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THE LAST TIGER

I learnt to play gin rummy in the most unlikely spot imaginable, in the heart of the dense jungles of the Terai, in a hunting camp! My teacher was the last hunter hosted by Nepal Shikar Pvt. Ltd., the big game hunting outfit my father had started after retiring from the military. Although his name unfortunately escapes me, I remember his fondness for the game and his only interest in the jungles of Nepal was bagging a tiger, nothing less and nothing else. As days dragged by without a tiger being sighted or taking a bait, I was with him in the camp all day long playing the game of cards while my father was gone with the shikaris and trackers in search of the big cat. In the late afternoon we tried partridge shooting in the fields near our camp, quite a tough feat as the birds are shot while they fly zigzagging across the corn field. The client was an expert shot while it was a learning curve for me.

The year was 1972, the last year hunting was allowed in Nepal. India had already banned hunting of tigers after the 1971 season and Nepal followed suit one year later. There was a rush to shoot perhaps the last tigers ever in organized hunting and I remember there were several camps that year along the Terai jungles, from Nawalpur near Chitwan to the jungles of Bardia. This particular client was indeed pretty desperate to get a tiger, his first and his last! He had hunted many times in Africa so the lesser games like antelopes did not interest him.

On the last day of the official hunting season in Nepal there was a great commotion in the camp right from early morning. In the previous night a tiger had finally gone for a kill, it had taken a small buffalo tied up as bait in the jungles. There was a lot of work to be done before the tiger could be shot by the client, the jungle area had to be scouted for the tiger with its kill, the area surrounded by vith, the white cloth about 2 1/2 feet high, more to frighten the tiger than to deter it from jumping over, a machan platform for the hunter's comfort had to be built in a strategic location where the tiger would come out into the open, and this area was to be cleared of the tall elephant grass, bushes and foliage for clear unobstructed vision.

The adrenalin rush in a shikar camp after the tiger has taken the bait probably dates back to the primordial fear of the beast in us humans. Still nobody can really predict who will come out best, man or beast. The overwhelming odds are against the tiger for sure as it is encircled by many elephants and beaten towards the hunter who is armed with a high powered rifle, but still anything can happen! One wrong move, one unfortunate lapse of concentration and the tiger can maim you for life. By the time the tiger was located and encircled with the vith cloth it was already after mid-day. The white hunter was desperate already, he wanted the tiger badly. A mounted head in his living room in Texas would tell tall tales of his exploits in the jungles of Nepal.

We were already on elephants going for the beat. My father came along by my side and told me that the hunter did not mind who killed the tiger as long as he got the pelt, he knew that we had only a couple of hours more before darkness. "Here is your chance now, son" he told me, "Do you want to take it?" As the youngest son I had not had the opportunity my elders in the family got in the nineteen-fifties of shooting the tiger when my father was Commander-in-chief of the Royal Nepalese Army. All my brothers had got one each, and even the eldest in the family, sister had got one too. "Sure," I replied "I would be happy to take the chance." I had with me the redoubtable .318 Westley Richard double barreled rifle, a gun my father used earlier to shoot tigers with before he changed to the .375 Holland & Holland Magnum.

Sure enough hurried instructions were given to place the hunters in a semi-circle at one end of the encircled forest, bushes and foliage were quickly cleared for unobstructed view. But there was no time to build a machan. The hunter was placed on a tree, squatting on a branch with legs dangling, and I was taken to another. I got on top of a tree alone, placed myself as comfortably as possible on a branch and hoped for the best. My father decided to go on the beat himself.
We all have had anxious moments in our lives, waiting for exam results perhaps, anticipating a prized business venture or waiting for a new-born in the family. But waiting atop that tree for the tiger was pretty awesome. What would happen if it came from behind, would I have enough space and time to turn around and shoot it? What would happen if I missed? Would it try to jump to get me? Lack of worldly experience at 18 did not give me too many scenarios to sequence but I knew one thing for sure, I had to get the tiger with my first shot!

The beat started. It was a bedlam of noise: beaters shouting, branches breaking, guns firing in the air, elephants trumpeting in alarm sensing the clear and present danger of an infuriated tiger. I soon realised that the loudest noise I heard was the thumping of my own heart. I was now intently watching the foliage in front of me, around me. Would I see the blurring streak of yellow? I recalled seeing it the only time I was in a tiger shoot back in 1966, but I was then a kid, just a spectator atop a machan. Amidst this commotion there was a sharp rifle shot and I knew instantly that somebody had taken a shot at the tiger, and it was not I. Disappointment intermingling with relief, I was mighty curious to find out what had happened.

Eventually I got to know that the shot had not come from the hunter's rifle and I told him that it was not I who had fired. We were riding our elephants side by side when we heard the disappointing news - my father had seen the head of the tiger crouching and looking down at him from a leafy mound. My father had shot and missed. He killed 24 tigers in his lifetime with one shot and never missed and now he had missed his first tiger in the last day of the last professional hunt in Nepal. The tiger had then bolted out of the ring. I did not get my tiger and, now, never will. I was fortunate enough to be just there. And I also got to learn gin rummy!

Comments

  1. Great story about "the one that got away". The American must have been disappointed, but how's your gin rummy?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The rummy's gone just the gin remains!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Well written fast paced story, Subodh ,with an an anticlimax I liked.
    I am happy with the ending-the tiger lived to se another day and hopefully fathered (or mothered) tiger cubs.
    A dead tiger skin in a Texan ranch would be the ultimate tragedy.
    Govind

    ReplyDelete

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