By Shivang Mehta
“Better luck for the cats in Jan, Shivang bhai!” these were the parting words of Salim Ali – one of India’s top naturalist – when we tracked the cats for 6 drives in fresh post-monsoon lush green forest of Ranthambhore National Park in October 2010. I never thought that nature can play such a big neutralizing act for during those days I was just back from shooting tigers in Sunderbans in the monsoons. “A Sunderban tiger in the monsoons!!! Can’t get luckier than this” this was the thought running through my head when I was shooting the young male crossing the creeks of the mystic mangroves. 6 drives of amazing birding in Ranthambhore just a month after the Sunderban feat… but the cats were nowhere to be seen.
Things started looking better in the Nov and Dec as nature did bless me with some short and sweet tiger sightings in Tadoba and Corbett. However, apprehensions were creeping in as I landed in Ranthambhore again in January. Leading a group of 30 odd shutterbugs, we headed off for a bird walk within minutes of our check-in. It is normally a long walk from the park’s first check point to the Ranthambhore fort and having covered the half way mark, we all decided to board the canter to continue our birding trip to the fort.
As our vehicle snailed pass the Singh Dwaar (entry point of zone 4 and 5), some disturbance in the middle of the road caught the attention of few photographers. “Go back… there is a tiger on the road!” shouted one of them. “Salim’s good wishes can’t come true in one small little bird walk!” I thought clenching my teeth. Rushing down the canter, we stood right in front of the gate and I tried focusing on the subject that was sitting right in the middle of the road when it was sighted and was now walking towards me. A young female leopard stood around 200 meters away from me and before the cat walk could start, the hustle on the street caught her attention and she decided to quietly walk inside the bushes towards her right. For the next 10 minutes we waited anxiously for the princess. In contrast to thinking and thanking Mother Nature for breaking the Ranthambhore jinx in some way, I was more worried about the fact that ‘would this be yet another short and sweet sighting?’ But I guess (and most of my fellow photographers would agree) that eye, greed and hunger for moments is a perennial and necessary vice for capturing nature’s hidden jewels.
15 minutes and the growing human unrest around the park entry point forced me to believe that the leopard had left the area and I started retreating. Had barely walked a few steps ahead and the cacophony increased behind me. “He is back!” shouted the forest guard with half of the bidi smoke still stuck in his lungs. This time the distance was 100 meters and as I was lying flat on the ground – probably for the first time I was shooting a predatory cat sitting on the middle of the road – the lady started her beautiful cat walk towards the camera. I noticed a movement in the corner of the view finder and before I could react, the lady’s man entered the frame. Two full grown leopards sniffing the air and snarling in annoyance, disturbed by human presence for they wanted to make love!
The male inched closer to the female and finally decided to escort her through the thick bushes this time towards his left. As I was checking out the spotted beauties in my camera, I was thanking Salim Ali for keeping his good wishes broad and not confining it just to the tiger.
(Shivang Mehta is a wildlife photographer and organises photography workshops on behalf of Nature Wanderers. Visit www.naturewanderers.com)