Is there anything in particular you want to see?” asked Shaaz Jung, naturalist and owner of the resort we were staying at in Kabini, Karnataka. I looked up at the photograph dangling from the wooden pole behind his couch: a leopard caressing its cub on a tree branch. “It rained heavily yesterday,” said Jung, amost reading my mind. “It is difficult to spot cats, as watering holes inside the jungle would have filled up. Leopards and tigers come out in the open only if they can’t find water in these pockets.” It was my first time in the jungle, and I silently hoped beginner’s luck would favour me.
From the observation deck of the resort, I saw an expanse of grass and, bordering the grass, lush green sugarcane fields of the nearby Gundathur hamlet. On the other side of the grass, flowed a part of the Kabini river. The river originates in the Wayanad district of Kerala and runs through the Nagarhole and Bandipur national parks in Karnataka to join the Cauvery. “This is the first year after the dam was built [in 1974] that there has been such a dip in the water level of the Kabini. If the weather was right, water would have come up till here,” said Jung, pointing to the edge of the swimming pool, where a deep trench separated it from the grassy meadow on which cattle were grazing.
In the pre-Independence era, Kabini, situated about 245km south-west of Bangalore, used to be a hunting hotspot for the Indian royalty and the British viceroys. The colonial rest houses have now been converted into resorts and lodges for tourists. Famous not just for the lush green landscape and coracle rides on the backwaters, Kabini is also home to the largest congregation of the Asiatic elephants. One can also spot wildlife ranging from langurs to wild dogs, foxes, deer, sambar, gaurs, wild boars and the elusive big cats, which makes it a sought-after destination among wildlife enthusiasts and photographers.
After a heavy lunch of rice, dal and chicken, we set out for a walk through Gundathur. We were driven up to the river in an open jeep and had to cross over the narrow stretch of water in a coracle. Though we had a resort employee, Anand, to guide the way, Chief Photographer Bhanu Prakash Chandra’s warnings about coracle accidents and crocodile attacks on the Kabini were not particularly helping my waning spirit of adventure. It was only when my feet touched the shore that I heaved a sigh of relief.
While walking through Gandathur, Anand narrated stories of wildlife sightings and village duels over water, in a mix of Kannada and broken Hindi peppered with a few English words. Our walk through the hamlet ended at a large clearing of land, an indication that the reserve forest area began. A few boys, who were out to graze their cattle, threw occasional glances at us and walked around after securing their herd to the dried tree stumps scattered around.
There was no wildlife in sight and Anand blamed it on the previous night’s rain. We waited under the shade of a tree for about half an hour, as Bhanu tried to perfect my Kannada. Just then, Anand spotted a lone elephant who was heading towards the water. We walked down to get a closer, better view, but it was too far and had started moving farther away into the forest.
Disappointed, we walked towards the river and waited on its banks. The sky was turning a pale purple and the sun was beginning to go down slowly. Just then, Anand pointed his finger to the other end of the river. “Tusker, ma’am, tusker,” he said, excitedly. The lone pachyderm walking down the river in the backdrop of the sunset was a sight to behold. Dinner at the resort was served under the starry sky, with a generous helping of songs by Dan, the resort’s British manager.
By 6:15 a.m. the next morning, Bhanu and I were ready for my maiden jungle safari. Our guides, Shaaz and Mithun, both carried cameras with telescopic lenses and had binoculars slung around their necks. We boarded the jeep that took us to Zone B of the Nagarhole National Park via the Karapur village.
“Keep your expectations of spotting a cat low so that you wouldn’t be disappointed,” said Shaaz, before we began the safari. “We would be looking out for warning calls of langurs and deer.” As we drove into the forest, we saw rare birds like the white-bellied stork, a Rufus woodpecker, peacocks, peahens, kingfishers, vultures and eagles. Langurs jumped from branch to branch and herds of deer walked around freely around us. The animals seemed to be used to the noise of automobiles and the clicking sounds of cameras.
