Even the leaves were bogged down by the 45-degree-Celsius heat. Nothing moved. The shimmering gold sunlight eventually disappeared without any pomp.
Right then, in a blink, the birds changed guard. Melodious voices were replaced by alarm calls and, seconds later, 12 wild boar appeared to drink from a waterhole lit by a rising full moon.
As the silvery disc made its way across the sky, the sounds of a forest by night took over. Wild dogs barked, deer screeched their alarms, the night jar hooted and there was a shimmer of ghostly trees standing still, clad in their white barks.
At 3.30 am there was a yelp from a herbivore, most likely a wild boar resting near the waterhole, followed by the scampering of a myriad hooves on the dry forest floor as a host of animals fled. In the sudden hush that followed, I could hear the soft, rhythmic padding of stealthy paws, sure-footed and strong.
It was a sound that, in some primeval throwback, immediately made my heart race. In the midst of Maharashtra’s Pench wildlife reserve, a leopard was on the prowl.
It’s hard to move, or even breathe, when you know there’s nothing separating you from a prime predator except a handful of leaves.
I was seated up in a machan or skeletal tree house, spending the night in the jungle as part of Pench’s annual waterhole machan census, when it invites ordinary people in on a full-moon summer night, to count the animals as they walk warily down for a drink.
In all, 750 people from across the country — Kolkata, Kanpur, Mumbai, Indore, Chennai, Bhopal, Ahmednagar and Siliguri — applied for the 195 spots, following announcements of the census dates in the newspapers. (Incidentally, you have a better chance of getting in if your have spent some time in the wild, and can offer details in your application.)
Once selected, you are allocated a machan and a forest guard for protection. The day of the census, you pick a number out of a hat and that determines whether you get a machan in the core or in an outer area, near a waterhole frequented by tigers or one that gets mainly herbivores. Because there are all kinds across the 640-sq-km Maharashtra section of the reserve.
Seated in my shelter of leaves and an undulating bamboo floor, 12 ft above the ground, I finally took a quiet breath. With every sound amplified, I had to steel myself to move a little, so I could lean and peep out for a better view.
Two tiny red laser points floated right by the water, 15 metres away — the gleaming eyes of the carnivorous cat reflecting the moonlight.
I heard the padding of large paws again as the leopard walked around the waterhole, stopped, and walked again. Ten minutes later, the pinpoints of light disappeared and the silence of the night jar confirmed that the cat had left.
Over the next 90 minutes, the herbivores returned, the sun came back in all its fury. The night was over. It was time to get my feet back on the ground.
Pointing to a trail of pugmarks that went right under the machan, van mazdoor or forest labourer Antu Tekam confirmed my sighting.
I was beaming; after 18 hours in sweltering discomfort, I was about to make a really noteworthy entry on my census sheet.
Among those who also spent the night listening and counting in Pench on May 21 was a real-estate developer from Bengaluru, an architect from Hyderabad, an HR executive from Pune, a banker from Nagpur, and a couple from Mumbai passionate about wildlife — a Montessori teacher and investment director.
“Maharashtra is the only state in the country that invites citizens in for such a survey,” said Jaydeep Das, livelihood expert at the Pench Tiger Reserve and Conservation Centre. “We’ve been doing the waterhole survey for 15 years and we get hundreds of applications every year.”
Until this year the waterhole census was primarily conducted to give people the experience of night in a jungle and make them aware of why conserving wildlife is important, added Sachin Thakre, Geographic Information System specialist with the reserve. “But this year it was different. Though the official survey is conducted with the help of night-vision cameras, the citizen data is being analysed with the help of the Wildlife Institute of India to reassess the density of herbivores in different sections of the reserve.”
It certainly helped realty developer Sunil Baberwal, 47, connect with nature in a way he never had before. “I saw a sloth bear from my machan at 8.40 pm. I could hear it approaching and then the guard said, ‘Don’t move’. I had my right hand stretched out, holding a bottle of water, for a good 10 minutes,” he said, laughing. The bear rummaged nearby for a good 20 minutes, leaving Baberwal thrilled but also scared. “I know bears are unpredictable and can be very aggressive,” he said. “But wildlife excites me! Experiencing the sounds, smells and sights of the jungle at night is an experience that just a handful can have and it was worth all the effort.”
Then there was Mumbai husband-wife duo Priya, 43, and Sridhar Sivaram, 47. The Montessori teacher and investment director spend most of their holidays touring forests and reserves. “Some people think we’re crazy,” said Priya, laughing. “In fact our teenage kids won’t accompany us on these trips any more.”
They picked a short straw and got allotted a machan frequented mainly by herbivores, but they spotted rare and exotic birds, including the Indian Pitta, which even got the forest guard excited, the Orange Headed Thrush, Racket Tailed Drongo, Black Naped Monarch and Golden Oriole.
“I’m just happy to have experienced the jungle at night. I would totally do this again,” Priya said.
For Pune HR executive Saptarshi Bhattacharya, 32, the highlight came in the form of a barking deer bark at 4 am. “That is a rare sighting. Over 13 years, I have been to Pench and Ranthambore so many times, but I have never seen this reclusive deer,” Bhattacharya said. “And he barked right at me. It was extremely exciting.”
Danger lurks in the forest; you can hear it all night long. The wild dogs bark in unison, either hunting or defending their prey; the deer call out their alarms from time to time; the nigh jar screeches every time an animal approaches. Every sound sets your heart racing.
It’s a night of much discomfort too — though it’s not as bad as you had thought it would be. It’s hot but you have to stay all covered up to protect yourself from insects; you must pee in the bushes before sundown and then hold it until sunrise; you have no backrest and only a thick bedsheet to pad the uneven bamboo floor.
But none of this matters because the adrenaline is racing through your veins. As you watch the sun make its patterns on the trees and forest floor, then the moon bathe it all in silvery light, and eventually the dawn peep out at the horizon, you know you were lucky to get a spot. And, as you leave, you say a silent thank you to the leopard for showing up.
WATCH: Participants train for the waterhole machan census