Nissar suddenly slithered down the elephant, leaving me alone in the howdah. It was dawn in Corbett National Park and the sun had just risen like a smashed pomegranate over the jungle mists. He was squinting at the trail, reading a pattern in what was—to me—unintelligible sandy soil. But he saw a story, albeit a violent one, of a large male tiger that had just dragged off its freshly-killed prey.
Nissar climbed back on our mount and we hung a right into the jungle. What followed was the most incredible instance of tracking I have ever seen. Using his sight, smell and hearing—as well as a sixth sense developed over a lifetime atop an elephant—he traced the tiger’s retreat into the bush. He pored through the foliage like a bloodhound, sniffing here, examining a branch there, exploring false leads and doubling back again. After 15 minutes of this, we rounded a corner—and came within sight of the cat’s victim—a sambar deer lay dead in a small clearing, its hindquarters half-eaten.
But the tiger was nowhere. “It’s gone, it must have heard us coming,” I whispered into Nissar’s ear. But he just shook his head, sniffing the air for that musky, milky scent peculiar to tigers. There was a blood-curdling roar, and the tiger leaped at us from the thicket. Our elephant staggered back and trumpeted: a single, ear-splitting note, like Dizzy Gillespie on steroids. I clung to the howdah. The tiger crouched, snarling, then ran at us a second time. But this time the pachyderm, under Nissar’s commands, stood its ground—until finally the cat skulked away into the undergrowth.
Nissar, the mahout, is a legend in Corbett. Men like him have the ability to bring alive a jungle experience. The good news is that every wildlife sanctuary has people like Nissar who can change a humdrum visit into a sensational one. The bad news is that there are many imposters who promise the same.
How do you ensure a decent jungle guide? My first advice—conduct an “on the spot” interview. Ask him point-blank if he can guarantee a tiger spotting. Once in Corbett, a short, pushy, muscular guide on the Bijrani Gate, named Bisht, looked me in the eye and said: “Today you will see a tiger.” He was—by his admission—a Rambo among guides, having seen the tiger a staggering 750 times. When I asked him how long he’d been a guide—his answer was three years. Besides being a guide, he added, he was also a part-time DJ and a schoolteacher—and came up to the sanctuary only on weekends. I did the math—taking the off-seasons into consideration—that made 10 tiger sightings every day!
No serious guide will ever guarantee a tiger. When asked if we would see a tiger, Chaudhary, my regular in Bandhavgarh, would retort with what sounded suspiciously like a Dirty Harry line: “How lucky are you feeling today?” But that was the thing about him—he made you feel lucky even if you didn’t see the tiger. He could rattle off the names of at least 400 bird species, explain why termite mounds always lean towards the northeast and point out oddities like how leopards often defecate and urinate at the same time!
Besides good humour and great forest knowledge—the other most important trait a guide should have is that sixth sense of impending danger. Afoot in Manas once, my guide, Atul, had warned us what to do if we saw a tiger, “Lock arms with each other and hold perfectly still—don’t crouch, and certainly don’t run.” Running, we are told, will only trigger the tiger’s predatory instincts, and get us killed. We didn’t run into a tiger that day, but smack into a lonesome young bull elephant that was startled by our presence. As he charged in anger, we all stood our ground. Just as he was a hundred yards away, Atul smacked his walking stick on a tree and shouted at the top of his lungs. The young elephant suddenly lost his nerve and screeched to a halt, as Atul backed us all away.
On safe ground, I asked Atul how many times before he had done that. “Never,” he said. “Usually, when an elephant charges, I just run like hell.”
Things to look for in a guide:
Sixth sense for danger—or the ability to give the animal its space
Great tracking skills
Strong species identification
Good forest knowledge
If on a jeep safari—good off-road driving skills