Sunday, February 24, 2008

Catching a tiger by its tale

Vroom! Vroom!! Vroom!!! Dimples (That’s my little truck, called so because, ravaged by Delhi traffic, she now stands dimpled all over – from doors and fenders, to hood and boot) couldn’t budge. Thick red dust clouds and the acrid smell of burning rubber invaded my nostrils. As the dust settled, I stepped out. The sky was a clear blue. Dimples was stuck at a curve on a narrow winding trail, layers of sand on top of loose rock, less than a foot wider than the width of the truck. This trail was my only way out of a red rock quarry, hundreds of feet deep. On my right rose an impassable sheer rock face; to my left was a drop, just as sheer and deep, and in front was my little truck, one front wheel in the air, the other on top of a boulder, and from where I stood, I could see her upturned underside, exposed by the angle. Dimples turned crimson with embarrassment. Some might’ve attributed it to all that red dust, but if you know Dimples, you’ll know better. How did I get here? Well, I was lured in by news of a mysterious creature that had taken to stalking some villages bordering Gurgaon, near Delhi. And this creature killed to live. First goat carcasses, then dead cows and now pug marks of a wild animal had emerged near the crop fields of Teekli village. The villagers thought it was a tiger that had strayed in from Sariska and a villager, Lakhi Ram, a portly farmer, claimed to have seen the tiger’s pug marks. So off we went, Dimples and I, in search of Lakhi Ram’s tiger.

Stand in front of any of the Gurgaon highrises, call one of the burlier locals, give him a stone and ask him to throw it long and hard. More than likely, that stone will fall in one of the many puddles that mark the paths and pajamas of Teekli. It’s a world far removed from bustling Gurgaon. One minute I was on a busy smoky, highway, and the next I’m passing mustard fields of verdant green and yellow, and the proud Aravalis beyond, to reach Lakhi Ram’s doorstep. Lakhi took me to the hills and pointed at the dreaded footprints on the dry mud. I took photos but was sceptical - looked more lupine than feline. I said so. Lakhi then pointed at something white in the bushes. Bleached and brittle, it was the skeleton of a long dead cow. It didn’t talk much, so it wasn’t what you would call ‘conclusive evidence’.

I set off to look for more witnesses and almost got run over by a herd of goats followed by a one-eyed goatherd. Daya Ram. “(whispers)Janawar tho hai but few’ll says so. There’s illegal mining going on and no one wants the media here... but I’ve lost two goats already.” Really? Where? He pointed at a nearby hill. “Iss pahad pe... jheel mein uttar jao. janawar wahin hai.” I met some more villagers. “janawar? ‘Janawar hai!’ Kahan? ‘Jheel mein!’ Jheel mein? What animal were they talking about? The Loch Ness monster? I comb the hill, every bush, and tiny corner, and find no jheel, not even a tiny puddle. What I do find is a grand canyonesque stone quarry and drawn by a stupid urge, I point poor Dimples’ nose south and descend into the pit. Nothing there… and I’m still there… stuck on my way back up.

Scanning the blue sky, as I lay on Dimples’ dimpled hood, I half hoped to see vultures riding the thermals, circling overhead like they did in spaghetti westerns whenever Clint Eastwood was stranded in the desert. But of course there were no vultures – the poor birds having nearly gone extinct themselves (too much diclofenac and not enough bumbling columnists). No tigers either. There couldn’t have been… the tigers of Sariska are long dead, just like the vultures. All I saw was the crumbling shell of a once rich landscape. The goatherds spoke of a time when deer roamed and the nights were alive with the roar of a tiger. But now only scavengers – hyenas, jackals – remain. And there is one more thing that still lives in these forests – a possibility – the romantic notion that in this wilderness, there might yet be a big cat lurking in the shadows in these hills. For that alone, this trip, Dimples’ woes notwithstanding, was worth it.

But soon these forests will be hacked, hauled and emptied and here would stand lawns and buildings in its stead. The tigers, the trees and the magic would’ve disappeared, but for a while might still remain the story about the day a tiger called on Teekli. P.S. Pray, where is the jheel....

Lost tracks

Since eyewitness accounts at Teekli, and even recent newspaper reports about the mystery cat remain inconclusive, we sent the photographs of the pug marks from the location to an expert. Kartick Satyanaraynan, co-founder of Wildlife SoS. Though handicapped by the quality and proximity of the photographs, Kartick was convinced that the pug marks had been made by either a wild canid or a hyena, not a leopard or tiger.

While wildlife enthusiasts would’ve hoped for the return of the beleaguered big cat to this neighbourhood but for now, it seems unlikely. It was in the year 2004 that a tiger had last been spotted in Teekli’s neighbouring wildlife sanctuary, Sariska and the animal straying so far undetected seems unlikely. And even if a tiger or leopard were to be there, population explosion, scarcity of space, environment destruction and human encroachments would’ve driven the animal back, perhaps to its death. In Mumbai in 2004, residents came into conflict with a lost leopard. In 2007, a jackal wandered into the heart of Delhi. Elephants, monkeys and snakes have been the other usual suspects. The serene wilderness of Teekli too might soon witness another such story.


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