Brush with the ‘big five’

Brush with the ‘big five’

If you are in the midst of a jungle wanting to spot some exotic wildlife, why not the ‘big five’, ask Hugh & Colleen Gantzer.

A tiger cub in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve

In South Africa’s MalaMala, they offer you a champagne sundowner on a safari, and an impressive certificate if you spot all the ‘big five’ animals on a single visit. There are no official ‘big five’ for India, so here are our nominations:

Big cats

Lions are an obvious first, particularly now that they have been endangered by a very possessive forest department. The only place in the world where Asiatic lions still live free is in the thorn-scrub forests of Gujarat’s Gir. Once upon a distant time, they roamed all the way from the arid lands of Iran to the tip of Southern India, but they were slaughtered by trophy hunters till a wise Gujarati prince cried “Halt!”

A lion in Gir
A lion in Gir

There are now, probably, about 700 of these magnificent animals left in the world, and they’re all in Gir. Unlike tigers, lions live in families, called prides, dominated by a maned patriarch who guards his harem and his cubs until he is ousted by a younger, stronger male. They share their thorny terrain with the cattle-breeding maldharis who believe that their lions are not man-eaters; also, the state compensates them for any cattle killed by the lions. Do not accept offers by local people to arrange a ‘lion show’ for you. These baited displays are illegal outside the sanctuary and endanger these regal animals. Tigers are also endangered but since they have a much wider range, they are not likely to be felled by an epidemic.

Striped brothers

Bandhavgarh, 164 km from Jabalpur and 120 km from Satna, is good for tiger spotting. The terrain is varied, the vegetation is tropical, moist-deciduous consisting of saal, assorted jungle trees and grasslands. Tigers often rest in the bamboo thickets that dot the forested areas: their stripes merge superbly with the striated light-and-shade play of the bamboo groves. Your guide, assisted by the forest department, can increase your chances of spotting one.

If a tiger has made a kill the night before, it will generally rest in a bamboo clump near the remains of its dinner, dozing but alert to drive away unwelcome scavengers attracted by the scent of the carcass. If you don’t give the impression of being an unwelcome guest, the tiger will probably allow you to get close enough to get a good picture. But don’t try to persuade your elephant driver, your mahawat, to get closer than he would like to. The tigers of Bandhavgarh could carry the genes of the late charger. A ferocious, charging tiger is the stuff safari nightmares are made of!

Gentle giants

Elephants, too, can be very dangerous if provoked. Generally, however, they are gentle, inoffensive giants. We’ve always spotted herds of wild elephants in Karnataka’s national park of Nagarhole. An elephant herd is a matriarchy, led by the senior female and consisting of related cows, calves and immature bulls. Mature males have to leave the herd, returning only to mate before hurrying away. The matriarch has to protect her family and lead them out of drought-stricken areas, remembering traditional trails with waterholes, and into secure havens. The weak die on these long marches and when the herd returns, they recognise the bleached bones of their relatives, and pause for a moment as if they are mourning for them!

An elephant in Nagarhole
An elephant in Nagarhole

Elephants communicate over long distances by deep, sub-sonic rumbles picked up by their feet. If they see you as a threat, they will move the calves to the centre of the herd and present a formidable wall of huge bodies, trunks raised to scent danger, large ears extended to pick up the faintest sound. We’ve seen this happening only once when an unruly child in our van threw a tantrum and the herd sensed a threat. We never want to repeat that encounter!

Underrated beings

Gaur, our Indian bison, can be aggressive, too. Or so we’ve been told. But we’ve never experienced their rage, and would not like to. Our best sightings of gaur have been in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench National Park, 93 km from Nagpur. It surprises us that the gaur has not been given the attention it deserves by any writer, in spite of being such an impressive animal. For one thing, our Indian bison is the largest of the bovines, larger even than the greatly celebrated American bison. Bulls weigh from 600 to 1,500 kg and stand between 170 cm to 230 cm at the shoulder.

Their curved horns sprout from the sides of their heads and their black bodies are superbly muscled. They also wear distinctive white stockings as if they’re permanently on parade! In true defence services’ tradition, their calves don appropriate cadets’ uniforms of brown which change as they rise up the ranks.

We’ve also noticed that where gaurs share their forests with elephants, the bulls often push down small trees so that the cows and calves can dine on the young leaves. Have they learnt this from their elephant colleagues? Martial races do learn tactics from each other!

Powerful comrades

Rhinos have also learnt strategies from more domesticated vegetarians. Driving into the famed Kaziranga National Park of Assam, we looked down from our raised highway. On both sides spread lush green fields, glistening with water. Herds of village cattle grazed contentedly. And then our guide pointed out the other herbivores which had merged with them: our armour-plated, single-horned Indian rhinos.

They were living dangerously. Thanks to the Chinese belief that ground-down rhino horn can restore a man’s failing virility, rhino horn is reputedly worth its weight in gold. The fact that a rhino’s horn is made of impacted hair does not deter those seeking an enhancement of their male ego. In fact, that delusion could well have built the unicorn myth around old travellers’ tales of the single-horned Indian rhinoceros and placed it as a hyper-macho supporter of England’s royal coat of arms!

A rhino in Kaziranga
A rhino in Kaziranga

Kaziranga is a huge, significantly marshy national park. Our best rhino sightings have been on jeep safaris. Once we also got a bonus sighting of a wild Indian buffalo, quite distinct from a gaur. Clearly, he was a very angry old man and so we fled. A little danger always spices a good safari story!