Further into the safari, we spotted a crested serpent eagle hunting a giant Malabar squirrel. It chased the squirrel around, flying and turning swiftly as the prey ran down the tree for its life. However, the squirrel managed a very narrow escape. The eagle, angry and dejected, sat on a branch with a haughty look.
After waiting at many watering holes to try our luck at spotting a big cat, we continued our journey through the narrow lanes lined by tall trees and dry bamboo thickets on either side. Just then, Mithun alerted us to a warning call and Shaaz asked the driver to turn left at once. “Jaldi, jaldi,” he said, the urgency evident in his tone. We stopped the vehicle and Shaaz stepped on to the bonnet of the jeep, looking in the direction of the panic call through his binoculars. We waited at that spot for over 30 minutes. The scene had turned dramatic. Shaaz and his friend were talking in whispers, when he heard another call. “These are the langurs,” Shaaz turned to us and whispered. “But they are not frantic calls. So it must be a tiger not a leopard.”
My spirits rose. I waited for the tiger. My head was so full of anxiety and excitement at the thought of a tiger sighting that wherever I looked—be it at rocks or at dry bushes—my imagination conjured up the big cat’s face and body. We waited for a long time, after which Shaaz climbed down to his seat and asked the driver to move on. No luck this time, he told us. During the next hour of our safari, we did spot a pair of elephants taking a stroll and fresh pug marks that Mithun claimed belonged to a leopard. But sadly, my maiden safari came to an end without a cat sighting.
“How was the experience?” Bhanu asked me, as we drove out of the jungle. Seeing my forlorn face, he explained that the jungle was not just about spotting cats, but it was the experience of coming in close contact with wildlife that mattered. Although I nodded in agreement, I was disappointed somewhere deep inside.
After reaching the resort, as I started stuffing my things into my backpack, a brochure fell out from the pile of things that lay on the bed. And, the words on it transformed my whole jungle experience. “It is not what you see, but who sees you that matters on a safari,” the brochure said. “If you didn’t see a tiger, it could well mean that the cat saw you first.” Satisfied and delighted at the thought of being spotted by the leopards and tigers of the Kabini forest, I promised myself that I would return. And, the next time, I would beat the cat and spot it first.
The leopard man
“A renowned naturalist, cat tracker and wildlife photographer,” is how Shaaz Jung’s resort’s web site describes him. I drew up a portrait of a clean-shaven 30-something man, with long hair, in my head. Dressed in a casual black tee, with a rather heavy brown leather jacket thrown over it, paired with cargo shorts, Shaaz, 25, is not even close to that portrait. His eyes look intense, probably from years of studying cat movements in the jungles of Kabini, and he sports a beard, which didn’t help if its purpose was to make him look like he meant business. A man of few words, Shaaz earned the name ‘Leopard man of India’ because of his cat tracking skills and his wildlife photography portfolio.
Everyone who has been on a safari with Shaaz swears by his skills of tracking the big cats by listening to the panic calls of langurs and deer. Born into the illustrious Pataudi family, Shaaz owes this knack to his experience of growing up in the jungles of Kabini. Thanks to his father, naturalist Saad Bin Jung’s love for nature and wildlife, Shaaz set out to explore the forest at the age of 17 with two tribal boys. “We used the paths that were cleared by herds of elephants to navigate through the deep jungle,” he says. Eight years later, now, Shaaz claims to know this jungle inside out.
His eyes light up when he talks of his “babies” Scarface and Torn Ears, two leopards he has been watching for close to a decade. But the young leopard man seems to be disappointed. “There is a big hue and cry about the decreasing tiger population in the country. But what people forget is that leopards are disappearing faster than tigers,” he laments. Shaaz is in the process of setting up a project, called Leopard Run, to spread awareness among locals to deal with the man-animal conflict in the region.
How to reach Kabini
By air: The nearest airport is in Bangalore, 220km away
By rail: Mysore, which is 80km away, is the nearest station
By road: The path is well-connected and has buses plying the route regularly