Close Encounters of the Wild Kind

On International Women’s Day, 25 female wildlife enthusiasts recount their most memorable encounters in the wild.

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A cheetah with its kill at the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Photo: Rhucha Kulkarni

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

Point Reyes, United States

In June of 2021, I was on a wildlife tour in Point Reyes. We started shortly after sunrise, and were seeing a lot of raptors (red-tailed hawk, vulture), bobcat, and at the last two pit stops, we came across a great horned owl, and a baby fox. The owl was perched and sleeping (so we thought) on a tree branch. We were tired and I set my camera on an intervalometer. I was also tired as it had been six-seven hours in the sun. All of a sudden, the owl opened its eyes and moved its feet. And we realised that all this while he had a snake in its claws. It was a half-eaten snake, and the owl was just catching up on a mid-meal nap (just some owl things).

—Subha Joshi, San Francisco

 

Maasai Mara, Kenya

On my first safari with my father in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, we witnessed a microcosm of the great migration: wildebeest crossing the Fig River, a tributary of the Mara.

As the herd queued up to cross, two male lions in their prime slumbered in a thicket some feet away, unbothered. That changed when the herd noisily began descending the gorge. One lion stalked unseen down to the animals and the hunt began. It was chaos, with anxious lowing, a flurry of bodies, hooves, and plumes of dust. When the air cleared some seconds later, the lion had claimed one unfortunate wildebeest with that definitive killing bite.

Looking out onto the vastness of the savanna was an overwhelming and emotional experience. The grasslands and wildlife, my father and I watched on TV in our living room all these years, were right in front of us, between my fingers and under my feet.

—Niyati Melody Mirajkar, Mumbai

 

Binsar, Uttarakhand

We were staying at Binsar for one night with a plan of covering nature trails the next day around the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Our local guide started the tour with a tune, telling us about the medicinal herbs found there. We walked around taking in majestic views of the Garhwal Himalayas and a whiff of Oregano, which grows abundantly in the wild. As we started our journey back to the resort for lunch, we came across a half-eaten cattle carcass in the middle of our path. We panicked and how! Our guide calmly informed us that a leopard inhabits the sanctuary and that had to be his meal! If we could, we would have gotten out of there faster than we did. It truly was a close encounter of the wild kind.

—Etta Talwar Dutta, Mumbai

 

Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra

Since 2002, I’ve made multiple visits to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, walking on foot as a researcher, and visiting thrice as a tourist. One time, after two dry safaris, we had a bad start to the third safari. It had started to rain so we had to rush back to the gate since the jeep had no cover. We waited for the rain to subside. We entered an hour late at around 7.30 a.m. and everyone was unhappy. Nothing happened until 10.15 a.m. and our driver told us that we needed to start our return journey, as tourists have to exit the park by 11 a.m. And then our driver spotted her sitting by the side of the road—the tigress of Panchdhara. She was alert. Our guide said that a group of wild dogs were approaching. I knew then that she was going to hunt. I cannot describe the rush of emotions.

—Deepshikha Mehra, Nagpur

 

Close Encounters Of The Wild Kind

Tigers at Nagarhole National Park, and Ranthambore National Park. Photos by: Manjushree Mohan; Kanchan Singodia

Kaziranga National Park, Assam

I started at dawn on an elephant to explore the eastern belt of the Kaziranga National Park. As the sun rays pierced the mist, I was in awe to see around 30 rhinoceroses ready to pose for my camera. I took several pictures of the large grey animals calmly munching on tall grass with some looking with interest at their enormous pachyderm counterpart, who I was riding. Perhaps the best scene was a male and a female rhino approaching each other from opposite ends and almost smiling (or so it seemed to me!) as they lovingly locked their single horns, oblivious of the observers around.

—Ruchita Vora, Philadelphia

 

Anamalai Hills, Tamil Nadu

Elephants can never disappoint you when it comes to a thrilling encounter. Having lived in the Anamalais (translating to elephant hills), encountering these giants—having been mock-charged by them—has not been rare. But the most special experience has been to witness all their gentle, tight knit moments as a herd. One special afternoon in the tea plantations of Valparai presented an opportunity, where I could spend time with a herd of 14 including a calf. I was barely a few feet away and surrounded by the herd for hours. They grazed, moved through the plantation at their own pace, the adolescents engaged in some play fights, locking trunks, the calf was nudged with gentle kicks to its butt by its mother; all while they cautiously sniffed for human scent and warned us of their presence.

