Category: Field Experiences

‘Bend’ it like elephants!

Amid the escalating conflicts between elephants and humans lie our failed attempts of checking the movement of these giant animals. I wonder often as they wander through and beyond the forests. And well, they are meant to be the wanderers in the wild. Unaware, they march- crossing the boundaries and the borders set by humans. Every trench, wall, and fence might just be a set of hurdles- that they attempt to overcome. For this animal of highly complex cognition- everything around them could just be a conundrum to solve.

It was this trench, with a straight retention wall on one side protecting the village from the behemoth ‘trespassers’, that captivated my attention.

When I stood startled- a fear of sliding down- at the edge of that vertical wall- at the periphery of one of the national parks, this first thought that entered my mind was- how?  I bent down to inspect the footprints on the wall- which debossed all the way up and disappeared among the bushes- with the crushed grasses seeking for another life.  As an art by an artist- the mud marks of those sliding legs dazzled my thoughts.  Not because they were of elephants- but because there were calves’ footprints too!

How they might have climbed down? Or up, in that case?  That victimized village, on the other side of that trench, stood as flabbergasted as me!

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The gust of wind brought to me that strong smell of fresh dung piles from below. I requested my field brothers to climb down and collect- as I feared that I might topple over. I broke-and-opened the dung. Sprinkled with the seeds of Raggi and jack-fruits, their ordure proved that they raided the farm- must be a night ago! On their way up- they might have emptied their bowels, I guessed.

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This is one such anecdote amongst hundreds where elephants have demonstrated how they alter their behaviours in response to their altered habitats. Well, this could muddle up many of us who are not just trying to understand the highly intelligent animal- the elephants- but also trying to seek a long-lasting solution to halt the accelerating conflicts between them and us. For, they (elephants) know how to bend (adapt) their behaviours like elephants!

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Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel (From ‘The field notes’)

 

That random field-thought.


It rains…

The tip-a-tap sound on the jeepsy’s bonnet. Then, the cloud moves down to the Kundakere range. One can hear patting of raindrops on the leaves. The air, now, is cool and filled with the smell of mud. Beside this earthen fragrance, I could also smell something very unwonted. That onset of musth. This makhna is quite old. With those scars on his skin- he must have fought many of the valiant battles with other tusked males to impress his estrous lady-loves. But now, he seem to be relaxed and least bother to our presence. However, one should never belittle the temperament of elephants. Meanwhile, one of the members of a herd hiding behind the Lantana made a squeak. The drizzle landing on his skin could not overtake that onset of flow cascading from his musth gland.

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I wonder- what must be going on his mind. The mud-drenched with the late monsoon and the strong smell of musth diffuses with the fresh breeze climbing up from the moyar-gorge. The rain. The smells. The air. All three mixes up together to make the ambiance-  salacious! This shall bring in the fate of the many future offspring. I thought of wishing- let you sire and your genes cover the hills. But- that concealed fear abruptly entered into me. I remembered- what if they cross this ‘demarcated territory’. Things are going to be hard and harsh. The soft drizzle was still adorning the windshield like a canvas. A million of them. I left the site and move ahead- with many thoughts fluxing in and out…


Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel,

During Bandipur National Park Field work,

31st November, 2015

When I mistook the heap of stones…

“Behind,
Yon side of the bush
I hear that clunk!
Four tiny legs and the trunk…
Smells this stranger
And hides beneath his mom…”

Wrote these lines, when I saw a month old elephant calf hiding behind his mom- as he sensed my presence with his tiny trunk, somewhere in the forests of Nagarahole.

Being in the wild gives you a chance to see how life grows in the wilderness. Here, I write one such illustration.

