The Art & Science of spotting big cats


There is a popular belief that you need to be damn lucky to spot a big cat in the wild. While there is quite an element of truth behind the statement, in my personal view there is more science and art to spotting the great cats of the wild, along with Luck. This is especially true in the South Indian jungles where Luck does play an important part but then there is an element of preparation and labor involved in creating a conducive environment for luck to come in. It is like the famous verse: To win a Lottery, you need to buy a Lottery Ticket! Let me elaborate .
 
The key to spotting the elusive big cats is all about understanding the call of the wild. In other words it is about deciphering the Sounds and smell of the Jungle.  The movement of these big cats is constantly tracked by the natural GPS of the jungles. Yes, Langurs on the high perches on tree tops keep a constant vigil on the movement of these cats and give out a warning call to the others on the ground of approaching danger. Similarly, Cheetal or Sambur, with their keen sense of hearing, smell and eyesight send out warning calls of these cats. Lapwings, Drongos and a long list of the birds send out telltale signs of animal movement. When this happens, it is extremely important to gauge the direction of the wind and the direction from which the call emancipates and park your vehicle downwind, switch off the engines, keeps absolute silence and wait patiently (sometimes even for an hour) for the cat to make its appearance. The chances of seeing a cat this way is extremely high when compared to driving around and hoping to find one along the way.

 Of course, if you are part of a crowd on the jeep it is difficult to convince everyone to wait for that long, and that is the reason why it is important that you pick your seats with like-minded folks (normally wildlife enthusiasts, photographers or frequent jungle goers) or travel with your own group or family. When there is an alarm call, your naturalist will identify the call and explain it to you. This is where your patience and self-discipline comes into play. Keep absolute silence, not even a hushed whisper.  

Wait patiently and when the cat does make its appearance, do not get excited and move about it just takes a moment for the big cat to vanish. Try not to break the profile of the jeep by standing up. Do not use your flash to photograph them and allow for them to take in the surroundings and settle down.
Yet after all this, there simply may not be a cat sighting. As a wildlife photographer I have been on innumerable Safaris where we decided to follow the warning calls and stay put in a place, and have returned without sighting anything at all. But then, this is part of the package and the thrills of waiting in a hushed completely silent environment are something that needs to be experienced to be believed.
Normally, the thumb rule is to heed completely to your naturalists opinions on the possibility of the sighting and the subsequent instructions and you will have a great sighting.

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