My journeying is almost done for now, though tonight I’m stranded in Heathrow Terminal 4 and I won’t be at home in Norfolk until tomorrow. Our Tiger Direct tour ended with a dramatic flourish typical of tigers. A hitch in park paperwork, deftly and diplomatically resolved by Tarun, meant we entered the Mukki gate half an hour later than planned on our last morning in Kanha. As our karma would have it, this hitch put all four of our jeeps in just the right spot when Chhoti Mata or Little Mother, the gorgeously-marked mother of three ten-month-old cubs, strolled confidently across the road among us and spray-marked two trees by the forest roadside. After she had gone, barely believing our last-minute luck, we sat beaming and listening to the alarm call of a barking deer telling us that she had slipped into the rocky hills.
This wondrous female tiger, sharply striped in black on a deep orange coat, her colours heightened in the kindly shade of the sal forest, is around seven years old. She raised two cubs last year and was very frequently seen with her family in Mukki. This year she has three cubs but her behaviour has changed and she rarely allows herself to be seen. Though I am in the business of showing tigers to people, and as discussed here previously my Indian tiger-watching friends persuade me strongly that tiger tourism is important for tiger conservation, I find it heartening that these tigers whom I love choose whether or not to be seen by us. One older female, still alive I’m told, whom I have seen several times from elephants in Mukki, simply doesn’t like jeeps and is never seen from them. She has nothing against elephants though and will allow people to approach her closely on them. By contrast Munna, the muscular, charismatic male tiger who rules the Kanha zone of the park, knows the power of his own image and happily wanders through lines of jeeps in the middle of the day or slumps beside them to sleep. Munna is equally prepared to be photographed from elephants and is currently the pride of Kanha’s A-list.
Weary though I am, after two months of work and travel in Asia, and today’s long journey against the world’s time zones, I shall not sleep tonight on my wooden seat in the arrivals lounge of Terminal 4. Sitting here awake I smile a broad smile, seeing in my heart the small-clawed otters of Kaziranga scampering across a dusty road in front of us; hearing the forests of Assam sob with the soul-born song of western hoolock gibbons; smelling the fresh green leaves of the tiger-trodden sal forests of Kanha; scanning the south Sri Lankan sea for the blows of blue whales; and watching again with my heart’s eye the sixty sunsets I have seen in Asia since I was last at home. I have been richly blessed these past two months and am humbly grateful to all the people and the wildlife I have met in India and Sri Lanka. Thanks too to you for following my journeys here.
I cried of course on seeing Chhoti Mata yesterday: tears of happiness that my clients had their chance to see into the life of the most magnificent of beasts; tears of gratitude too for all that I have experienced on this trip; and tears of fear, fear that we may yet be weak enough to let this priceless being vanish from our forests.
“Thy trail ends here, then, manling?” said Kaa, as Mowgli threw himself down, his face in his hands. “Cry thy cry. We be of one blood, thou and I – man and snake together.”
The Jungle Book: Book Two