12th November, 2013:

After having a quick lunch in the Mangala village near the Bandipur National Park, we entered the Bandipur range. I was planning to go towards a range named ‘Kundakere’.  I could see dozens of black clouds hovering around. “It will rain”, I whispered to myself. The day was pleasant, but with no movement of animals. The verdant turfs after the showers made me feel, it was a pleasant day- indeed. I could also sense the post-lunch lethargy reigning over me. As I yawned wide…

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To gear me up, after 300 to 400 m past the chain-gate, I saw the herd of elephants grazing. I was delighted. One luckier day, I thought. I counted the number of individuals. Seven. Great. If at least three of them defecates, (I was delighted again) my bag will be full of what-I-am-in-search-of. And, my hiding-behind-the-bush session started. I observed. Slowly, six of them traversed the Lantana thickets and moved away. Leaving behind the single calmly grazing adult female.

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As a part of my work, I started noting down all the details that I could gather. It was more than an hour that this female had barely moved from the place where she was standing. I got a bit perplexed. Many assumptions started popping in my head.

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She grazed. And, grazed. With no signs of movement. And of course, no signs of defecation. Selfishness in me heightened, as I now started scanning around her to see if I could locate her fresh night-soils. I saw withered bamboo shoots, blooming Lantana, the crushed grasses and a heap of what seemed to me- the stones! near her right fore-leg…

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After an hour and a half, she stopped grazing and stood still. This made me more curious about her. Did she sense my presence? Should I leave this hideout and run? Is she resting now? Hmm, is she, now, a victim of a post-lunch lethargy like her observer? Something was ‘physiologically’ wrong! Lots of speculations in my mind- made me more restless…as she showed no signs of grazing!

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Then, I saw something astonishing. A heap of stones, which I thought it to be, earlier! I zoomed my camera lens towards it. Flabbergasted! I saw an elephant calf! And his mom was gently pushing his head with her right foreleg. Which I assumed to be “Wake up, baby, we got to go”

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Within a few fractions of minutes, one more member got added to the number that I counted. Eight! A newborn elephant baby. Must be a week old.  A tiny thing standing next to his mother. Such a tiny creature will someday grow as tall as his mom- I ‘aww-ed’ to myself.

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He was resting, then. He started playing with his tiny trunk. And gently walked towards his mother. She stood vigilant. As she, by now, sensed my presence.

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That moment! which fills your heart and eyes- when you are in the wild and you witness elephants sharing their bond! How lucky, I am…Affection filled the ambience. And his mother started walking, at a very slow pace, so that he can tag along with her. She stopped as he came forth and rubbed his tiny body against her foreleg. ‘Mother’ I whispered to myself again.

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Often, I have seen elephants moving very slowly when they are with calves. She was doing the same. The calf went under her hind-legs and came out again. Wonderful, I thought- when your mother is a playground in herself.

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What a tiny being, one fine day- he will be a majestic tusked mammal roaming freely in the forests. Engineering the ecosystem. Dispersing seeds. Aiding other herbivores. My understanding about this species is still on the threshold. And I still pursue to see them and get delighted every time I sight an elephant! The more you observe them, the more fascinated you will be~ towards understanding their behavior, their bond and them as a whole.

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When I was weighing my multiple thoughts, he suckled. Lifted his tiny head. It appeared to me that he was a little confused about where to let his tiny trunk fall.  He often stopped in between suckling and started playing with his trunk.

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Throughout these moments, his mother remained calm, vigilant, but kept on moving slowly. To keep him safe. I felt as I mentioned earlier, she sensed me. On the backdrop, I could hear the thrashing of dead bamboo branches and boughs; sniffs and puffs throughout. The six of them are around.

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He suckled, again. While his mother kept on walking forward. The day was wrapping up. And the dusk ready for its duty. Heard a loud trumpet from one of the members of the herd. Before they disappeared into the thickets, I zoomed my camera lens and captured the photo of the calf. Wonderful, I thought again.

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My day was done. I was delighted, though I could not collect a single bolus of dung. But I felt- content. For, I saw how life grows. As I saw- what many of us had not seen and probably will not be able to see- if the current rate of disturbance persists. I saw the calf, it was not just a calf for me, but a new story that shall grow and write his fate on his own. If he is fortunate, he will travel across the greenness, sire his offsprings, mend the landscape and live happily. If he is not, he will enter someone’s land, will be chased away, will be ambushed with human-aggression and if he turns out to be a tusker- threats shall encircle him throughout his life. I wish the former to happen.

