A few days ago I outstared a tiger and gazed into the blue eyes of a leopard. For the past seven years my friend Cindy and I have been trying to find the mythical blue-eyed leopard of Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, only to find he has moved to India. Seriously, the blue-eyed leopard is extremely rare and seems to be found only in India, which is where we came across Nilu (blue in Hindu) and his yellow-eyed twin, Pilu.
And as for seeing a tiger, well, this was a thrill indeed.
Our trip to Satpura National Park, three hours (hairy) drive on the main highway to Jaipur, through the bread basket of India’s Madhya Pradesh, started inauspiciously. We left Mumbai in a terrific thunderstorm, and arrived at Renu Pani Lodge (recommend) in pouring rain: our vehicle had to be pushed up the final steep ramp to the lodge, it was so muddy. In the evening we have a grey drive through drizzle and glimpse our first sloth bear plus a bonus cub, one of Satpura’s famous endemic species, as well as some damp Samba deer and enormous gaurs (Indian bison).
At 3.15 am I am woken by a humungous thunderstorm, and it rains all the next day: the park is closed! WE end up having a late evening drive in the buffer zone, looking for birds and black buck. The husbands only have one more day to find the big cats…and they are to be disappointed. One compensation is finding this sloth bear mum and her twin cubs, a rare sighting.
Satpura is a beautiful park, thickly wooded with teak trees, interspersed with the occasional elegant ghost tree and bamboo glades; it has abundant streams and bumpy stony tracks which we bounce around on in our open murati jeeps. As only 10-12 vehicles are allowed in at any one time, it feels very exclusive, despite the early morning conversation of our two elderly companions (not our husbands I hasten to add) about their constipation in Hinglish!
However, everyone wants to see the elusive Nilu and Pilu, whose territory is close to the park entrance. We are lucky that our naturalist and professional photographer, Shantanu Prasad, is considered the ‘father’ of these naughty spotty teenagers and knows just where to find them; the disadvantage is that everyone else follows him!
You find leopards (and tigers for that matter) by following the alarm calls from the languors and macaques. Up and down we drive along a narrow ridge in a column of four vehicles. Suddenly our ranger, Jagdish, yells ‘Leopard!” and there he is lying up on the side of a hill, completely camouflaged. Now it’s just a waiting game.
In Africa, waiting and watching animals is a silent occupation; here in India its like a picnic, excited jabbering between vehicles and a general party atmosphere, enlivened today by the break down of one of the jeeps which involves all six of the guides bump-starting it!
Pilu, for it is he, is unperturbed until he finally decides to go for a stroll and walks directly towards our vehicles which, of course are reversing at break-neck speeds down the track to intercept his crossing…
Shantu says that Nilu can’t be far away, so after Pilu has stalked off, we sit and wait; and once again Jagdish spots our prey: Nilu was there all along, lying just above his brother. He eventually rouses himself and steals along to come and say hello to his daddy, and fixes his bright blue eyes directly on us.
So now its tiger time.
Tiger, Tiger burning bright,
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Can frame they fearful symmetry?
I chant this in my head, while Cindy is singing her Kundalini yoga mantras, as we set of for the Churna forest camp in the limited access area of the park, where we are to spend the night. There used to be several villages in the park, but they have all been re-sited. Poor villagers, I say. Oh no, says Shantu, they get 10 lakh (£10,000) each so a family can make a small fortune from such a relocation. All that remains are the feral cows, who stick close to the spotted deer and provide good meals for the tigers.
Tiger sightings are rare in Satpura, but they have three living near Churna. As we trundle along, a ranger appears with binos, shouting (of course) excitedly. He has heard the tiger calling in the nullah below. He leaps aboard and we go hell for leather towards the alarm calls. We scan the area – nothing. As we retrace our steps, a shout, Tiger! In the shadows I see the hint of a stripe and then, in the blink of an eye, it’s gone.
That’s that we think; our forester guide dismounts and joins some pals to return to his camp, but Shantu is confident that the tiger is nearby. So up and down we go, following the calls. The jangal is very thick here, and there are rocky outcrops everywhere, perfect tiger country, but hard to see! We are on the point of giving up, and Viki, the driver is doing a nifty 3-point turn, when Shantu shouts, Tiger! He is looking down on us, watching, as we reverse straight towards him!
What a gent he is; only about four years old (you can tell by how pink the nose is) and new to Shantu. In fact no one has seen him before, we later find out. He just sits and watches us with a flicker of annoyance (our driver, guide and even Shantu are all jabbering away, it’s wonderful how thrilled and excited they are here to see the big cats) then after several minutes decides to move on. We follow him, revving up the jeep (he’s not bothered) and he affords us another fine view as he slips off the main road into the rocks, giving us a long hard look before disappearing forever.
At the Churna camp, we find we have been displaced from our ‘superior’ lodgings by a bunch of sociology and social work students from Bhopal. What seeing wild animals has to do with people, we are not sure. A self-important gent strides towards us, rat-a-tat he volleys a cross examination: ‘I am Professor –––. What is your name? What are you doing here? Only two of you? You are very brave!’ The students are excited to see our tiger photos.
That night we sleep in a very basic hut, but there is a loo and water (no hot), though it is rather too cold to shower. As we sip our G & Ts I see a shape – Look Cindy a rat! Oh no, she says, that’s a rusty spotted cat. Very rare! And later in the night we see the flying squirrel launching itself between two huge mango trees.
So our magical few days in Satpura comes to an end. We have seen the rare four-horned deer, the Malabar red squirrel as well as numerous sloth bears. Now we have challenged our friend Stretch Ferreira in Mana to find us a leopard later this year– any old one will do, we’ll let him off the blue eyes!
You can contact Shantanu Prasad here for expert guided nature/photographic tours of India at prices that undercut other operators.
For Ross’s photos click here.