—Keerthana Balaji, Bangalore

 

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

As a child, I visited the Ngorongoro crater. An hour into the game drive and we saw a magnificent herd of rhinoceros with a child. We stayed put for over 30 minutes. Suddenly, without any provocation, the rhinoceros charged, assuming some threat to the child. A chase I will never forget.

—Darssna Dilip Shah

 

Munnar, Kerala

We encountered a wild elephant in Munnar on the way back to our guest house from the sunset point. It came charging towards us on the narrow path with a cliff on one side and hills on the other. Our experienced cab driver manoeuvred us away from danger and we had a near escape from the marvellous but angry boy.

—Akanksha Khanna, New Delhi

 

Close Encounters Of The Wild Kind

Tussling elephants at Munnar. Photo by: Keerthana Balaji

Calaveras Big Trees, California

We went camping at Calaveras Big Trees, California in the summer of 2020. It was one of the first camping trips for us. One night around 3 a.m. we heard a loud sound from a garbage can. After a few minutes, we heard a heavy object being dragged, and we realised that there were bears near our camp ground. They were moving from one site to another, trying to open bear-proof lockers and cars in search of food. We were so scared since it was night time and it was our first camping trip and we had no idea what we should do. We were able to hear and feel the footsteps of bears near our tent at night but were too scared to do anything. I was not able to sleep the whole night because I was afraid for my kids’ safety.

—Sejal Sanghvi, San Ramon, California

 

South Africa

The most unforgettable encounter for me would be from my safari in South Africa when we came across a giraffe mother stooping over her barely alive, fatally wounded calf. The calf was being cared for and looked after by a herd of six giraffes. But what appeared to be affectionate support was in reality, desperate protection. Not far away, a pack of hyenas very meticulously had started creating a perimeter of hungry predators around the calf. We all knew, including the mother giraffe, that this was a lost battle. One by one, the herd started to dissipate, leaving behind the wounded calf. All, but one—the mother. The mother continued to remain by the side of her baby. She would gently nudge the calf, sniff him, stroke his neck. After a point, she seemed to have made the rational choice and slowly began to walk away. She covered some distance with her long strides, but then she paused and looked around and in defiance of all logic, she hurried back to her calf. It almost seemed now that the hyena’s patience would soon pay off but what happened next was unprecedented. To their utter dismay, just when it appeared that the mother would soon leave, the tower of all the giraffes returned to the scene, and started taking turns to embrace him. It appeared as though they were paying their final respects.

—Pallavi Laveti, Mumbai

 

Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand

We came across a small family of elephants in the Sonanadi range of Corbett National Park in December, 2021, very close to the Halduparao FRH. It was thrilling because of the proximity of the herd, barely 20 feet away! We were in awe as well as excited to be able to see elephants at such close quarters, how they protect their young and how the matriarch leads. So much to learn. And of course, the baby was adorable! Sonanadi is relatively wild and not very popular with tourists yet. There are just two safari tracks and it is quite popular for elephants. Hope it stays that way.

—Sudeshna Chatterjee, Noida

 

Udumalpet, Tamil Nadu

I grew up watching sunrises and moon rises over the Amaravathi dam at Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Elephants have been among my favourite animals as Chinnar never disappoints you when it comes to sightings. But my most cherished and thrilling encounter with the gentle giant was on New Year’s Day, 2021 when I decided to go on a trek organised by the Chinnar Forest Department. I was surrounded by three herds of elephants at different distances. I came face to face with one elephant which was just 30 feet away. I could literally feel the adrenaline rushing in my veins. But thanks to the camouflage of the dense forest and us not posing any harm or threat at all to the elephant, it left us unharmed, but not before making a mock charge.

—Dhikshanethraa J, Tamil Nadu

 

Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh

One of my favourite memories of wildlife was when I watched a tigress climbing a tree like a leopard and then descending as if she was a regular climber. I forgot everything and just watched her doing that. Didn’t even bother to pick up my camera to capture it. Yes, but I managed to take a video. A sighting to be remembered forever.