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While I was pondering about all this, the herd joined and disappeared into the thickets. I could see the fading silhouettes against the setting sun…

-Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel

Beyond the woods…

[Note: Keeping aside the scientific discourse, I thought of sharing these poetic thoughts. Being in the wild- has always given me an opportunity to explore myself and this nature around me. On the top, observing elephants in the wild, gives you this contentment- indefinable! It was my field work in Hassan that inspired me to write this poem when I was following a herd of elephants through human-settlements and coffee-bushes. It is entirely different experience, I must say, to observe these magnificent creatures enmeshed in the complexity of changed-ecological arena. A reality, in fact. Albeit, a sad one! One of my field-experiences, I could say. Sharing it.]


Beyond the woods…

The thuds and the squeaks…

And then, this silence…

Of the concealed clatters…

Fills the humid ambiance…

The splash of the mud…

And the hovering wasps…

Somewhere behind the bamboos…

Rests the mighty trunk…

Smelling the sweat of wild flowers…

Intoxicated…

Yet, vigilant!

As grey as the rock,

Submerged in the land…

Where thousands of them

Might have crossed…

Along the trails…

As verdant as the grasses-

Munched somewhere beyond the woods!

Ahead they move-

Calmly…

The withered leaves under their feet,

Like a globe of furs!

Inside those tiny hamlets…

Scattered….

Hither, thither and yon…

Sleeps that fear-

A fear of being crushed…

A fear-

That rises with the rise…

Of that wild moon!

With a hush-

A heart pound can hear!

The slumber with the eyes-

As open as the sky!

Somewhere in the woods-

The screech of  that owl…

Strikes those mighty ears…

Flap and flap…

And the stillness, again!

The ripples in the puddle…

The cologne…

Of the ripen grains…

Barriers of no border!

And the emancipation…

Of the abiding caravan!

Righteousness, the nature did…

Rivers, lands and forests…

Theirs, it was…

And it will be…

As elderly as the twisted boughs…

They have caressed…

Each fragment of it!

The lush green forests-

Hence…

Hide the massive giants…

Whose fates  are written-

In their night soils-

With the sadness hidden underneath…

And the exhilaration in the air…

They march-

As silently as…

The wild moon above…

The silhouette-

Of trunks, tusks and the strength!

As vivid as the pool nearby-

They march-

To the next crop-field…

And,

The journey continues…

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-Sanjeeta Sharma Pokharel


Photo credit (https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/474x/2c/27/10/2c27101d9fe759fff408a51c422a02cc.jpg)

From Field-Diary: Fecalography

27th October, 2013, 13:32, Bandipur Tea Stall:

“…., Bullshit!” (Rough voice from the backdrop wedged my concentration)

I turned around and saw an agonized face of a gentleman (must be a visitor to Bandipur), a terrified adult bonnet macaque with the parted hair-style that flipped smoothly in the opposite poles by the breeze of Bandipur and a spilled-cup of tea. I observed the grubby floor, the paper cup lay helpless whilst the meandering tea being licked by the little opportunistic macaque.

Tea kudi, Amma

The gentleman bought another cup of tea. And this time, he stayed vigilant.

It was neither that gentleman’s voice nor that macaque which broke the castle of thoughts I was in. I blame them, never. After an entire day of quest for sighting an elephant, the word “Bull-shit” took away my attention.  I wonder why they use this word. And why he did!

I paid Amma (tea-stall owner) for the cups of tea we secured-from-macaques-and-had! And we left.

On my way back to the base-camp, I kept on pondering about the word. God must know what shit (fecal sample to be more precise and to be more technical, call it the part of ‘non-invasive technique’) means to me, unlike the people who use that word so trivially.  When my fellow-folks are busy being excited about the sightings of the majestic beasts, my eyes rolls over the grasses, road-side and the bank of rivers to see the piles of night-soils. Fresh and warm!

