From the Machaan

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S. U Saravanakumar

I pulled my hat down, making sure the neck-cover exposed nothing of my skin. I tightened the mosquito net around my body and camera, and then swore!! It was 47 degrees of baking heat and not a leaf moved for want of breeze. I wondered what madness it was to be wrapped from head to toe like this when the temperature was making water evaporate like gasoline. Sweat bees were buzzing all around me and I knew that if they found even a miniscule opening they would be crawling all over me.

The tree machan was comfortable and spacious, so that was a lifesaver. The view was good as well. I stared down into a tiny pool of water and watched a small group of langurs drink. They were very nervous, hardly drinking and ever vigilant. They had every reason to be alert. I was waiting here since morning to capture the Grand finale for the film I was shooting – A tigress bringing her four little cubs to water. And this little pool of water was her favourite. A tigress with cubs is wary and suspicious, if she even sensed that there was a fidgety cameraman waiting on top of a tree for her, she might not even show up. So in spite of the incredible heat and the maddening bees I had to sit quiet and stay motionless. It was going to be a long and indefinite wait.

National Geographic is producing a three part series to showcase the beauty and the excitement of India’s wildlife, in the style of a coffee table book; Beautiful images annotated with interesting animal behaviour. Each episode is about a different ecosystem. I was shooting two episodes, one on the Central Indian forests with the tiger as the principal character and the second on the Western arid lands, which included the desert, the Rann of Kutch and Gir. Asiatic lions were the principal character for this film. The first part, about the grasslands of Kaziranga, was shot by someone else.

The central Indian Deciduous Forests are magnificent in their structure and form. Changing with the seasons, they show so much variability that it is sometimes hard to recognize the same areas when seen in different parts of the year. During the monsoon it is lush and inviting, winters are romantic with the mist and the clear sunshine, summers are stark and monotonic… the visual variety is enthralling. The wildlife is diverse too. Besides having the richest and the most visible tiger population, the variety of other predators and herbivores is astounding. In a well-protected wildlife park, every trip inside is pure excitement, always definitely yielding an interesting sighting or encounter. Our film was set in summer, the most stressful time for the forests and the animals that live in it.

We landed in Tadoba tiger reserve in early April to start our 50-day filming schedule. We were a team of three. I was the cameraman and my job description was plain and simple; spend as much time in the forest, Always get into the right camera position and shoot till you drop. My two friends KalyanVerma and Mandana were the ones who made sure that I could actually translate this simple watchword into action. To do a film at this level requires enormous amounts of logistic planning, coordination, negotiations and day-to-day problem solving. They did that to perfection. They were both great photographers. So besides helping me with the shoot they had the job of taking stunning pictures as well.

We had two brilliant field staff to help us. Nanavre ‘saab’ was a forest guard deputed to us to facilitate our filming. He was a quiet man with a winning smile. His knowledge of the park and the ability to navigate through the ever-present tourists was invaluable to us. Neelkant was our tiger man. He spotted tigers where we only saw rocks and his anticipation of tiger movements was sublime. Every time I finished shooting a sequence I couldn’t help shaking his hands in awe as he would have predicted to the nth level which route the animal would take, where it will rest and what was the best time to be there. It was an extraordinary experience.

The prime area in Tadoba was a huge reservoir called `Telia’ with enough water to see through the worst of summers. This was patrolled by a massive male tiger we called `scar face’. He was an old male,big to point of looking obese. His face was all torn from the numerous battles and his left eyelid was so damaged that it looked like he had just one eye. He wasn’t the handsome tiger that one would imagine but he was unquestionably the dominant one and seemed to have an easy way with the females.

Over the 50 days that we followed him we observed many traits that gave him a character. For instance every time he entered water he would bare his canines and snarl, just like we would shrivel when cold water hits us for the first time during a bath. I found this so intriguing, so human like. He also liked to get into the water backside first (other tigers do that too). He had his favourite sleeping spots and our first routine of the day was to drive around checking all his places to get his location.

Tigers are strange. They love solitude. In spite of having access to all the large water bodies in Tadoba, they always chose to cool themselves in small forest pools; most of them no bigger than a bath tub. The quality of water didn’t matter, in most cases it was dirty, brown with silt and full of dead leaves. They loved the coolness and privacy these pools offered over the luxury of large clean water bodies. As the summer progressed and water became more and more scarce we started noticing a pattern. Every pool of water that was suitable was claimed by a tiger and suddenly their movements and sightings became predictable. We knew where we could locate a specific tiger, which made life a lot easier. The next step was of course to wait for them to show up.

Making films about ecosystems is always a challenge. It’s always a debate about what to show and what to leave out. It is the responsibility of filmmakers to showcase what happens in nature, as accurately as possible and as comprehensive as time allows. However there is also the fact that television programming is all about entertainment. As much as education is important, an interesting film makes for better viewing. So besides tigers, we were filming everything else that we could spot and spend time with. Tadoba has a very healthy wild dog (dhole) population. We were following a courting pair through the film. We were also lucky to film a massive pack of 17 animals cooling off in a waterhole. Then there were gaur, sambar deer, spotted deer, birds and many insects including the cicada (which probably produces the loudest sound in the world.

As the summer moved on, we began to see how beautifully adapted animals were to beating the heat. Frogs began to dig into the soft wet mud to escape drying out. Wild boars did a daily slush-bath ritual, covering themselves with wet clay which when dried still kept them cool and also gave relief from biting insects. But there was also death that followed the rising heat. As water holes began to dry up, fish had no escape. What was a pool buzzing with life became a dry pan the next week. Pond herons and other water birds had a feast as they moved from one pool to the next, picking off fish stuck in the mud. With water holes drying, there was also increased intolerance when animals came together to drink. There were conflicts between members of the same species, jostling for the best drinking positions or chasing away other species from precious water.

 

I was woken from my tree top trance by the alarm call of a spotted deer. The drinking langurs scooted and took to their safe perches. They also began to make an alarm call. Within a few minutes two little eyes peered out from behind the bamboo. After a quick check the first cub plodded out and went straight to the water. It was as big as a Labrador pup, its oversized paws kicking up dust from the dry sand. Warily it put its first leg into the water. Happy with everything it slid in completely. Then the second cub came and then the third. Finally the mother and the last cub. The mother looked up and saw me. It was the moment I dreaded. What was she going to do? She stared for a second, walked on and got into the water with her four little cubs. Time froze when I locked eyes with the tiger. I couldn’t help myself, my hand shivered as I groped for the camera switch. What I saw in front of me and filmed that day will stay with me forever. The tigress and her cubs playing in the water, inspite of my presence made me feel priveleged. They let me into their lives for that moment and to me it was a gift. After spending two hard months in the blistering heat of central India, to come away with such a memory somehow justified all our moments of hardship.