I then tried my luck at being a tourist at Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, which is perched on the border between Karnataka and Kerala. Beautiful, lush forests in this rain-fed landscape allow for great biodiversity, and thus the appeal of this park knows no bounds. Tourists from all over India flock to Nagarahole, and excitedly sit in the enormous tour buses that are reserved for safaris.

Map-of-Nagarhole-National-ParkI have taken two safaris in Nagarahole within the past year, and both were remarkable for different reasons. The first remains etched in my mind thanks to the abysmal company our group had in the tour bus. An extended family of eleven miscreants boarded our vehicle and immediately began causing a stir. First, it was the selfie mania that set in. Aunties and uncles were all pressed together cheesing harder than a margarita pizza with an extra helping of dairy. Next came the Bollywood music. Yes, some would call it romantic to be out in the forest with one’s beloved. But dramatically singing love songs seems a little extreme, given the setting. If I want to hear a full-fledged concert, I pay for concert tickets. When I pay for a safari, I want my money’s worth of silence.

We rumbled off at last, and the man beside me hastily shoved two empty chip packets out of the window with the best sentence I heard all day: “dispose of waste before we enter the tiger reserve, ji; we should not litter in forest areas.” Apparently, littering just outside of forest areas was perfectly acceptable. I could have smacked him happily. The safari bus bumped its way off the paved road onto a small dirt path leading into the depths of the safari zone of the tiger reserve. The bus driver warned us to be quiet so as to not frighten off the wildlife. Given my previous experiences with tourists, I had absolutely no expectations of this lot.

DSC_0426For better or for worse, my lack of expectations was the best thing that could have happened to me. My fellow tourists shouted excitedly whenever we passed a watering hole, scaring away even the most tourist-savvy deer. They consumed chips the way movie-goers devour popcorn, and even offered a packet of Lays chips to a bonnet macaque perched on the side of the forest path. The driver, bless his soul, chose to invest his energy into the few interested wildlifers in the bus and pointed out Nagarahole’s natural beauty to us as we rolled through the core area of the forest. We saw elephants, sambar deer, chital, and langurs aplenty. We even chanced upon a herd of gaur that watched us placidly. This bovid, native to the Indian subcontinent, is far too large to be bothered by the safari buses. One gaur had a cataract in its left eye, yet stared at us suspiciously, probably wondering what this rowdy creature was in its forest.

And then, on the way back through the forest road to the safari point, we suddenly came across four safari vehicles parked haphazardly on the intersection of a tiny rough road with the main road that we were on. Our driver leaned out of his window and inquired of the other drivers what the matter was. “Tiger!” said one excited driver, pointing down the rough road. “But it went a few minutes ago…it is probably gone now.”

Our driver cursed him under his breath and swung the bus none-too-gently down the rough road. “Idiot,” he muttered, loud enough that I could hear him. “Thinks a tiger is going to run away at the sight of safari vehicles. What nonsense.” And so saying, he gunned the engines of the safari bus and we took off down the bouncy earthen road at a breakneck pace. Luckily for us, the tigress (god bless her soul) was still pacing down the path, disdainfully ignoring our accelerating bus. She kept to the centre of the road until irritation overtook her and she crossed neatly to the right side and disappeared into the foliage.


My second and third visits to Nagarahole were comprised of me playing the martyr and ignoring the vast majority of my fellow passengers in the tour bus. But the fourth visit was special because I took my little sisters, Ananya and Ahana, on their first safari in this park that I had come to view as my territory, after nearly six months of fieldwork. My sisters, although twins, are complete opposites in personality. Ahana is not easy to excite, and prefers to read up before going anywhere and maintains a set, bored expression that is hard to sway. Ananya, the more childlike and excitable of the two, is thrilled at nearly every experience and unafraid to express it. But both girls were openly excited at the prospect of a weekend with “Priya akka” in the forests surrounded by wildlife.

Surrounded by tourists, more likely.

IMG_20190511_181232591I woke the girls up at 4 in the morning and urged them to get ready, which they did (surprisingly) with no fuss. We had organized a vehicle to take us from my old field station, which I had sought permission to stay in overnight with the girls, to the safari point some three kilometers away. The road was dark, and the moon shone brightly. The girls, alert despite the hour, kept a keen eye out for wildlife. I had told them many times about the sudden sightings of cheetal or wild cats on the road in the early hours. We pulled up at the safari point and the driver drove off, promising to return to fetch us after the safari.

“No, no, we’ll get in,” I said, faking confidence. I knew the forest officers, but I wasn’t sure if I could use my camaraderie with them to sneak ahead in the line. It didn’t seem entirely ethical, and I had two little girls with me who were fairly impressionable.

Abruptly, the door to the forest office swung open and the line made a wild rush towards the poor forest officer standing in the doorway. Three college-going boys in the line were aggressively waving rupee notes at the officer, trying to weave ahead of everyone else in the line. Two women complained loudly about the crowd but refused to leave the line and make way for the irritated people behind them. I steered the twins determinedly forward, glaring at the people who tried to push past us. I was not letting go of this opportunity. I hadn’t carted two 14-year-old girls from Bangalore to the forests of Nagarahole only to be denied a safari…and that too in my turf!

IMG_20190512_060137412As luck would have it, we got the last three seats for the morning safari (thank whatever gods were smiling down on us!) and I gratefully shoved the girls into our assigned bus. They even managed to snag window seats and I plopped down next to a young man, contented.