During field-work, I consider myself the luckiest soul on this earth and beyond if that word knocks me pragmatically, Bull-shit! (Bull-Tusker, Shit-dung)

Fecal-ography…

The early morning prayers of mine include not just sighting an elephant but an elephant-in-action (defecating).  This hunt of hiding-behind-the-bush-and-wait-till-it-drops, gave me the idea of clicking the picture of what-ever-come-across-and-smells-horrible.  Be it dropping, scat or dung! (Uploading some of them…)

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I remember what James Watson said “We used to think our fate was in the stars. Now we know in large measure our fate is in our genes”.

So for all their fate lies in their genes!

And their history?

Probably in their night-soils!

P.S. Images are of wild-animal’s feces

Cautions: And, are worth-not-looking-at during Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner time!

A tale of the tusked-giant and fierce villagers!

They must have heard that munching,
So they came out of their hamlets…
The thuds and the embossed fields…
And a giant was there, to raid…

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With their tiny bullets,
They tried all of the alarms,
To alert this giant,
And to scare his unwanted charms…

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They climbed that thorny tree
Their rags, all torn-out!
They yelled at the top of their voice
This giant seemed ignorant to their shout!

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They ran towards him,
Yes, hundreds of them!
Magnificent, this giant was…
And he won’t deny his fame!

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He raided their crops…
And they want the pay!
Yon, at the edge of every jungle,
This is a story of the usual day…

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[ This poem popped up at around 11:10 am [on 14th March, 2013]  during our venture to track the crop-raiding makhna and the villagers who were chasing it out of their fields, Kalesar, N. Begur Range, Bandipur National Park]

What’s your tongueworm?

Most of you will probably know what a earworm is: a tune or song that gets stuck in your head, that you cant get rid off. But do you know what a tongueworm is? No, not this. Here is what i call a tongueworm: a food or drink which you can’t stop thinking of, especially when you know that there is no way you can have it in the near future. Let me explain.

A little while ago, Sneha and I did fieldwork together in Anshi national park. We would go on long treks looking for birds and mixed-species flocks. Often, this turned out to be quite boring because we saw nothing. And worse still, it would be hot and humid. In these situations, for lack of anything better to do, I would turn to Sneha and yell “green apple granita“. And Sneha would be stuck with a tongueworm:)

(For the animal behaviourist , this might just be a nice example of spite; even I would have really liked a green apple granita at that point!)

So, what’s your tongueworm? Sneha’s is green apple granita. Mine is cold coffee from a place called Shakes N Creams in Madras. What is that one food or drink you crave for in field and have no way of getting it? Instead, what is the first thing you crave to eat/drink when you get back to the city?

Do tell. The person who provides the most surprising answer will be rewarded with the tongueworm of his/her choosing…by ESS!

A sea of galaxies

life of piI watched Life of Pi with my family about two weeks back. And when the image on the left appeared on screen, I could hardly contain my excitement. I remembered that I’d written about the Lakshadweep incident somewhere, and at the time it had felt almost surreal, but words couldn’t describe what I saw. And thus I hadn’t mentioned it to many people. But here it was.

We didn’t have our cameras with us that evening – Anne and I, we were not supposed to be on the boat. We were sulking at home a little earlier – when Rohan, Teresa, Rucha, Amod and Vardhan were putting their dive equipment together. Anne and I had got our diver certificates just a month back, and couldn’t dive deeper than 18 meters with our basic certification. All the others were advance-level divers, some having decades of dive experience. The preparations were on for a night dive, but Anne and I weren’t qualified enough to join the rest, and were pretty peeved. But we did end up on the boat with others that evening, having decided that we would sulk some more in the dark while the rest were on their precious night dive.

