Yellow Phantom

Photo of Jim Corbett National Park, Ramnagar, Uttarakhand, India by Syed Ali Husain

I was just one year old when I first went to Corbett. That was the spark. My dad, a wildlife enthusiast, had binoculars and a camera which were my toys as I took my very first steps. I would spend hours observing birds visiting our home in Lucknow. Pretending to be on a safari, I would show my younger brother the birds and give them names I thought most appropriate... Summer and winter vacations, Eid or Diwali break, our destination was fixed- Corbett Tiger Reserve, where I would climb up my dad's shoulders to see when a tiger would show up. Instead of photographing what I saw, I would come back to Forest Rest House and draw the sightings of the day, sometimes exaggerating a tiger hunting a Sambhar deer, my dream sighting since then (and an unfulfilled one). It was not very complicated at the beginning...

As I got older I almost forgot how to draw as I had started trying my hand on my father's camera. While my friends were still learning to solve algebraic expressions, I had started my love affair with wild beasts. Exams would get over and I would knock at the Dhangari Gate. Sometimes I apply rule of thirds to chemical equations and take pictures by the Octet rule. But one achievement in studies meant one more trip and something added to the gear, and so, the fight went on.

Inspired by the works of the great photographers I try to put in all that I had learned. Class 11 th saw me flipping through pages of Nootan Physics texts and browsing through Indian Nature Watch. But achieving the H's is not very easy. Ahhh... scoring Hundred and taking the Hunting shot. I have to memorize not just the value of Epsilon naught but also remember to apply double Shutter speed concept while clicking pictures. With my new lens- a Nikkor 200-500 5.6 added to my photography gear, as well as books for my ISC course, I planned a short trip to Corbett before the school would re-open. After a backache on the first day of using it I realized it was impossible to keep holding this lens like my previous baby, the Nikkor 70-300. And that was just the lesson one. After sighting a pair of tigers my camera starved for almost five days.

The blue hills of Uttarakhand peek from behind bare trees where a lonely holds a silent vigil. Welcome to Corbett.

Photo of Yellow Phantom by Syed Ali Husain

The jungle was silent until a Sambhar's bellow came floating from the soft grass and jagged barks of the nearby Sal woods, followed swiftly by a Chital's horrified cry. Getting closer to the spot we could clearly hear the haunting alarm calls of a Barking Deer. We soon reached the place that seemed to be the epicenter of the commotion. There was a visible tension in the animals there. Peacocks flew off the ground, away from the grasp of a possible tiger; restless Sambhar deer seemed to have sensed the presence of the striped beast. Soon the chaos ended; and we found ourselves in God's own garden- Sambhar Road's High Bank. A hungry Pied Kingfisher- eager to make a kill- was diving into the Ramganga, and my dad's hand dove in a Kaju Mixture Namkeen packet searching for cashew nuts...

A female Sambhar buck frolics in fields of Jasmine

Photo of Yellow Phantom by Syed Ali Husain

The air was loaded with the untouched aroma of jungle Jasmine and the intensity of its fragrance was renewed every time a Green Bee-Eater would brush against these flowers while chasing insects. Even the tiny wings of the insects gleamed brilliantly. Whistling Thrushes hopped from log to log while a pair of hungry Black Storks stood still in the water. A sun-kissed Sunbird, with glittering shades of purple and green, darted from one flower to another, and, hanging on beating wings, they probed for nectar. The animals were assembling to worship the Sun, so Rizwan and I decided not to interrupt the holy ceremony. The Ramganga's water glistened as lava as the sky melted and, in the distance, the grassland bustled with thousands of Chital. I was lost in this breathtaking sight, and couldn't even hear Rizwan asking me to sit down until my thoughts were disturbed by the roar of the Gypsy's engine as we sped to the FRH, curfew close at hand.

A little Green Bee- Eater peers at the wilderness from its comfortable perch on a twisted branch.

Photo of Yellow Phantom by Syed Ali Husain

Since I had entered the park, the most popular news was of the leopard sighting near the Palm trees. The spot was named after a waterhole bordered by palm trees creating a magical environment. Greens mingling with the black water of the pool are like camps for animals wandering around. A photographer confirmed this rumour with freshly taken pictures and in no time, we were on our way.

We rushed past rows of Sal trees in our pursuit. When we arrived, we tried to focus on every fallen log, every branch on every tree, ignoring the patterns of leaves that were teasing me, imitating to be a leopard's hide. Our nervous eyes were looking all around when the driver gestured towards the root of a big Sal. With my zoom lens I noticed something- a head not bigger than the rock lying nearby. It was one of God's most magnificent creations- a young leopard, staring right at me. For the first time in these fifteen years of visiting the forest, I was seeing a leopard in the wild! This rare cat felt too shy to prowl in a royal manner and preferred hiding. Perfect colour contrast- raven spots on its canary face. The beauty was startled to see humans around and with a thrust it darted to the other side of the road. I stood still, as though paralyzed by the sight of this ghostly creature. A family of Red Jungle Fowls, quite unaware of the presence of the predator, walked in its direction. The leopard was keen to have them on his dinner table and it pursued them into the thicket and finally disappeared. I still could not believe my dream to see a leopard in Corbett had come true.

Rare spots peek from behind a heavy Sal tree as the hard-to-find feline plots a hasty exit.

Photo of Yellow Phantom by Syed Ali Husain

When the moment came after years of waiting, I forgot everything! I didn't remember to check my shutter speed... I didn't look for a suitable composition. All I could feel was my shutter button while Rizwan's excited "Leupatt! Leupatt!" echoed in my head.

Khut Khut Khut went the shutter. I didn't even check to see what I got until I got back to the rest house. I was scared. What would my driver say? Will I get a tap or everyone would laugh seeing I missed the opportunity? Did I really miss it? It was like I had got my class results and now I had to hide from my relatives and neighbours and just reach my room, pretend not to hear when anyone asks "You got anything?", just keep walking or else I'll have to disclose my marks. I silently kept my camera in the room and paid more attention to the cries of my stomach. In the darkness of the canteen where the flames of the stove were brighter than the bulb, I was having Maggi when a fellow photographer came over and exclaimed "AYE! You saw the leopard today, got any nice pictures?" This sounded more like "So how much did you score in exams?" I whispered a yes, but before he could ask me to show him the pictures I told him my camera's battery was dead...

A family entered discussing my sighting and I was happy they didn't know who that "fortunate" one was who had seen the leopard. It was time to leave this darkness and check what I had gotten. I sat on my verandah; the moment was intense, my heart beat faster and now I would find out where I stood in class...The pictures weren't good. But in those pictures lived a splendid creature with symmetrical rosettes scattered all over its hide, which I would probably never see again...

Whiskers, hurricane and a long and fury tail. That’s all you’re gonna get from Panther pardus unless you ask politely.

Photo of Yellow Phantom by Syed Ali Husain

Corbett never disappoints. This trip rendered me my dream sightings, but I couldn't score a hundred this time but here my teacher is my mother. Corbett has taught me how to patiently sit for hours waiting for the right opportunity, to love and respect God's creations and make efforts to save them from people who see nature as completely separate from their lives, when actually we are all a part of it. My thoughts were accompanied by the metallic chuk chuk of a Nightjar as I made to sleep. Everyone talks to animals; nobody listens to them. That is the problem.

Photo of Yellow Phantom by Syed Ali Husain

This blog was originally published on Ali Husain.