—Priyansha, Mumbai

 

Kaziranga National Park, Assam

In the second phase of my safari, when the car had stopped at a place where there was a herd of elephants, it was a pleasure to watch the herd dance. But very soon, this joy turned to fear, as a herd of Asian elephants crossed the path. I was alone in the car in the middle of their herd, with half of the group of elephants (female elephants and their young) ahead of me and the other herd of male elephants, behind me. I had heard that female animals are very aggressive when they are with their young. Well, I had no choice but to sit still, and in no time, the herd calmly crossed the path without charging.

—Supriya Harindrawar, Indore

 

Nagarhole National Park, Karnataka

We started a safari at Nagarhole National Park, before sunrise on a cold January morning. One hour into the safari, just as the sun was coming out and was lighting up the forest, we first heard the langur call and then saw a deer looking very alertly in one direction. As we looked in the same direction, we spotted a tiger. He darted across the path in front of us and disappeared behind thick vegetation.

We quickly got to the other side to spot him again.  We couldn’t see him at first and then all of a sudden, one of the photographers spotted him sitting up on a hillock and shouted for a stop. The driver stomped on the brakes and we ended up right in front of him with a screeching halt. The tiger did not bat an eyelid. He continued to survey his territory. After a few minutes, he got down and walked towards us. He walked so majestically, looking straight at us, right in the middle of the path putting on quite a show, letting us know that he was the king of that jungle.

—Manjushree Mohan, Bangalore

 

Close Encounters Of The Wild Kind

Residents of the wild that our readers sighted: (clockwise from top left) a moose in Alaska, the masked booby; a pelagic bird that one reader saw from her terrace in Mumbai; a great-horned owl in Point Reyes, U. S. A. Photos: Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock; Frank Wasserfuehrer/Shutterstock; Subha Joshi

Coonoor, Tamil Nadu

I was walking alone in the forest and the sun had just set. I didn’t know whether to run for my life, climb a tree or let destiny take its course as a bison stared me down. It was scary to be in the wild and experience this, but at the same time it was thrilling.

—Jaya Balakrishna, Bangalore

 

The Maldives

I visited the Maldives for a week in March 2020 to celebrate my niece and nephew’s first birthday. On the last day of the trip, I decided to go for a snorkelling tour through our hotel. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, we accidentally came across a group of bottlenose dolphins playing and jumping in the ocean. As my snorkel guide started using whistles, the dolphins started jumping in and out, as if on cue.

—Anshika Singh Bais, The Netherlands

 

Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka

My three-year-old son was excited about seeing wild elephants for the first time at Minneriya National Park in Sri Lanka. The driver was not sure if we would see any jumbos, as it was already 10 in the morning and the safaris usually start at 6-6.30 a.m. It was pretty hot and they were probably resting in the shade. We kept a close eye on the thick forest. After a hundred metres, a long, grey trunk peeped out of the bushes. The driver brought the jeep to a sudden halt and we waited eagerly to see if the massive mountain of grey would appear. The huge bush started to shake and the animal was placidly munching on the leaves as the jeep stopped just a few feet away from it.

Suddenly, a young elephant ambled out of the bush and stood on the road. Maybe it would have crossed the road and entered the other side of the forest but as soon as it saw the jeep, it turned and stared at us. The driver didn’t dare mess with it and began backing down the dirt road slowly as there was not enough space or time to turn the jeep around. As we started moving backwards, the young fellow started to walk towards us gently. Then, one after the other, lumbering beasts started crossing the dirt road, as their young fellow challenged us. As if it was having some fun with us, the animal kept staring at us while looking back at the herd crossing the road just behind it. First, a massive motherly figure walked gently across the road. Following it, to our ecstasy, were four calves and six grown-ups as if some school children were obediently going to the playground in a line.

—Chaitra Arjunpuri, Doha

 

Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan

On my first independent safari with one friend as a photographer, I was a little confused, excited, nervous, everything together as I didn’t know if I’d be able to manage my camera settings and make good images. In my last safari trips to the same park, I had gotten no sightings at all.

But five minutes into the safari, our guide pointed at her. Riddhi, sitting on the grass by the side of the road. She looked beautiful. She kept moving her tail and neck. The jeeps started collecting around her. She got disturbed and walked off to a different spot nearby. We followed her carefully. She sat there for some time and then again started walking to a patch of grass near the lake. Our driver quickly parked us at the best spot to keep an eye on her movements.