Underwater torches were tested, chaperones were assigned and divers plopped into water from the boat over the reef. There still was feeble light in the horizon and we saw beams of torch light crisscrossing downwards as people descended. The beams soon got polarized several feet below and disappeared in one direction. I think it was Anne who suggested that we take a dip, and by the time we put on our snorkels and fins, it was pitch dark. We could only hear Shaafi’s voice as he asked us not to drift too far from the boat, and we jumped in.

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I remember having seen plankton luminescence before – in the open sea between Agatti and Kadmat islands, when I saw sparks in the wake of the boat by which we were travelling. I was initially scared that there was some neural short-circuit happening in my eyes, before Anne explained what it actually was. But it was quite different now as we finned in the water, and the sight was unbelievable.  Each of our movements in the dark water was followed by a trail of luminescence, which would disappear soon after. The more we moved in the water, the brighter was the illumination. As we paddled with our fins, our legs created the brightest sparks. When we swam we left behind glistening Tinker bell trails. Anne and I were soon giggling and yelping, wriggling all over to create neon outlines of ourselves. We were slapping the water surface with our hands, kicking with our feet, duck diving and creating symmetric arcs in the water column as we moved towards each other and surfaced with a gasp.

It is one of the happiest memories I have of Lakshadweep. While the rest of the divers were gushing on about how amazing their night dive was on our boat ride back, I couldn’t care less. We had our own glowing little secret.

 biolumbiolum uses

Click on the images to visit source page. For more on bioluminescence, go source article, or visit this page.

When animals don’t behave

Last December, I sailed to the Lakshadweeep with a headful of island dreams. I was to study the foraging behavior of green turtles in the shallow lagoons of the Lakshadweep islands, where this lone herbivore among marine turtles feeds on seagrass beds. I wanted to understand drivers of green turtle movements within island lagoons, and believed it was mainly the distribution of foraging resources. Kartik and I hoped that this preliminary study would give us clues to understanding larger inter-island movements that were reported by Rohan and Nachiket in their previous work in the Lakshadweep. I knew from studies in other locations that green turtles were permissive to behavioural observations in places such as the Hawaii islands. Given this, a part of my planned work was to identify green turtles individually and follow them to collect behavioural data. Meanwhile, I also spun a million dreams of swimming with greens in turquoise blue lagoon waters, quite apart from scientific objectivity. What I expected to record was something like this.

Green turtles are no dolphins. Because when I eventually did snorkel in the Kadmat lagoon, the turtles did a Sonic the Hedgehog on me. All I saw were sand plumes left behind by fleeing turtles, even before I could spot them in the lagoon. Interestingly, unlike several other places around the world where green turtles are found, they seem to be especially skittish to approach by snorkelers in the Lakshadweep. And the pattern differs between islands and island zones, seemingly based on boat traffic. Green turtles show more spunk near jetties, and in islands where human activity is relatively high – closer to the shore and in islands like Agatti which boasts of several tuna boats. Also, on our dives near the reef, green turtles were quite unwary of divers in the water column. They would swim past us slowly – droopy-eyed, with a stoned look on their faces (which makes me wonder, do turtles get narced?)

Since sand plumes don’t make good data, I decided to shift strategies. With a lot of help from Teresa, a seagrass biologist from Barcelona, I designed cafeteria experiments to study feeding choices in green turtles. I pitched my seagrass plots in the Kadmat lagoon, duck diving till I got breathless, and waited to see signs of turtle herbivory. But nothing happened for several days. Once in a while a stray fish nibbled on the leaves, but the turtles didn’t bother. One evening after setting up yet another pair of plots, I sat by the resort steps waiting to see if I had got the location wrong, if there were any turtles there at all. Even before a minute was up, I saw them pop up one after another right around the spot where the seagrass plots were. But strangely, they just wouldn’t feed. And to my annoyance they sounded like they were blowing raspberries at me when they surfaced, mocking at my predicament. After many attempts I  eventually gave up plans of behavioural observations, and dejected, set to finish the rest of the work I had planned.

