The children were very excited about it. Early in the morning they woke up to the bird songs. Before the sun’s rays could peep in through the treetops they were ready in the jeep. This was their first visit to the jungle with their parents and the guide who knew the jungle well.
Welcome to the National Park said the guide. There are lots of interesting things to see. Let’s be on the look out. As they drove off, all senses were alert. Thick bushes were all around them. The jeep pulled up.
Look, said the guide. He pointed to something moving under a bush. They all peered down and saw a porcupine. It bristled, its quills. Wow! said Jaya. Those look like they would really hurt.
That’s the point, joked Varun. The quills keep the enemies away and the porcupine quite safe. And now he’s playing it even safer by hiding deeper in the bush.
They drove on, enjoying the overhead canopy and gentle bumps on the road. Up ahead a few spotted deer were crossing the road. When they came near, the deer seemed to have disappeared.
Where did they go? asked Varun.
Those are cheetal, said the guide. And they’re still here, well camouflaged.
What is a camouflage? asked Jaya.
It is a device or means for disguising. As you know, all animals have colors or patterns on them. These colors or patterns help the animals blend with the natural surroundings they are in. It becomes very difficult to spot them. Here the cheetal’s brown colour with white spots blends with the earth’s tones.
A peacock shrieked and all of a sudden the cheetal ran away with long legged bounds.
They are fast! remarked Daddy. No wonder tigers have a hard time catching them.
Up ahead was a grassy meadow. They stopped to look at a family of wild boars digging for roots. Mummy pointed to their tusks and said, Aren’t those grand. No wonder they can dig deep burrows to live in.
Those tusks are a handy weapon when it comes to saving their skins too said Daddy. I’ve seen boars defending their families against much larger animals.
Past the wild boar, the guide showed them the shaggy brown sambar deer and some neelgai.
The guide was looking through his field glasses when he suddenly tensed. He stared hard. Then, excitedly, yet gently pointed to a tree in the distance.
A leopard! he said and it has a kill on the tree. Everyone looked through the binoculars one by one. Sure enough, a majestic leopard stared back at them.
What is the kill? Why is it up on a tree? asked the children.
It’s a barking deer, replied the guide. The leopard has carried it up so that it won’t be snatched away by a tiger or a hyena.
Climbing trees is a very special ability, said Mummy. It takes strong legs to go up and a strong tail to help balance like a tight ropewalker. Tigers and lions can’t climb like that because they are too heavy.
Wow! said Varun. Each animal has something special! What else is special about the leopard?
In the day, he uses camouflage to hunt; at night, his powerful night vision, said the guide; his hands crawling like a stalking leopard.
They watched till it was time to move on and leave the great cat alone.
They drove through woodlands and crossed a river. Tall grass was up ahead. As they took the narrow road through it they caught sight of a rhino and a calf running into the thicket.
Who can tell me what’s special about the rhino? asked mummy.
The hard skin, said Varun. It’s like armour. Who could bite into that? !
And the horn said Jaya. The rhino’s very own dagger to fight with.
Well noticed! said Dad. It’s nice to see you children enjoying the forest. How about a little break? I’m hungry.
Let’s climb up and sit on the machan, said the guide. There’s nothing like cold drinks, sandwiches and view! Everyone agreed.
As they sat munching, they watched the langurs on the treetops. There were many birds around. The guide showed them babblers, green pigeons and lapwings.
See the kingfisher above the pond? he pointed. It can hover over the water by beating his wings very fast. When it spots a fish it dives in and captures it in his long beak.
After lunch, there was a surprise. The rest of the viewing was to be on elephant back! Vanmala, a forty-year-old elephant was brought to the machan. The mahout guided her from behind the ears by using his bare feet. Sitting on her back, off they went, swaying to the rhythm of her walk.
They rode through the woods and across the river. Down the ravine was a ranger’s hut. The guide yelled out to him and the ranger appeared.
Any calls? asked the guide. They talked for a while then took of in the direction the ranger had pointed to.
What’s happening? asked Jaya. Mummy explained that the animals call out in alarm when they sense danger. The guide was trying to track down a tiger by listening to the animal’s calls.
With fingers crossed and beating hearts they trekked up the steep side of the ravine. The forest was very quiet, and no pugmarks were visible.
The guide pointed to the vultures circling in the sky.
Surely there is a kill somewhere in that direction. The ranger heard a tiger’s roar earlier. It came from there as well.
How can vultures find a carcass from so high up? They must have excellent eye sight, said Jaya.
That’s right! said the guide Vultures have binocular vision. Their eyes can zoom into something of interest and see it close up. In silence they plodded through the bamboo thickets looking out for the elusive tiger.
The quiet was broken up by sounds ahead. They reached a clearing to find a hyena on the remains of a wild boar. A pair of jackals were snapping, howling, quarrelling, trying to snatch off bits while fending off vultures. The tiger was nowhere to be seen.
Those are nature’s sweepers, said the guide. They clean up the left-overs. The hyena’s jaw is so strong that it can crunch up the toughest bones.
Suddenly there was an unmistakable alarm call by a langur followed by a sambar’s bellow. The tiger was returning to his meal. The scavengers scattered. The tiger appeared. But it wasn’t a tiger. It was a tigress, along were the most adorable twin cubs!
There was a shiver of excitement as they watched from a respectable distance.
They saw the cubs feed, then frolic around their mother who lay on her side. They marveled at the tiger’s strength and at the way their stripes helped them blend with the tall grass. After a while, the mahout guided the elephant away.
What a sight that was! sighed Varun.
Mummy, asked Jaya people don’t have any special camouflage. We don’t have fangs, claws, or horns. Nor do we have the tigers’ strength. Our skin is soft with no protection. Our night vision is poor. What’s special about us?
No sooner had she asked this question, a cloud of smoke arose in the distance. It was a forest fire! They could see it from their height.
Everyone stared. The guide and mahout exchanged words. Daddy and Mummy looked concerned. The children were very worried.
The forest is on fire! It is coming towards us! panicked Jaya. We are trapped! What will happen to us?
The animals! shouted Varun. Where will they go? The river is on one end and the ravine on the other. They are trapped like us! The guide looked through his binoculars.
Don’t worry, he said in a calm voice. There is a fire line between the fire and us. The fire will be put out soon.
What is a fire line? the children wanted to know.
Fire lines are clearings that we create throughout the forest.
Nothing grows on them. No dead wood or dry leaves are allowed to remain. When the fire reaches this open area, there isn’t anything there to fuel it further. It dies out naturally. See, the rangers and fire patrol jeeps have arrived. They are watching to make sure everything is under control.
How clever! said Jaya What a wonderful idea!
Mummy smiled. You asked what is special about us. You see, we humans have remarkable intelligence. With it, not only can we protect ourselves but our animal friends too!
How true! thought the children as they headed back.
What a day! The guide was right. The forest was indeed packed with interesting things to see.
Daddy, they asked, in our next holidays could we please come back to the jungle?
Daddy smiled and said, You must have been reading my mind!
First published by National Book Trust, India