

And then, there it was.

I spent an hour gaping open-mouthed at the year-old cub that curiously explored its leaf littered nullah. When he moved away, we followed for 200 hundred metres or so, till the young cat was united with mother and sister.

In 15 minutes I was enslaved by tiger fire and liberated from tawdry human ambition.I recall hours spent sitting quietly with with Manglu Baiga, keeper of Kanha’s forest secrets, at Shravan Tal, and Bahmnidadar, absorbing the magic. Manglu taught me that nature was mother, father and child all in one. That being in a forest was like being in a temple. That I was no less a child of the earth than the tigers I had come to see.
I went to Kanha a tourist. I returned a nature worshipper. If I had my way, I would create circumstances in and around our most popular wildlife areas that would enable every single visitor to share my fate.


Bittu Sahgal

The writer is Editor, Sanctuary magazine