Bone-dry and ash grey, Nagarhole in the summer seems too hostile to support any form of life. How does anything survive here, I wonder, surveying the leafless axlewood and benteak trees from an open-sided Bolero.

Stillness hangs in the air. Suddenly, a branch cracks and a female elephant calf appears. She looks at us and emits a low rumble.

“I think there is another one," Shanmuga Kumar, the naturalist from Evolve Back Kuruba Safari Lodge, whispers.

As if on cue, a second, visibly older calf appears from the bushes on the other side of the pathway. “Rhooon," she booms, closing the distance between herself and the infant with a few purposeful strides.

“Did you see that?" Kumar says excitedly. “The older calf responded to the baby’s call. Elephants have an acute sense of hearing. They can detect a rumble from over a kilometre away."

It’s a fitting start to our morning safari in the Nagarhole National Park, which boasts of one of the world’s largest congregations of Asian elephants during summer. The mixed deciduous teak forest that stretches across Karnataka is part of the protected area complex that includes the Bandipur National Park, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and Mudumalai National Park.

The ecosystem here supports the highest density of herbivores—spotted deer, barking deer, sambars, gaurs, elephants, wild pigs and the like—anywhere in Asia.

“During the hot, dry summer months, the animals survive by debarking trees and bushes for nourishment, so they don’t need to travel far for food, unlike in Africa," Kumar explains.

Thanks to the abundance of prey, the jungle is home to tigers, leopards, dholes and wolves, and has one of the highest predator-prey ratios in India. It’s also the haunt of the famous black panther, the elusive melanistic leopard that silently stalks these parts, earning the moniker “ghost of Nagarhole".

The famed melanistic leopard of Nagarhole
The famed melanistic leopard of Nagarhole

The changing landscape is intriguing, a mix of moist deciduous and dry deciduous forest. As we roll through the gentle slopes and shallow valleys, coarse, dry stretches give way to forest land and open grassy swamps known as hadlus.

Up ahead, we encounter herds of chital stags. The spotted deer appear to glide on the land, their twisty antlers on magnificent display for mating season. A stripe-necked mongoose scurries towards its burrow. A moment later, a roller takes off, flaunting brilliant blue plumage.

As the sun beats down, we head to a waterhole, hoping to catch some big-cat action. The driver cuts the engine just a few feet away from a small lake known as Taraka.

A tourist spots something. “Look!" he says, as we follow where his finger is pointing. Grabbing our digital binoculars, we see three tiger cubs in the bushes across the water. Oblivious to our presence, they paw each other’s heads, blissed out in their little Eden.

It’s a heart-melting finale to our morning safari, the experience all the richer as we are by ourselves. On safaris elsewhere, when big cats are spotted, the news spreads like wildfire, leading to an avalanche of vehicles screeching in.

Mercifully, there are no dust-laden flurries here. With a maximum of 11 Jeeps permitted across its two tourism zones, Nagarhole seems well off the beaten path, delivering the big cats sans the din of better-known parks like Bandhavgarh and Ranthambore.

Malabar giant squirrel
Malabar giant squirrel

Along with fewer vehicles, a slew of measures by the forest department have made Nagarhole one of the country’s most protected parks. “Thirty-two anti-poaching camps work round the clock to monitor the forest. There is a separate team to track tigers. Each safari vehicle comes with a GPS to prevent people from jumping zones. All these factors have contributed to the success story of Nagarhole," Kumar tells us as we exit the jungle.

Back at the safari lodge, named after the local Kadu Kuruba tribals, the interiors of my pool villa subtly incorporate the colours and textures of the landscape. I take in the ethnic furniture, the tribal-patterned furnishings, and little touches like the bottle-gourd lampshades.

Over lunch, a largish group of 70-something ladies from Delhi discusses high-street acquisitions. Wildlife is not their thing, they admit sheepishly as we chat over platefuls of chicken biryani at the restaurant. So what brings them to this heart of remoteness? “We are here to celebrate a friend’s birthday. We chose this place because we wanted something a little hatke (different)."

I convince a couple of them to come along with me for the afternoon boat safari up the Kabini backwaters. Few places in India allow you to drift lazily along a scenic water body, taking in an amazing amount of wildlife from a boat.

A major tributary of the Cauvery, Kabini was dammed in 1974. This submerged large tracts of forest, creating a lake that extends into the national park.

A tourist on the banks of the Kabini
A tourist on the banks of the Kabini

During the dry season, the river shrinks, creating lush grasslands reminiscent of the African savannah. When the rest of the forest is drying out, these green pastures attract one of the largest congregations of Asian elephants—600-800 individuals in a normal year—in the world.

Floating along, around 300ft from the shore, we see long-necked darters, Oriental white ibis, painted storks and red-headed vultures as well as endemics like blue-winged parakeets and Malabar grey hornbills.

Dead trees and stumps stand out of the backwaters, adding Daliesque drama to the scene. I spot a marsh crocodile resting on the shore, its mouth agape. Is it hoping for a quick snack to pop in, I wonder aloud. “No," Kumar laughs, “crocodiles hang around with their mouths open as a way to avoid overheating."

“There!" he cries triumphantly a moment later, pointing towards the bank. “Do you see them?" he demands. We do—at least two dozen Asiatic elephants, ears flapping like flags, framed against the lush emerald landscape.

It is a riveting sight, aptly dubbed “the great elephant show on the banks of the Kabini" by wildlife film-maker Shekar Dattatri in his award-winning film Nagarhole: Tales From An Indian Jungle.

Thrilled by our elephant encounter, the Delhi ladies are enthused to sign up for a vehicle safari. “Will we see a lion?" one of them asks, echoing the big-cat obsession of most safari tourists.

To me, the euphoria of being in Nagarhole transcends the high of big-cat sightings. Yet there is no denying that this bastion of biodiversity has been under pressure, rendered vulnerable by the combined impact of forest fires (including a devastating one in neighbouring Bandipur earlier this year), poaching, climate change, habitat loss, and, yes, tourism.

Driving through small farms on my way to Brahmagiri Hadi—a village close to Kabini—the next day, the conflict between man and animal is clearly visible. Over-ploughed fields—the cause of soil erosion—are everywhere. Farms girded with electrified fences to keep off animals call to mind the tragic incident near Nagarhole last year, when a male elephant died while trying to cross one such fence.

Brahmagiri is home to two major tribal settlements, Jenu Kurubas and Betta Kurubas, collectively known as Kadu Kurubas. Originally forest dwellers, these hill tribes were removed from the jungle during the 1970s, and now work as farmers. According to Kumar, there are about 500 families in Brahmagiri now.

Sixty-something Puttamma and her husband Mara, both Betta Kurubas, welcome me into their home. They grow cotton, corn and ragi (finger millet) now, but still have vivid memories of their days in the forest. “It was the best time. We lived on honey, fruits and flowers and never killed for meat. When a tiger made a hunt, we would track it. Only after it had finished eating would we take the carcass to the riverbank, grill it and eat it."

Puttamma sings me a song from her time in the forest and lets me record it. It’s an invocation to the monsoon god to give abundant rain so that flowers bloom and honey can be made.

As my visit comes to an end, I wonder, like Dattatri did years ago, whether Nagarhole will continue to be revered and protected. Watching the dance of moths from a recliner on my last evening in Kabini, I play Puttamma’s song. It evokes a time when man and beast lived together in the forest in deep harmony.

I sink into sleep under a star-laden sky.

Sona Bahadur is an independent food and travel writer based in Mumbai.

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