It was a moment I had never witnessed over the last 25 years of doing safaris in Indian national parks, and one that I probably won’t, hereafter. During my the latter part of my visit to the Sonaripur range of Dudhwa National Park, my focus was on clicking elephants, who seemed to have eluded me for some reason. As my last safari neared its end, I thought I saw elephants, but did not say a word fearing that the guide and driver would be highly amused by my already hallucinatory elephant imaginations. But as we drew closer, my guide Naseem whispered, “elephants”; and indeed at a distance, right on the track, there were two elephants facing us!
I picked up my camera, placed it on the bean bag and steadied myself to shoot. Light was un-cooperative and the mist did not help either. But before I could shoot anything, staring hard through the binoculars, Naseem hissed again, “There is a tiger on the road!” Not visible to my naked eyes, I zoomed in through my lens and sure enough, spotted a crouching tiger. It was no wonder then that the two elephants, with a calf in between them, were standing still.
As we drove slightly closer, the tiger stood up and began to stalk the elephants, his sight trained on the calf. The unhappy mother trumpeted, her voice tearing the jungle apart. The mother elephant took a step towards the tiger, but the king, undeterred and unfazed, stood his ground. My mind began to wander. What if there are other elephants in the surrounding tall grasses? What if they charge to help the mother in despair? What if they charge towards us, thinking that the mother is upset by our presence?
The intelligence of the elephants was evident from the fact that they stayed on the open track and did not wander into the grass, where the tiger would be invisible and at an advantage. As the elephants began to walk away, the tiger commenced his pursuit, and we ensued. It was a treat to watch this mental combat between two of God’s most powerful creations. The tiger did not charge while in the open, as his movements would be easily visible, and a kick from the elephant could be fatal. On the other hand, the mother and the younger female (presumably a sister or aunt) were not getting hysterical with the tiger’s presence. They did not leave the young calf’s side as if educated about the tiger’s swiftness. Both the contestants were being prudent; this was proving to be more of a battle of minds than brute strength.
The mother turned back and trumpeted again, with the same result as before – an echo, birds flying from the surrounding Sal trees and the tiger remaining unperturbed. This scene continued for some more time without a change in setting. Interestingly, the calf, 10-15 days old in my opinion, was totally ignorant of the impending danger. He stood calm and composed, probably because of his confidence in his mother’s capability to ward off this danger; or probably because he was too young to know fear.
Our driver finally reminded us that it is time to go. ‘No’ was my first reaction and it was only with a heavy heart that I agreed to leave. I kept looking back till they were completely out of sight and the entire drama kept replaying an umpteen number of times in my head. I definitely have to thank my guide and driver, without whom none of this would have been possible. A big thank you to the late Billy Arjan Singh as well, without whom probably, Dudhwa would not be standing as tall as it is today; and I would have never got to witness and capture this drama unfold as I did.