Dhole scout at Kabini

Why so serious? Eavesdropping on dogs and cats at Kabini

Dogs or cats? Cats or dogs? Are you a dog person or a cat person? I’ve been asked that dozens of times in so many ways as if it were a CAA/NRC survey question. But nowhere did it become a matter of life or death as at Kabini, where I found myself in a safari vehicle hurtling through the jungle in a cloud of dust along with ‘serious’ wildlife photographers outfitted in camouflage fatigues and toting phallic telephoto lenses. Equipped with a point-and-shoot Lumix FZ200, I couldn’t be counted as one. So Anitha and I were politely indulged and allowed to sit in the middle of the vehicle so as not to get in the way of the Serious. Hey, we’re not fussy; we take what we get.

This was our fourth safari outing, the last of our trip. On previous evenings at the bar, swilling craft lager from cans, we had listened with rapt attention to the Serious relate their adventures. Tigers in Ranthambore. Snow Leopards in Hemis. Jaguars in the Pantanal. Lions in the Serengeti. But foremost on their minds was Kabini’s prize catch, the world’s most Instagrammed black panther. The Serious do get around. Some had been here for a week, and a few of the expatriates for weeks on end, all in search of the perfect trophy shot. The mind boggled, exhausted from attempting the math. For we, after just two nights in Kabini River Lodge, Karnataka’s most celebrated wildlife adventure resort, were wondering how we were going to get through the rest of the month.

Kabini Langurs
Southern Plains Langurs indulge in a game of spa-spa
Kabini fallen flower
The forest floor is rich with stories

On this misty March morning, the air was nippy in the waking forest. The mineral scent of dew hung heavy, entwined with fresh oxygen exuded by the vegetation. A mechanical fault had stopped our vehicle in its tracks, far from the tentacles of cellular signals. We grew used to the quiet, and the jungle’s aural embrace enveloped us.

A Racket-tailed Drongo initiated its vocal repertoire. The forest floor was rich with stories — the rustle of an ant crawling in the mulch, the bright carcass of a fallen flower, digger wasps weaving a map of memories amid the leaf litter… the relative silence made these everyday sounds light up the morning.

Someone had heard an alarm call, though I didn’t want to break it to him that it might have been my tummy (a little acid reflux from the spicy dinner). As we waited beside a water-hole observing the unusual spectacle of Green Imperial Pigeons drinking on the ground, golden light shimmering on their metallic green mantles, I sensed a mounting impatience among the Serious.

Kabini
A Green Imperial Pigeon arrives in the early morning to drink at a water-hole in the forest
Kabini Racket-tailed Drongo
A Racket-tailed Drongo inspects the intrusion in its backyard

Anitha and I seemed to be the only ones thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We oohed and aahed at the majesty of Crested Serpent-Eagles in the trees, at the adorable spotted deer fawns, and the beady-eyed infants of Southern Plains Langurs. We celebrated pedestrian sightings of Indian Rollers and were unable to contain our excitement when a pair of elegant Stripe-necked Mongooses began rooting around beside the track.

Stripe-necked Mongoose in Kabini
The Stripe-necked Mongoose is a charismatic customer, and even more glamorous in the morning light

The driver attempted a mechanical hack and got the vehicle to move, amid relieved cheers from the Serious. Bummer, I was just watching an amorous pair of Chestnut-tailed Starlings. Anitha, then a newbie to birding, sweetly asked the driver to stop so we could observe a Bronzed Drongo. He said apologetically that if he stopped, the vehicle would stall again, so we kept going as slow as we could. One of the Serious sniggered from the back seat, where conversations had deepened about the possibility of sighting the fabled melanistic leopard. If indeed we did chance upon this rare beast, I wondered if the driver would say the same thing and move on. Of course, out of courtesy, I kept my thoughts to myself.

On the previous evening’s safari, we had been rewarded with a sighting of Dholes (Cuon alpinus). I was really excited to see a small pack of about five wild dogs. These wild canids are efficient predators, the pack working in unison to take down large prey. They compete with tigers and leopards, the other apex predators in these forests, for the large herbivore prey base.

Dhole Spoor Kabini
A Dhole puts its keen sense of smell to good use

Dholes are diminutive dogs, about half the size of African Wild Dogs, and appear quite fetching with their rich ruddy coats and bushy black tails. But one look at a Dhole’s face and it’s never going to win your heart as a cuddly lapdog. The expression is outright feral, with a sharpness in the eye and a sneer in the muzzle.

As our vehicle passed the same route that we had taken the previous evening, I wondered if we might encounter the Dholes again. I kept my eyes peeled. Just then, our guide received an urgent message from his colleague leading another safari in another part of the forest. Picking up a smidgen of cellular network, his mobile phone trilled. We were boomeranged back into human civilization just as we were letting the jungle seep into us. Good things never last.

Our guide whispered to the driver, who shot the vehicle forward like a bullet. We bounced and rattled through the jungle road, clinging on, shielding our faces from the whisked-up dust. No strangers to safari patois, our fellow-travellers seemed to know what game was afoot. They fixed their eyes on the jungle track with fiery intensity.

We swung past a crook and I spied a trio of Dholes. Loping beside the track bathed in the golden morning rays, they were a vision out of Eden. Imagine my surprise when the driver continued at the same breakneck pace, ignoring the dogs as if they were a herd of grazing goats. My gentle protests to stop went unheeded, and I got no support from the Serious.