However, I did not leave the islands without realizing my dream. It was a fateful February afternoon when Kartik and I met Patrick. Pat (also known as ‘Hol(e)y’), is a big male green turtle which hangs about in the only strip of seagrass left in Kavaratti, adjoining the Sandy Beach coffee shop. It was wonderful following Pat around the lagoon, as it glided slowly through filtered beams of sunlight cutting across the water column, surfacing once in a while. His long tail kept curling and uncurling as he swam, as if asking me to follow. Kartik and I swam with him for a long while and then moved to where Anne was following her mixed species shoals of fish, which were putting up quite a show. After the day’s work, we sat drinking cups of coffee at Sandy Beach looking at the pictures we’d just taken. I asked Kartik about the curling of Pat’s tail which I had noticed in some of the pictures, wondering if it had any behavioural significance. Kartik jokingly said that male green turtles were known to quite indiscriminately mount any moving object that they saw. Maybe it was beckoning me to join him – Anne said, and we all had a good laugh.

I’d forgotten about the incident until much later once I got back to Bangalore, when I came across this.

Kartik was not joking after all. :^/

Yenu sahebre!

 It is a cold, dripping December morning and we are looking for racket-tailed drongos in the moist deciduous forest around Dhoomanagadde Raaste.  As we walk down the trail, we see signs of elephant, gaur, wild pig and civet.  A startled sambar stag runs away with thudding hooves.  Very few birds are calling, and no drongos are in sight. A couple of hours pass and we slowly thaw in the growing warmth of the sun.  And then, a racket-tail flies across the trail with a flock of jungle babblers! For the next ten minutes or so, it stays low in the undergrowth, feeding on insects disturbed by the babblers foraging on the ground.  It crosses the trail again, and disappears into the foliage. We wait for a bit – it might come back. But it flies further in, and we follow.  After crawling through lantana thickets, we reach a clearing and there it is again, in the shrubs at the edge. Other species have joined the flock – grey-headed and black bulbuls, flameback woodpeckers, hill mynas, a paradise flycatcher, a bar-winged flycatcher shrike, bronzed drongos and brown-cheeked fulvettas.  The air is filled with the calls of these birds, but the drongo is silent at present. It flies off again, and after a while, we realise that we can’t go after it – the lantana is too thick here. So we trace our way back towards the trail. It is 0821 am.

As we step onto the path, a chital calls from the gully a few hundred metres to our right.  A minute later, a bonnet macaque gives the special alarm call that it reserves for big cats, and we are instantly on the alert. The macaque is close, just around the bend, and we can’t see what it is calling at. But we hear it the next moment, as the tiger growls! We are very close, and I’m not sure if it isn’t headed our way. I instinctively take a few steps back, but Jadeya, my field assistant, gestures for me to hold his machete while he takes the video camera out. I hold on to the machete with trembling hands, and slowly follow him around the bend.  We see the tiger walking slowly down the path, and follow as silently as we can. It pauses to sniff at a tree trunk, and scrapes the ground.  I am almost sure it can hear my heart pounding in my head.  It walks on, and I notice that it has two bright, white spots on the back of its ears.

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It stops again, and sprays a tree trunk. We walk with it for about a hundred metres before it leaves the path and disappears into the forest. Jadeya finally turns and grins at me – and I beam back at him. The ‘kere’ is just ahead, and we are sure it is going in that direction. We jog down the path towards the kere, and there it is, sitting at the bank on the opposite side. It looks at us for a few moments, then yawns and sits down behind some bushes. It starts licking itself, and then rolls over with its paws in the air. We chuckle silently – it is a very contented tiger. We watch for a while, and then Jadeya says that all he needs to do is say ‘Yenu sahebre!’ (“What’s up sir!”), and it will look up and he can take a picture, but I beg him not to.  The tiger is still sunnning itself. I whisper that we should leave – if we don’t disturb it, it might show itself to us another day.

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It is 0908 am when I say “Ta ta” to the basking tiger. On the way back, I can hardly contain myself, and hug trees when Jadeya is not watching.  We are on top of the world.