Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh, India—It’s early morning and the dappled sunlight is just breaking through the trees of the deep Bandhavgarh forest. We’re driving down a small dirt lane between Sera and Rajbera Meadows, behind the massive plateau from which Bandhavgarh takes its name. Our road is suddenly blocked by the massive gray bulk which is Gautam, the lead elephant used for patrols, tiger monitoring, and tourist forays into the jungle. Atop Gautam is Kuttapan, the renowned mahout who has been at Bandhavgarh for 24 years and who knows more about its tigers than anyone. Kuttapan gets my attention and points to something on the road. It’s the distinct impression of a tiger’s body which has recently lain down on the road. The imprint—torso, fore-paws and tail—lies clearly over any tracks or disturbances which may have come in the night.
Off to the right we hear the distinct “bleep-bleep”—the alarm call of the chital, or spotted deer, announcing the presence of a predator. Kuttapan and Gautam go off to investigate and we begin to drive around to intercept them on the other side of the forest. Not ten yards down the road, we hear a loud “varoom”—the call of the tiger—and we slide to a halt on the dusty road. Walking directly towards us at a distance of 100 yards is a large male tiger. It’s one of Bachhi’s 3-year-old males known to share this territory with his brother.
We sit in stunned silence and open jeeps. Some cameras continue to whir and click and some knuckles begin to whiten as grips tighten on the seats and roll bars of the jeep. The tiger continues his insouciant stroll directly towards us. About 20 yards from our jeep, he walks into a small clearing off the road, turns to mark a tree with his scent, then comes back out on to the road and walks past us within 3 feet of the jeep. Suspension of all breathing is the easiest thing in the world at a moment like this.
When the tiger is about 50 yards past us, our reverie is broken by a commotion in the forest across the road. Anil, our Nepali naturalist, whispers loudly, “Wolves!” There, propped up like little statues in a clearing in the forest, are two Indian gray wolves. Rigid, alert, clearly in a state of alarm and agitation, they begin yelping at the tiger. The tiger spins around on the road and charges off into the forest after them.
We drive down the road to where it curves back to where we were originally headed to meet Kuttapan and Gautam. There in an open clearing stands the tiger, looking around as if to ask, “Where’d they go?” We park the jeeps and watch a silent drama unfold.
As the tiger turns to walk away, out of the forest comes the larger of the wolves, probably the male, and scampers up to within a few yards of the tiger. The tiger turns his head and the wolf scampers back into the forest. The tiger continues to walk away down the road. Out of the forest comes the larger wolf again and scampers up to within what is apparently a safe distance from the tiger. This time the tiger turns around and glowers at the wolf, probably assessing the distance between them and the speed it would take to catch the wolf. They stare at each other for a few seconds, the tiger is still, and the wolf is nervously pacing back and forth. The muscles of the tiger begin to twitch and off goes the wolf into the forest again. Finally after one more of these encounters, the tiger has now moved some distance away and the wolf disappears one last time into the forest. One can only assume that the aggressive and bold behavior of the wolf meant he was protecting some pups and wanted to be sure the tiger was driven out of his territory.
The tiger, now left in peace, continues his stroll. He moves off the road into a patch of golden grass ablaze with sunlight, marks the spot with his spray, turns around, crosses the road in front of our jeeps, and disappears into the forest. This marking of territory and turning around was not whimsical. A few hundred yards down the road, Kuttapan and Gautam have found the tiger they were looking for, the brother, relaxing in the dry leaves of a bamboo forest, his nose still visibly scarred from a fight with Charger.
Kipling could not have scripted this better. Though he never visited the forests of Central India, his fabled jungle stories took place in these hills—what is now Madhya Pradesh and the forests of Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Shere Khan and the wily wolves in a taunting, even mocking, dance of survival.
Brian K. Weirum operates The Fund for the Tiger, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting tigers and their habitat in the forests of India and Nepal.