I was driving slowly. The twin beams of light scanned the horizon for signs of life. But it was well past 11 in the night and I was driving through fields and forests. Few people lived here and if there were animals about, my headlights and the noisy diesel motor had kept them away.
The zone I was driving through, the eastern buffer forest of the Sariska Tiger Sanctuary, was particularly well known for a pair of leopards that often hunted in this area and I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to walk all alone in the dark but to comb the trail that connected the surrounding villages to the state highway seemed like a good idea.
I must have turned away for just a moment to admire the smudges on a waning moon. It reminded me of celluloid images of a bride waking from her bridal bed. And then a large shadow from the bushes fringing the road dashed into the beam of light and darted away again. Jolted back to the present, I tried to make sense of what I had seen. I stopped the car and turned out the lights. I sat in the car and counted down from ten to one and then as quickly as I could, flicked the lights on.
Like a chameleon’s tongue darting back into the wilderness, the shadow streaked past the lights and disappeared in the shadows again, but this time I had caught a glimpse of the beast. Black stripes on tawny fur would suggest a tiger but this animal was too square. Tigers are more long than tall and this animal seemed too short-backed to be anything feline. This animal must have about as big as a large German Shepherd Dog. Sariska’s largest canid is the golden jackal and this animal was far bigger. It had to be the shy and misunderstood striped hyena.
This was some years ago. But last week, while hiking up the steep incline that leads to Bala Quila, the virgin fort of Alwar, I was reminded of that night yet again, for here I was looking for hyenas. I had my 5D swinging on a strap around my neck but realistically speaking it was too dark for pictures.
I was walking around the forests that surround the fort with two local wildlife activists, Mithun Sharma (see issue dated 02/06/2013) and Anurag Kaushik. These two eco warriors had roamed these forests ever since high school and were familiar with the lay of the land. They knew just the place to find leopards, hyenas, crocodiles and snakes.
A rustling in the bushes… We stopped and waited. The sound hurried towards us, unmindful of our presence. Such carelessness is usually more typical of bears and wild boars, but this animal seemed smaller. Before we could make up our minds, a porcupine barreled out of the bushes, followed closely by another… a pair! It was only after they had come on to the trail that they noticed us. Alarmed, their quills bristled and rattled in warning. It was a display of formidable weaponry.
Many a leopard and even a few tigers have succumbed to the devastating backward charge of an irate porcupine. Jim Corbett’s tales of hunting maneaters have often revealed that a fair number of these man eating marauders took to killing easier prey like domestic cattle and civilization softened humans after injuring themselves while trying to kill porcupines.
Though startled, the pair didn’t turn and run. They just kept bristling and scooted along the trail and disappeared in another section of the forest. We kept climbing till we reached the gate of the fort and from there we turned and skirted the walls of the fort, and walked in the direction of the forested valley that was bathed in the light of yet another full moon, that stretched beyond the fort and along the armpits of the city of Alwar.
And here we sat down and waited for a chance encounter with the clean-up artist of these forests, the elusive and nocturnal striped hyenas.
Hyenas have had a bad reputation. Their shyness is considered cowardice and since they are scavengers, to us anthropomorphic humans, they seem to be the pariahs of the animal kingdom. Ungainly and awkward, with powerful jaws and a weak voice, the striped hyena with its nocturnal habits operates in the fringes of our wilderness legends. Carrion eater it may be, but it is loathed by people living near the forests for its habit of gorging on un-burnt corpses and bodies entered into the earth. But what has made the hyena really unpopular is its reputation of picking off children sleeping in their cots when food is scarce.
While we waited, Anurag and Mithun busted two myths about the hyena. I had thought that a carrion eater like the hyena would obviously be a carnivore but the hyena apparently likes certain fruits and is actually a no-fuss omnivore.
Around then we heard a heavy animal in the bush at a slight distance. It wasn’t alone either. “That couldn’t be a hyena”, I said. “They are solitary animals, right?” Mithun shook his head. “No, no, they move around in large family groups… four, six and even eight to ten individuals in a clan. I have seen them.” Anurag nodded “ a few months ago, I was walking through this area with a friend after releasing a rescued snake. The sun had set and while we threaded our way through the brambles by the beam of a flashlight when in the gathering gloom, we spotted four pairs of eyes glowering at us. We froze. It could be cheetal, axis deer, we reasoned, but cheetal wouldn’t walk towards us like these eyes were doing… could it be wild boar, we wondered?” Wild boar, just so you know, are formidable animals. Tigers love pork, and yet even they would be wary of taking on an adult boar that could weigh as much as 80 kgs and rip the tiger’s chest open with its razor sharp tusks. If we had stumbled upon a sounder with young piglets, the adults could attack at the slightest provocation. Our mouths were dry and our palms sweaty.
The biggest of the eyes walked into the beam of light and we saw a large female hyena staring at us. During the day she would have slunk away but the darkness had given the usually timid animal a dose of courage. Usually, when confronted, the hyena turns and runs. Even when harried by village dogs, an animal it can easily dispatch with a single bone-crunching bite, the hyena, it is said, plays dead in the hope the dogs would leave it alone.
“This one was an alpha female (hyena females are the leaders of the clan and are usually larger than males) and she wanted to investigate these strange humans. The other pairs of eyes surrounded us and disappeared. Though rare, hyenas have attacked and even killed adult human beings on occasions. My friend and I raised our arms, hollered and screamed. This should have worked but the female inched closer and couple of the others closed in on us. My friend who was a more experienced outdoorsman turned and with his back touching mine as he faced the hyenas that had surrounded us, asked me to maintain contact with his back while I faced the female and asked me to shuffle backwards with great care (stumbling and falling would usually trigger the predatory instinct in an animal that was merely curious at this point).
Slowly, inch by inch, we gradually made our way out of the converging circle and when the hyenas stopped and their shapes faded into those glowing irises, we finally began to breathe again.”
Sitting there with two kindred spirits whispering their adventures amidst the sights, sounds and smells of a truly wild forest, waiting for the moment when one of her denizens would trust us enough to reveal their presence, I was filled with a sense of awe for the treasures a forest hides in its folds.
When we pack our bags and head off for a safari in a sanctuary, we often find it difficult to look beyond the quest for a tiger. And we often do little more than jump into a jeep and see the wilderness through the viewfinder of a camera. But there is more to these forests than the tiger, and there is more to a safari than the designated safari routes on a jeep with a guide chattering away in the background.
The heavy bodied rustling moved in closer and we braced ourselves for the animal to burst out before us. We were sitting on the ground without even a stick between the three of us. Having surrendered to the forest, we felt more vulnerable than we would have in a jeep and yet we felt like we belonged, far more than I ever had in a forest before.
“Ssshhh!” said Mithun as the rustling grew closer. The clatter of heavy hooves revealed the nature of the beast before we laid eyes on it. Must be a nilgai or a sambar we presumed, and indeed it was the latter, a whole herd of them. Though cautious in the beginning, the sambar soon realized we meant no harm and then they relaxed and started grazing peacefully.
On safari, from the safety of a vehicle, a sambar sighting would have been rather ho-hum after a while, but here staring into the night, scanning for predators, we shared the thrill of surviving a night with the sambar. And as our vigil for the beasts of the night continues, let me urge you to look beyond the tiger and more importantly, step beyond the jeep if you want to be know what it’s like to be welcomed back into the arms of nature again. So stay safe and let the adventure begin…