As the warming November sun sinks slowly to the horizon, casting ever-lengthening shadows on the forest floor, the mood in the jungle changes. Spotted deer (chital) that were relaxed and grazing contently in the open only minutes earlier, take on a more rigid, alert appearance, their senses heightened with the increased vulnerability that comes with nightfall. Overhead a troop of langurs settles down for the night, huddling together for warmth as the sun relinquishes its hold on the land, surrendering to the chill of night. From their lofty position they have an excellent view of the forest and are a welcome friend for the chital, warning of any impending danger. But for now, they are quiet and all is well.
Parked not 50 metres from the herd, our eyes trained on the surrounding vegetation, we wait patiently, our guide unwavering in his belief that there is a tiger nearby. The silence is deafening and the tension unbearable. From out of nowhere a throaty bleat of a sound fills the air - not the high yap of a chital, but the alarm of a sambar deer, hidden from view in the depths of the forest. The call is unrelenting. Chital and langur alike take up their own alarm calls. And with good reason…
On the far side of the glade, unperturbed by the cacophony, a representative of what is surely the most stunning cat species on earth emerges from the undergrowth and pads slowly towards us. Moving effortlessly through the grass it radiates both power and grace in equal measure, and I find myself spellbound. The young male, tail held aloft, is simply out marking his territory, and on this occasion poses no threat to the watching chital, passing only a few metres from our vehicle before disappearing from view.
This isn’t the first time that I have seen a tiger and - with luck - it won’t be the last, but the experience is every bit as intoxicating as the first, and one that keeps me coming back for more.