Love at First Sight.

First published in Sanctuary Cub, Vol. 44 No. 5, May 2024

By Bittu Sahgal

Where the Wild Things Are

Must be driftwood, I thought, as I peered at the speck on the shimmering horizon 200 m. away. I was looking for blind dolphins, but as the Project Tiger launch moved closer I could swear I saw an ear twitch. My pulse quickened, but I was not yet willing to believe I might encounter a wild tiger in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve. Over the years, my eyes often turned bushes, rocks and plain old grass into tigers. Has to be driftwood, I muttered. At 150 m. I could swear I saw ears wiggle! At 100 m., she turned and I saw her look at us. Soon, I could see the wake her powerful, large-pawed legs were leaving as they propelled her towards the halfway mark of the one-kilometre-wide Netidhopani river.

That was when she did an about-face and began to swim back towards the bank from which she had started. I shouted to the pilot to reverse the engines to give her room. That slowed but did not stop the vessel, now less than 50 m. from her. An incredible sadness washed over me. We had disturbed her. She must have had good reason to undertake the exhausting swim. That effort was now wasted. Paddling furiously, she swam past our aft, less than 20 m. away. Out of her element. Scared. Angry. Helpless. As she scrambled ashore and vanished into her mangrove wilderness, I fought back tears. Thankful I saw her, I was filled with remorse for causing her stress.

Even as a young man, a primal instinct pushed me to parts of the planet where I could experience raw nature. It is here that I felt (and continue to feel) most alive, where I can remind myself why the gift of life was granted me! I saw my first tiger over 50 years ago in Kanha. It was the month of June and the air was pregnant with promised rain. We were tracking tiger pugmarks in the pre-dawn gloom, drenched by tall-grass dew and assaulted almost continuously by the smells and tummy expletives of Ram Pyari, our riding elephant!

The author saw his first tiger over 50 years ago in the Kanha Tiger Reserve, and was hooked for life. Photo: Shekhawat Abhikram.

And Then, There it Was

I spent an hour gaping openmouthed at the year-old cub that curiously explored its leaf-littered nullah. When he moved away, we followed for 200 m. or so until the young cat was united with mother and sister.

In 15 minutes I was enslaved by tiger fire and liberated from tawdry human ambition.

I recall hours spent sitting quietly with my companion, guide and friend, Manglu Baiga, keeper of Kanha’s forest secrets, at Shravan Tal, and Bahmni Dadar, absorbing the magic. Manglu taught me that nature was mother, father and child all in one. That being in a forest was like being in a temple. That I was no less a child of the earth than the tigers I had come to see.

I went to Kanha a tourist. I returned a nature worshipper.

Manglu Baiga. Photo: Sanctuary Photolibrary.

Protect What You Love

Sanctuary, the magazine my wife Madhu and I founded and which I have edited for over four decades, was conceived in a tiger forest. A warm fire, good cheer and a welltimed suggestion by the late Fateh Singh Rathore, then the Field Director of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, combined to extract a promise from my wife Madhu and I, “never to return unless we had a wildlife magazine to show for it.”

It took precisely 10 months for Sanctuary to evolve from idea to actuality. In the interim, several stalwarts such as Kailash Sankhala, the first Director of Project Tiger, played a crucial role in guiding, shaping and crafting the magazine.

Four decades ago, our mission was simple: use still pictures and moving words to create an appreciation for all things natural, so that such appreciation could give rise to concern. And then to action.

Today, our mission remains unchanged. The small club of wildlifers, however, has turned into an ocean of green warriors. Our collective purpose? To convince governments, businesses and the public that environmental protection and good long-term economics are two sides of one coin.

Only people-power can prevent bulldozers, mines, dams, and human greed from ripping our tiger forests apart. But this will only happen if we understand that it is in our interest to protect the forests that provide us with clean water, soil, air and food - and feed our spirit.

I believe our young ones will trigger the great U-turn.

Sanctuary Asia’s premier issue. Photo: Sanctuary Photolibrary.

Bittu Sahgal is the founder of the Sanctuary Nature Foundation and Editor at Sanctuary Asia.

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