Spotting Jai

A quest to catch a glimpse of a famous tiger in Maharashtra
Spotting Jai
Spotting Jai

The forest gate was less than 100 metres away and the farmer, riding his bullock cart, was ready to cross over when, suddenly, something yellow flashed before his eyes. One of the bullocks yoked to the cart bellowed in pain while the other fought to shake off the binding and run. The farmer screamed at the huge tiger trying to wrench away the first bullock.

Only once the tiger had disappeared into the forest after ripping some flesh off the bullock that everyone realised what had happened. The tiger had dared to defy the human presence around the gate and had attacked the bullock in broad daylight

But then Jai is not your average tiger.

Neither was this his first attempt at doing the unexpected. This is his story. In 2010, two male cubs were born to Mai the tigress, the dowager queen of Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra. The cubs were inseparable and were soon christened Jai and Viru, after the duo from the film Sholay. They were star attractions until they both disappeared a couple of years later.

In 2013, the presence of a new tiger was detected at Umred Karhandla Sanctuary&rsquos Paoni Range, about 130km away. After studying the tiger, the forest department confirmed it was Jai of Nagzira. Unknown to everyone, this young tiger had undertaken a perilous journey.

While the exact route that Jai took, or the reason for his journey is anybody&rsquos guess, the forest department was sure that he had travelled through forest patches, skirting or probably cutting through human settlements, even crossing the NH 6 and the Vainganga River. How Jai managed it without being detected remains a mystery.

The attack on the bullocks was still being discussed when we visited Umred Karhandla (UK) a month after the incident, in April 2015. At a distance of nearly 60km from Nagpur, and with fairly good roads, the drive to UK took less than two hours. We bypassed Umred town and drove another six km to reach a village called Thana.

Since UK still isn&rsquot a popular sanctuary, accommodation for travellers is limited to a couple of basic lodges in Umred town. Fortunately, our group leader had come to know of a new hotel or &lsquoresort&rsquo as it was being called, that was coming up in Thana village. It was still a work in progress but a corner had been thrown open for visitors.

There are four entry gates for UK Karhandla, Pullar, Gothangaon and Pauni the first being the most popular. Except Pauni (closed on Saturday), others are closed on Monday. Only 20 vehicles are permitted in each half of the day and you can book safari rides online.

Our first ride was booked for the Pauni Range, the home of Jai. But as luck would have it, we saw deer, nilgai and birds but not a glimpse of Jai. On the way back, we were told that vehicles that had entered through the Karhandla gate had had a grand view of Chandi, one of Jai&rsquos queens, and their cubs.

Perhaps we weren&rsquot destined to meet Jai. On the last ride around the park, we had travelled a little beyond the Karhandla gate, when we heard the distinct alarm calls made by spotted deer and langurs, apparently quite a rarity in UK. So we got pretty excited. Soon we found other cars racing to a point where Jai was heard growling. Although Jai resided in Pauni, he would often visit Karhandla to meet his latest consort T-6 and her cubs.

All the 20 cars that had gained entry that morning stood in awed silence a silence so dense that you could almost cut it with a knife. Jai was roaring and none of the other denizens of the forest dared to make a squeak. We realised he was on the prowl, looking for his family. But he did not come out of the forest cover. Soon it was time to take leave and we turned towards the exit gate with a heavy heart.

Jai had remained elusive.

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