qxd 4/29/2011 6:42 PM Page 1

India Abroad April 22, 2011



A hair-raising jungle adventure on the day of the India-Sri Lanka final Illustration:

When Stumpy stood between us and World Cup

Uttam Ghosh

ellular signals don’t trouble the Kulgi Nature Camp in Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve. Not unless your phone happens to point northeast at a particular angle that takes three hours to determine accurately. There is, however, a color television set in the common room here and a quorum of cricket enthusiasts among the guests – where is that hard to find? And so my friend Satish, who had almost stayed back in Bangalore to cheer for India’s clash with Sri Lanka in the final of the World Cup, found himself couchpotatoed stolidly before that most idiotic of boxes, a musty-smelling towel spread territorially over the back of his PVC deck chair. I doubt if he even made time for the demands of his bladder. The rest of us – Arun, Andy, Sahastra and I – set out for a little walk in the jungle at 5 pm. We took the Bird Trail, one of two short walks (the other is the Timber Trail) that originate at the camp. At this time of the year, the dry deciduous forests of Dandeli are bare and brown. Not that we were complaining. The thin foliage allowed for penetrating views though the duller birds reveled in the camouflage it offered. We had already twice seen a White-bellied Woodpecker (one of the rarest species in southern India) and were looking forward to exhaust the hornbills on our checklist. We had walked too far down the trail as the sun began to set behind the trees. And yes, we had left the camp when Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara were holding the flag aloft for Sri Lanka and, though I could have gone ahead and birded some more, patriotic pressure was building within my troops to return and watch the Indian innings unfold. Sahastra led the retreat from the bird trail and we shuffled noisily along the path, which was strewn with a rustling carpet of dry leaves, carelessly crushing red bugs underfoot. Arun suddenly alerted us to another sound – the cracking of bamboo stumps. Only one creature (aside from the Giant Panda, perhaps?) was capable of making that noise. To our luck, the leafless jungle aided visibility. In the crackling dry undergrowth we discerned the hunched shapes of elephants. A prime wildlife sighting no doubt, but rather intimidating at a distance of 100 meters. We stood there on wobbly knees and considered the odds – what if they attacked? Run in zig-zag formation, went an old jungle say-


ing. Yes, yes... as if we had an option in this tangled forest. Another fear creased my brow: Were we upwind or downwind from the beasts? The only way to find out was to break wind. Finally, we exercised Option Three: Shut up and wait it out. There were six beasts – three cows including a matriarch, and three calves of which one young chap had sprouted tusks. If they chose to use force, this was going to be a formidable army. Another creature then joined the gazing party. Separated from its herd, a young deer pranced anxiously through the thicket across our path and, upon spot-

ting us, froze and stared. My bowels were about to mutiny, for an alarm call from this lax little herbivore could spell our doom. At the end of a long and tense thirty seconds the deer bounded off into the forest. The elephants seemed in no hurry to move. They weren’t feeding – there was nothing fit to eat. They just stood there fiddling with the dust, silent, watching with their tiny brown eyes. At one moment, all of them seemed to hold the same frozen front-foot-inthe-air posture. The matriarch, leading the herd, stood to our extreme right, pawing at the ground with her enormous foot. The dust must have reached my nose (or was it my mind playing tricks?) for I began to feel a desperate urge to sneeze. It took all my yogic resolve to fend it off. It occurred to us then that the match would have resumed. India would perhaps be chasing down that mammoth (wrong word to use under the circumstances) total set for it by Sri Lanka. Wonder if our pachyderm friends were aware that the mascot of the tournament was an (infinitely more cuddly) elephant called Stumpy? Would that knowledge be reason enough for them to let us get away from here alive and unharmed? The herd shuffled in slomo while we stood as still as we could, and as quietly as our nervous, cricket-besotted minds would let us. Twenty-five minutes later, when the light had almost faded, the elephants had moved on out of earshot. As we passed the spot where the herd had crossed, Arun pointed out a scoop in the ground where the matriarch had pawed it. There was no trace of dung anywhere (though two days later we would chance upon fragrant evidence that the herd had fed copiously and moved towards a waterfall five kilometers downhill in the Nagzhari Valley). We got out of there as quickly as we could, fighting the instinct to bolt down the path. It was the fastest that we had ever returned from a birding trip. Back at the camp, Virender Sehwag had fallen to Lasith Malinga in the first over and Sachin Tendulkar and Gautam Gambhir were holding fort for India. Satish sat before the television munching a double-omelet, oblivious to our arrival. He had plenty of company by now and we had to be content with the seats at the back of the hall. The forest guards were thrilled to hear of our encounter but Satish couldn’t be distracted from his watch over Team India’s fortunes. We had to wait until Dhoni had tonked the most celebrated six in four years to tell him how Stumpy had almost cost us the World Cup! n Bijoy Venugopal is part of The Green Ogre team, which includes three other nature enthusiasts and photographers/ diarists. Thegreenogre.blogspot.com has been ranked among the Top 300 birding blogs by birding blog index Fat Birder and among the top blogs in the Environment category by the Indian blog network Blogjunta

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