—Kanchan Singodia, Mumbai

 

Anchorage, Alaska

On a recent trip to Alaska, we came face to face with a male moose out in the wild while on a hike. You would think moose would resemble deer in size, but no! They are humongous, often towering over average human males. Fun fact: Moose are dangerous and one should avoid going near as they could charge and cause damage, sometimes to the fatal extent. Best bet, on the chase, run circles around a tree. That might help you escape an attacking moose.

—Deepika Choukse, Houston

 

Close Encounters Of The Wild Kind

A rhinoceros at Assam’s Kaziranga National Park. Photo by: Supriya Harindrawar

Maasai Mara, Kenya

It was a usual summer evening, the vast savannah brimming with the play of the wild. We knew a family of cheetahs was on the hunt, scanning the grasslands using our long lenses. Patience being tested, an eerie silence ensued, while impala peacefully grazed around us. And before we knew it, a blurry flash of movement, a predator chasing prey, and even before we realised, the grazing impala became a piece of meat. Mama Cheetah called her little ones, and the four of them enjoyed the buffet laid out.

—Rhucha Kulkarni, Mumbai

 

Kaziranga National Park, Assam

This incident happened in June, 2020. My sister and I were learning to drive. It was around 6 a.m. and we were crossing the Kaziranga National Park highway which is an animal corridor. There had been floods in Assam at that point of time. We saw an elephant calmly eating bananas from a tree and thought it was a domesticated one. Our chauffeur told us to stop the car far away from the elephant because he had realised it was a wild one and one who had left the herd. We kept moving and as we neared the elephant, it charged at us. It put its leg out towards our car, and my sister, who was still learning how to drive at that point of time, without blinking, stepped on the accelerator and sped her way forward. The animal came after us for some time before vanishing into the dense forests.

—Navika Singhania, Bokakhat (Assam)

 

Mumbai, Maharashtra

Pelagic birds spend most of their life in the open ocean, rarely visiting the shore, except for nesting. The only way one can find them inland is probably when they get stranded due to strong winds. They are well adapted for survival in the open sea. They have exceptionally long, thin wings that allow them to fly effortlessly for long periods without rest. Normally people have to venture into the deep sea to chance upon these rare beauties, which is an expensive affair, but seeing one from the terrace is nothing short of miraculous. I did on a Sunday in August 2020, when after a spell of rain, the weather cleared up. I always hope to see something I haven’t yet sighted from the terrace… such as the Grey Hornbill or even Prinia… but they keep eluding me. But the one who showed up that morning left me speechless and dancing with joy. As I saw something fly above me, ‘What’s that bird?’, I thought. Is it a stork? No… seems different… the wingspan is so long… and its slender body… No! It can’t be!! It took a lot of effort to control my excitement and click steady pictures. I am new to birding, yet had an idea what this could be. It was later confirmed as a Masked Booby! Similarly, I have had quite a few rarities visit my urban space including sparrow hawk, white-bellied sea eagle, tawny eagle, rusty-tailed flycatcher and so on.

—Kalyani Kapdi, Mumbai

 

Kanha National Park, Madhya Pradesh

It was a chilly winter evening in Kanha when I, along with a wildlife enthusiast friend decided to go on a night safari. We were accompanied by a local driver and a forest guide. As our jeep rolled into the jungle, the forest guide started sharing some of his experiences. A little later, we heard the sambar deer calling, and we were told that a tiger could be nearby. It was pitch dark, the only source of light were the jeep’s headlights and the moon. The driver brought the jeep to a halt and switched off the headlights. I thought to myself, what if the tiger was indeed right next to us behind the bushes, keeping a watch on us all this while? The Sambar deer’s voice grew louder. The driver started the jeep and took us to a spot where the tiger had killed a wild boar the previous night. We could see the markings on the sand. As we moved towards the exit, I think I saw a pair of glistening eyes stare at us from behind those bushes.

—Chayanika Moulik, Delhi

 

Ladakh

My most interesting encounter has been with black-necked cranes. I saw multiple couples on a single day in the Hanley plains of Ladakh. But the most interesting part was witnessing a specific couple and their child. They ran in the fields—little cranes trying to learn to fly. Sighting a young black-necked crane is very rare. And I was privileged to have done it.

—Shikha Vatsa, Delhi

 

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