It is common knowledge that tigers love the water, but how often do we get to see a swimming tiger?
Swimming tiger, you say? A tiger, yes? And swimming?
The big cat jinx had been broken with a leopard (Pathera pardus fusca) early December at the Nagarahole National Park. From here on any additional sighting would have been a bonus. I took the boat safari the next day to get a closer look at Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) and Bar Headed Geese (Anser indicus). I was told by people who had taken the boat safari the previous two days that the sightings at the backwaters would mostly be birds, crocodiles, elephants, deer and wild boars. I was happy with that, given that the leopard had already got checked in the checklist.
The safari was quite relaxed as the boat snaked along the Kabini. Spotted deer (Axis axis), Sambar (Cervus unicolor), Wild Boars (Sus scrofa), Asiatic Elephants (Elephas maximas), Mugger Crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris), Grey Mongoose (Herpestes edwardsii), Bonnet Macaques (Macaca radiata) went about feeding, foraging or just lying still on the banks.
River Terns (Sterna aurantia) dived, Pied Kingfishers (Ceryle rudis) hovered, Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) watched, Bar Headed Geese (Anser indicus) cackled, Blue Tailed Bee Eaters (Merops philippinus) engaged in aerial showboating that more than an hour had passed and I hadn’t realized.
I scanned the banks for movements and spotted a Grey Mongoose (Herpestes edwardsii). Our boat drive took the boat into a creek like spot and we watched Bonnet Macaques (Macaca radiata) feeding on the tender grass on the banks. The boat turned back towards the reservoir, when the driver and naturalist on a jeep at the bank more than 300 meters away started waving frantically. It was understood that there was a prize sighting around, but what and where was a mystery. The naturalist in our boat attempted to make calls to the folks on the jeep but to no avail.
We spent four anxious minutes as the boat driver navigated into the Kabini, there were more frantic gestures from the folks on the shore. The light was fading and our hopes too, for I thought whatever the sighting must have been would have now slipped out of sight.
My trusted spotter with the Nikon Monarch exclaimed “Tiger! There!” and pointed towards the Bandipur side. We had all been looking at the Nagarahole side, while the tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) had been on the opposite bank. It was on the bank for less than five seconds and then got into the water. The tiger sat there with its head and parts of the body visible over the water. The boat stopped at a distance, the boat listed as the people at the back started moving around to get a closer look.
This might have been just another sighting record, but the tiger had other plans. The tiger that had glanced straight at us for a few seconds now turned to the other side and dipped further into the water. The naturalist in the boat exclaimed, “It is going to swim!” And within seconds the tiger, with just its head above the water, had moved about 15-20 feet from the shore.
Our boat driver maneuvered the boat such that we were along the tiger initially, then right behind it as it headed towards the Nagarahole National Park shoreline. Occasionally the tiger’s tail appeared over the water, but primarily it was only its head that was seen. I noticed the white patches behind the tiger’s ear and wondered the detailing that evolution has provided for camouflage. I was told it was a female about 3 years old.
When the Tiger reached the Nagarahole National Park Shoreline it turned around and looked at the boat, after which it proceed onto land, shrugged twice to shed off the water, let out a growl and walked majestically on the grass. Spotted deer alarm calls started, however the Tiger was not keen on supper yet. It sprayed onto a tree stump twice. Then onto another. Walked in a clockwise “C” path and settled down onto the grass and began grooming itself by licking its body.
It was getting darker and we were running out of the time allocated inside the National Park limits and as we started the tiger moved into the bushes as well.
A discussion with the naturalist and the safari boat driver, who had a combined experience of more than 4,000 safaris, yielded the fact that this was the first time they had seen a swimming tiger in the Kabini. Compare that to the my 13th safari on which I had this sighting – the somewhat depleted water level in the Kabini reservoir started appearing almost full. The word “tiger”, which brought back nightmares of a disastrous poetry recitation contest in 8th grade, had now rewired my semantic network.
The sun was down and there was silence in the boat as we headed back to our disembarking point. Some were happy they got to see the tiger, some felt it was incredible luck, our safari boat driver was trying hard to hold back his emotions, some were hoping they had seen more wildlife, I felt I was returning from Las Vegas still counting the coins in the jackpot.
When the tiger made its cameo and nature’s 70 mm got unwinding, I lost my self identity and merged into the boat full of curious eyes. There were only two beings – the seer and the seen. There was a marked difference I felt after the tiger crossed my path, compared to how I did before. So did the big cat sighting change my luck? Not really, but it helped me appreciate nature’s marvels I have seen than to fret about the ones I haven’t.