When I visited the Periyar National Wildlife Sanctuary in 2013 with a friend, we opted for an expensive and grueling 9-hour paid trek around the border of the jungle. There was a couple from France who accompanied us. We were chaperoned by four armed forest officers. Obviously I would have rather gone solo to chew on dead sunflower stems in the heart of the jungle. But I would have been dead by morning.
One needs training, not tacky sentimentality, to survive in the wild. We were there because of our desperation to see a tiger in its natural habitat. Instead we were ambushed by a herd of elephants. And I ended up with one of those life’s lessons.
Wild cats have been inconspicuous by their absence in my life. I still haven’t seen one. Back then it used to bother me. I used to visit crowded sanctuaries that thrive on our how deep our pockets are to show us how much beauty is out there.
The road to the Periyar sanctuary is flanked by atypical tourist fare. Souvenir shops, taxi stands, hotel rooms, food stalls and massage parlors were everywhere. There is a popular yet inadvisable river boat ride that a majority of tourists opt for. It represents the worst of such experiences – crowded, noisy and sweaty with an air of negativity from people with entitlement issues.
An hour into the trail, we had spotted Racket-Tailed Drongos, a Grey Hornbill and a family of Heart-Spotted Woodpeckers. We admired each of them but we kept moving on quickly, afraid that we may not have enough time to track the tiger. During the second hour mark, a gorgeous Malabar Rose butterfly landed in front of us, which I was lucky enough to photograph.
And that was about the only clear sighting we had for the next 5 hours.
We walked through dense forests and open plains. We went uphill until the muscles in our thighs burned. We climbed downhill through rocky terrains, holding onto our dear lives. The adrenaline rushes were exhilarating. Yet all we spotted were the usual suspects – drongos, doves and barbets. Even the forest officers were disappointed. Our luck worsened a few kilometers before the end of the trek, as we missed a Great Hornbill sighting. By the time we spotted her location, she had flown past the trees.
Dejected, we sat down to have a late lunch. The guards began surveying the area. Suddenly, one of them motioned for us to crouch down and be silent. The officer next to him slanted his rifle before pointing the nozzle pointing upwards. Out of nowhere, a young male elephant dashed out a marshland, with its trunk flaring, and charged at us.
The officers jogged adjacent to him, waving their arms and making loud noises. The tusker soon stopped dead in his tracks and slowly turned around. All this happened in a matter of seconds. Before our brains could separate fear from excitement, a rumbling noise startled us. He made a scary comeback, darting down a a mound, baring his trunk like fangs. He scared the wits out of a gaur calf lounging in a puddle of water Again, the tusker changed his mind and ran back up the mound.
And then, one by one, his family started showing up. Beautiful and gigantic creatures swallowing the landscape with their hoof-steps. There were more than 10 elephants at a distance of 500 meters from us. They were huddled together with the littlest ones in the center.
They stood there for 10 minutes just staring at us. It wasn’t creepy as much as it was overwhelming. We knew they could charge us and we wouldn’t be able to do much. Four rifles were no match for these pachyderms. We remained crouched until they began moving towards the thicker section of the jungle, with a baby elephant adorably mucking about.
In 30 minutes, we were out of any clear and present danger. So we moved to a higher terrain and sat down to lunch, watching the elephants disappear. After exchanging oohs and ahhs with each other, we continued our walk until evening.
There were no other wild sightings for the day.
I remember finding myself lost in introspection while back in the cottage that night. I was upset that I had not seen the tiger yet I was happy that I had an encounter with elephants. I caught myself wondering if one was adequate compensation for the other.
It was a silly matter to ponder about. I was wrong in thinking that I was entitled to see the tiger just because I had paid some money. It is far more important to learn from experiences in the wild than to measure it. Like Mark Twain once said – “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first”.