The safari bus rumbled to life and off we were!

Almost immediately, our driver decided to halt the vehicle inside the forest boundary and sit waiting for wildlife to appear. Now, from experience, I can tell you that this is not the most efficient method of conducting a safari, especially if you are in a large diesel-powered vehicle that smells strongly of humans and fuel. It is off-putting enough for humans; what animal in its right senses would leave the shelter of the forest to come and investigate a bus? After nearly 20 minutes of waiting in one place with no wildlife in sight, I got up and moved to the front of the bus.

“Sir, maybe we should move on,” I prompted. The driver knew me; I had been in his bus once before. He gave me a martyred look.

“Madam, Nagarahole has a lot of wildlife. We will surely see many.”

“Yes, yes,” I said impatiently, “but not necessarily in this one spot. Why don’t we go forward and try a new place?”


The driver seemed to think I spoke sense and revved up the engine. Sure enough, we had barely driven 100 meters forward when a young man shouted “gaur! gaur!” A herd of this placid bovid grazed by the side of the forest road, barely paying us any heed. Tourists nearly tipped the bus over in a rush to photograph these aesthetic animals, while my sisters glanced back at me in a panic. Neither one was used to frantic crowds. I motioned to them to also go and see the gaur, and they cautiously pushed through the sweaty tourists until they could see the large bison.

Ananya was fascinated, but not necessarily by the wildlife. “Are the tourists always this rude?” she inquired of me nonchalantly. I snorted to myself; her voice was loud enough that three older women had turned around and were glaring daggers at my irrepressible sister.

DSC_0025The girls were lucky charms for us that day. We chanced upon a large male tiger reclining majestically in the underbrush and spent a good ten minutes observing him clean his paws and yawn in that supremely bored manner that only cats seem to manage. We waited by the Kabini backwaters hoping that we would spot the famous black panther (melanistic leopard) of Kabini, but to no avail. But the plethora of deer and waterfowl made up for the missing leopard. We came across elephants, some right in the middle of the jungle road blocking our bus, and herds of spotted deer. A sambar stag trotted away nervously as we rumbled by, and peafowl meowed mournfully, their sharp tones carrying far in the still air.

And then we saw the dholes. 

Dholes, or Asiatic wild dogs, are a medium-sized canid found in India and parts of Southeast Asia. Made famous in Rudyard Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book in the short story “Red Dog,” the dhole is a jungle-dweller, a pack hunter, a carnivore known for its ability to take down far larger prey than its own size. Dhole packs are common in Nagarahole, but despite spending nearly six months in the forest, I had only come across one small pack of four wild dogs near the Kutta gate of Nagarahole, almost at the border with Kerala.

The girls were unwilling for their first safari to come to an end, but our fellow tourists were a bored and tired lot, complaining vociferously about the uncomfortable seats and suffocating atmosphere inside the bus. I stared determinedly out of the window, willing more animals to come into view. Suddenly, the driver slammed the brakes. “Dhole!” he hissed loudly.

dholeThat one word was like a gunshot; instantly, my fellow tourists began shouting and clambering over seatbacks in a wild attempt to get a glimpse of the wild dog. I stood up in my seat. From my vantage point, I could see one russet dog, its ears pricked alertly and dark tail undulating gently. Suddenly, another appeared out of the bushes, followed by a third and a fourth. Considering how close we were to the main gate of Nagarahole, I was surprised to see the dogs. Dholes prefer undisturbed forest, away from human interference. Perhaps there was prey nearby. My sisters were gaping at the dogs. Ananya turned to me and asked, “I didn’t know dogs lived in forests!”

“Wild dogs do,” I said, pitching my voice so that I could be heard over the volley of voices in our bus. “Dholes are a member of the dog family, like wolves and jackals are, but they’re actually less related to dogs than are wolves.” Armed with this new knowledge, Ananya turned back to the dholes, satisfied. Ahana impatiently shrugged off her sister’s attempts to explain what dholes are to her, saying “I paid attention to Akka; you don’t need to tell me again.”

That was when the man beside me decided to speak.

“That’s a jackal,” he told me with the utmost authority and an almost-kindly expression of pity. “They’re common in this forest. I come here often; I’ve seen them.”

I must have looked dumbfounded because he hastened to elaborate. “I know they look like wild dogs, but they’re just red jackals.”

I found my voice. “They’re dholes. Look at the tail colouration, and the body structure. And the ears.”

He shook his head. “No no. Dholes would never come out and let us see them. That’s why people never see dholes.”

“I’ve seen dholes,” I remarked coolly.

“No you haven’t,” he said in a voice authoritative enough to quell a classroom of questioning students. “You thought you saw dholes. But you must have seen jackals.”

“How do you know so much about dholes?” I asked, internally reeling at his ignorance.

“I’m a wildlife expert.” He saw my face. “Amateur.”

Ahana turned around. “If you’re an amateur, then you’re probably not an expert,” she said coldly. “And that’s a dhole. If you don’t believe my sister, then you could probably check Google.” And she turned back to the window, tossing back her hair.

And to crown it all, the safari guide turned to us and said loudly: “if you all have clicked photographs of the dhole, we will be leaving the park now.”

The look on my neighbour’s face was worth the price of the safari ticket.

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