Like errant schoolchildren ordered to keep quiet by the teacher, we sat silent, waiting in anticipation. I gesticulated `finger-on-the-lips’ to 5-year-old Pranav and 6-year-old Tejaswini, hoping the excitement of the moment wouldn’t make them react spontaneously to break the silence of the jungle.
Seeing the usually chattering kids silenced made someone break into a giggle and a cough. Afsar, our guide that evening at Nagarhole National Park, was not amused. He said “Listen. I am sure there are some elephants around here.” We perked up, peering carefully into a movement we could detect in the greenery just by the side of our jeep.
A few moments later, a majestic figure emerged. Followed by another. And another. And another. A herd of elephants crossed the path in front of us. Within a few feet of us. Our driver tried to take us a little closer, so the 10 of us on the jeep, could get a better look. The engine sound and the intrusion irritated a young tusker (see photograph). He came marching towards us threateningly and then retreated into the bushes. He was only trying to scare us away.
“Am sure there are more and there must be a young cub in that herd. That’s when they are so careful and protective,” Afsar told us. For nearly 15 minutes nothing happened.
We were excited that the evening jungle safari had been worth it and started the jeep after the group had disappeared on the other side. And as we moved and peered left to see where they had come from, the sight bowled us over. Another eight to nine elephants waiting in queue, waiting for us intruding humans to get out, so that they could cross the road and join the rest of the group.
But then yeh dil maange more. So we reversed and waited again. A five-minute wait later, out trooped the elephants, most of them females, camouflaging a baby elly, making sure they kept the baby safe between them. (see photograph) “It is the aunts and the mother who take care of the baby elephants in a herd like this. The father is never around,” said Afsar.
A dozen elephants had crossed the road and we knew there could be more. A 20-minute wait later, as the sun set over the Nagarhole in south Karnataka, out walked a group of another eleven, with many of them curiously looking in our direction. “Tourists feel lucky if they see even one elephant. You guys are very lucky to have seen 23,” exclaimed Afsar.
It was obvious Afsar himself was very excited as he shot pictures and explained the jungle life to us. Afsar told us he has been a forest guide at different national parks in Karnataka for the last 18 years. I asked him if he has not got bored doing the same thing everyday, over and over again.
Afsar said that on the contrary, he is bored when he is out of Nagarhole. Even a day out in the city gets to him, he says. He loves watching the animals and exploring the jungle. It’s a love affair that started in 1991 when he was still a driver and has grown with each day. His passion was obvious in his voice and tone. And it was that infectious enthusiasm that had taught him all he knew about the jungle and its inhabitants and made him such a good guide.
We were driving again, on a pucca road, in the middle of the jungle.“It hardly seems like a wildlife sanctuary or a forest if you have a cemented road running through it,” I said.
Afsar explained that was because a highway connecting Mysore with north Kerala was mooted to pass through this sanctuary. But thank God for PILs and the case and the road is now sub-judice. Otherwise the elephants would have probably needed to find another home. As he was speaking, a Kerala transport bus passed us by.
“Can you hear that sound? I am sure there is a big cat somewhere nearby.” Nagarhole is home to the tiger and the leopard. And several wild dogs. “To protect themselves from these three carnivores, the other animals too have their own little friendship clubs,” he explained. “The spotted deer, langur and the wild boar are friends. The langur since he will be on tree tops, will warn the deer if he sees any of the big cats in the vicinity. That’s the sound I am asking you to hear.”
“United we stand, divided we fall,” Tejaswini correlated the story of the three friends to the moral of a similar story she knew.
“Exactly,” said Afsar even as he indicated to all of us to fall silent and follow the sounds of the jungle.
Suddenly Afsar’s walkie talkie crackled. “Leopard on the eastern side,” exclaimed the voice on the other side. And we started immediately. On the way, we spotted a number of deer, gaur which is the Indian buffalo and even a striped mongoose. And stopped when another guide gestured to a tree top, where a leopard was sitting royally, perched most magnificently.
“The cat is not very old,” said Afsar. “It is a male and it is on the tree so that he can spot a prey from a vantage position. He is obviously hungry and needs something for the night.”
We took turns peering at the cat through our binaculours. The sun had gone down and darkness was enveloping Nagarhole. “Let us wait and watch what he does next? ” I said. My mother-in-law did not think it was such a wise idea. “What if he comes this side? And the guide is telling us he is hungry?” she said, only half in jest.
In about an hour, the leopard moved. He had apparently spotted some prey. He took a leap, climbing down the tree in a flash and in a moment he was gone. All we saw was some movement in the bushes below.
The drive back late in the evening was really cold as most of us had forgotten to carry our woollens in the warmth of the afternoon. But then a hot dinner awaited us at the open dining hall, around a bonfire, by the side of the river Kabini.
Little Pranav’s C for cat and E for elephant had acquired a very real meaning. And Karnataka’s slogan one state, many worlds was ringing more than true.