The jungle and its inhabitants deserve to be treated with respect and awe…
In the last 36 years, I have encountered wildlife at extremely close quarters just four times.
The very first time was when we were filming a documentary called “Silent Valley”. During the three-week shoot in this forest, we had run out of provisions and I was trekking to a village 24 km away, along with my tribal guide.
As we were trekking, we heard sounds that sent a chill down our spines. A lone tusker in mast about 150 feet away, breaking every single branch within his reach and smashing it on the forest floor. We had to lie low in the forest for almost an hour, to allow the rampaging elephant to pass. In this situation, we were pre-warned and thus we escaped.
Allowed to retreat
The second instance was also in the Western Ghats, near Palakkad. I was trekking with my brother, Manu. At one point, we had to cross a river that was in spate. Just before I stepped into the river, I was holding on to the last rock on the ledge. My brother casually turned to look at my progress, and to his horror he saw a viper inches away from my hand. Without letting me know the gravity of the situation, he calmly told me to take my hand away very, very slowly. I did that, and then turned to look back. There was the viper on the rock, and I had escaped death by the moulted skin of my teeth! Here, I had a narrow escape as I had not threatened the viper, and it allowed me to retreat gracefully.
The third instance was in Tadoba, near Nagpur. My son Akash, who was barely 10 years old then, and I had gone into the jungles with a guide. As the mission was to look for tigers, we headed straight to a waterhole near the forest bungalow. At the waterhole that was nestling among the rocks, there were no tigers. But the wet pugmarks on the rocks were tell-tale signs that a tiger was there a few minutes ago. We looked around but couldn’t see it. Disappointed, we started trekking back. Suddenly a full grown tiger emerged from the foliage and stood there majestically, staring at us from 100 feet away!
The guide asked us to “freeze” and we did just that. After staring at us for a full minute, the tiger disappeared into the mystery of the forest. Here, we escaped because we were absolutely still — the tiger was neither threatened, nor provoked.
The last encounter happened on June 15 this year. It was at Masinagudi, near Mudumalai Sanctuary. There were three of us: The guide, my brother Manu and I. The guide had been in Mudumalai for over 15 years and he knew the forest like the palm of his hand. But little did he know that very soon the lifeline on his palm would cross the path of a wild tusker. On our trek, we came across a strange forestscape which had a mix of ancient trees, bamboo groves and gigantic bushes of lantana. It was the first time that I saw such massive bushes of lantana in a forest, that too in circular shapes, as if pruned by Mother Nature.
A little ahead we saw the skeleton of a prey hanging from a tree. The guide told us that a leopard had carried his kill up that tree a month ago and left the carcass behind. It was the last photograph I took, and little did I know then that it could well have been my very last!
A while later, the guide heard a sound that none of us had picked up. He asked my brother and me to wait. And as he went around the dense bamboo bush, he walked straight into the waiting tusker. Inadvertently, he had entered the elephant’s discomfort zone, which it construed as an act of blatant aggression.
I have been close to elephants, but was always in a jeep. And every time, they would warn by taking a few steps towards me, and then making a short, mock charge. But in this instance there was no time and not enough distance for such wild niceties. It made a charge at the guide, and he took to his heels. By the time we caught up with him, I was the last in the group.
As I turned back, I saw a wild tusker, barely 20 feet away from me, in full charge. I ran for my life, as fast as my trembling feet could carry me. Five steps later when I turned again, it was just about eight feet behind me, now in full flow. My survival instinct told me that I have to get out of his way before it knocks me down and tramples me, or impales me on its tusks. So I dived to the left and landed on my shoulder.
I could hear four legs coming to a screeching halt behind me. Then the tusker went down on its front legs and attacked me with its right tusk, right on my lower back. Just as it was preparing to attack me the second time, the guide let out a wild, nomadic scream which unsettled the tusker. It lost its concentration and the tusk went through my shirt near my shoulder, and I fell on the ground again.
The guide’s scream continued to reverberate in the forest, and the tusker left me bleeding and disappeared among the lantana bushes. Digging into the reserves of my will power, I slowly tried to get up. And surprise, surprise, I could! Then I made an attempt to take the first few tentative steps after my rebirth, and I could! Slowly, in deathly silence, we started walking back.
When I reached the resort, my wife Anita was startled by the news of the attack and the sight of the eight-inch gash that was bleeding profusely. We got into the jeep and drove to Coonoor. All along, for two-and-a-half hours, I was bleeding. By the time I reached the hospital, I was drained and exhausted. I held on till I met the surgeon and explained to him all that happened, and then blanked out.
I came to at 9 pm. By then the suturing was over and I was on the hospital bed.
This was, truly, an accident. And it could happen to anyone. Every time you walk into the jungle, you are entering the territory of wild animals whose sole purpose of existence is survival.
All that remains today of that attack is an eight-inch scar, and three hairline fractures in my lower vertebrae, which are now healing.
P.S.: On August 13, there was an article in DNA titled “Are animals getting mad at human beings?” The article noted that across Asia, Africa, Australia and America, there has been a spike in unprovoked attacks by elephants, leopards, bears, and many other species. According to Dr. Gay Bradshaw, a renowned Animal Psychologist, entire generations of traumatised wild animals are seething with revenge. They have grown up witnessing the systematic slaughter of their families by humans, and are getting back.
So every time we enter the hallowed precincts of these beautiful people, let’s pause for a moment. And then tread on those forest paths with a primordial awe and a primeval respect that we have been secretly carrying for millions of years. Until yesterday.