Tiger in Kabini
It was almost unbelievable, this apparition of a wild tiger

A few hundred metres ahead, faced with an oncoming safari vehicle, the driver slowed down. The photographers in our vehicle began to click furiously. I blinked, not quite sure where or what to look at. Ahead on the track, through the settling dust, a dun-orange shape hulked. It paced unhurriedly in our direction. Amid the frenzied din of camera shutters, I collected my thoughts, then reached out and pressed Anitha’s hand.

Our first wild tiger. Anitha smiled meaningfully, for in all these years together we had gone to many jungles but never in pursuit of such a trophy. It was a timely reward, and it had taken its time coming. She then looked away from the track and pointed to a Red-wattled Lapwing that was making frantic alarm calls. My eyes still locked on the target, I acknowledged her with a thumbs-up. She snickered. For this moment, I was a trophy hunter, too.

Kabini
After a brief audience, she cat-walked into the thicket
Tiger in Kabini
She’s a beauty, all right, and she knows it

I rested my eyes on that fine young tigress, all elegance and power as she stepped off the track and crossed the fireline. She rested awhile on her haunches, twitching her ears, and then disappeared into the thicket. A short while later, we heard her roar (no, she didn’t sound like Katy Perry).

The guide informed us that the tigress had been seen earlier with cubs, and was naturally wary of the movements of the Dhole. Would we get to see an interaction between cat and dog? The mood was electric with expectation. With great skill, the driver reversed the vehicle and brought it to a stop near a water-hole.

Kabini Water hole kingfisher
A White-throated Kingfisher patrols the water-hole in the forest

It was one of those dreamy jungle water-holes, full of possibilities — and a little water. A White-throated Kingfisher trilled idly on a perch, distracting the Serious with its showy gown of cobalt and coffee, topped off with a bib of creamy white. Spotted deer grazed, looking over their shoulders. Jungle Babblers squawked. We waited, in the hope that the tigress would show up here, or make a kill of these deer. It had happened before in so many wildlife documentaries; why shouldn’t it happen now?

Along the bund that flanked the waterhole, I sensed a presence. From the thickets beyond, a Dhole trotted in, alert and agile. It was solitary; most probably a scout sent by the pack to check on the movements of the tigress. Her spoor was in the air.

Dhole scout at Kabini
A Dhole scout on red alert senses something that we cannot
Dhole in water, Kabini
The Dhole entered the water without hesitation

The scout stretched its muzzle and sniffed, standing stock-still for several minutes before it entered the water-hole, scattering the chital that bolted into the forest. In the water, the dog seemed to follow a scent, then stepped out and ran back along the bund and into the thicket. In the distance, a langur whooped. A chital’s alarm call rang.

The driver started the vehicle. The photographers chattered excitedly. We sped along to the other side of the water-hole. Near an anti-poaching camp where we could give our bladders some relief, we waited. It was the only place in the forest where we were allowed to step out on foot. Business done, we returned to the vehicle.

Deer and wild boar grazed like livestock around the small concrete structure. Three Dhole rested in the shade. The dogs looked relaxed, and seemed to offer no threat to the herbivores at this time. One of the dogs perked up and stared fixedly in the direction of the water-hole where we had waited earlier.

A fourth dog approached the pack from that direction. It was the scout that we had seen earlier, bringing tidings. The scout greeted its pack-mates with much tail-wagging and yipping. Message delivered.

Grazing near the dogs was an enormous wild boar. He was proud and imperious and apparently fearless. He sauntered with a measured gait that evoked Pumba the warthog from The Lion King. As he foraged, he got closer to the resting pack. He kept on walking, trying to look unhurried and avoiding the eyes of the dogs, but he didn’t look as relaxed as he was earlier.

Without much ado, the dogs rose to their feet. They waited for the boar to pass. The scout, which had returned a few minutes earlier, began to tail him. The boar’s anxiety became apparent as he broke into a trot. Swiftly, before our eyes could even register it, the four dogs fell into position, encircling the boar like soccer players seizing the game from the opposition. It was amazing to watch how, without a fuss, the dogs had blocked the boar’s safe passage. Was this the result of rehearsed strategy, or learned moves, or plain instinct? The anxious boar began to gallop, flanked on each side by a dog, one at his rear, and one running a little ahead of him.

Wild Boar Kabini
As he approached the Dhole, the wild boar quickened his pace

It appeared that the boar’s game was up. In our vehicle, the Serious pointed their telephoto lenses at the scene and clicked away furiously, sensing a hunt. But the dogs disappointed everyone by giving up the chase. They were just teasing, or perhaps bullying, their quarry. Bored, they yawned and returned to their resting positions. It wasn’t going to be an Animal Planet kind of morning after all.

Back at the lodge that afternoon, we prepared to leave as our outing at Kabini had come to an end. Some of the Serious were getting ready for another late afternoon safari. The guide complimented me on my maiden tiger sighting, and graciously wished me many happy returns. Sweet of him. But I told him I’m really a dog person and, much as I celebrated my tiger, it was the encounter with the Dholes that made that morning truly special.

Those dogs really had a sense of humour. Seriously.

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