The Adventures of Rohith Ashok in Panna National Park

“Do you hear that?” asked Devendar, our driver and guide on an early morning game drive in Panna National Park. “It’s a warning call from a sambar deer – a predator is nearby!”

We had entered the park under the cloak of darkness on a cold January morning. When the sun finally rose, only a few warm rays broke through the thick cover of trees. We walked through the forest for nearly two hours, bouncing on the back of an open Gypsy until we reached more open grassland.

Chital walked the trails casually, while the more cautious sambar chose to observe us from a safe distance. A boar was busy digging, trying to find a healthy breakfast, completely unfazed by the vehicle parked nearby. Peacocks and langurs arrived in droves to bask in the sun – defrosting, I guess, after what had been an extremely cold night. The sounds of the jungle were getting louder with each passing minute.

Once again Devendar heard something I didn’t – another warning call. “It’s coming from the east side,” he said while simultaneously pressing the pedal. Ten minutes later we parked next to three other safari vehicles. All guides have scoured the horizon for the elusive predator. But, there was nothing to see.

This whole routine was repeated eight more times, at least, without any luck. And by the time we took a break to eat an hour later, I was beginning to wonder if those “warning calls” were real. Could it simply be a pretext to make the experience more exciting for tourists? After all, it’s certainly nicer to think you’ve “almost seen a tiger” than to think you’ve come all the way to see a deer, isn’t it?

Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we packed up the boxes, Devendar’s ears perked up. “Come quickly, sir. This call is very near. We arrived at the scene – and this time he insisted that we wait. Ten minutes passed in complete silence. As the 20 minute mark passed, I began to lose hope.

And then it happened. Devendar tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to the left side of the vehicle. Within 100 yards there was movement in the grass. Seconds later, a male tiger appeared. He stopped to observe a few birds in flight then continued his male parade without paying attention to us. Almost as quickly as he appeared, he disappeared.

Seeing a tiger in real life was completely surreal to me. He is truly an embodiment of grace and poise. Although I have yet to fully process the magnificence of what I saw that morning, I can tell you this – it was thrilling and instantly addictive. Instead of just checking off an observation on my to-do list, I’m now hooked. I know I will continue to return – and I will be eternally grateful to live in a country where there are so many opportunities to do so.

Toya J. Bell