Unlikely Hero

Heroes can sometimes be found in the most unlikely places: and this story is about one such unlikely hero. The setting for this story is not the set of a Bollywood film: but a forest in Central India. And the hero of this story is not a filmy chocolate hero, but a 2 ton beast living free in the wild, or to be more specific a Gaur (Bos Gaurus), often erroneously called as “Bison” in popular culture (read: the clueless Indian media). The Gaur, or “Gawa” as it is called in Marathi, is certainly not your average Bollywood hero; looking something like a cross between a rhino and a cow and tipping the scales at almost 2 tons, with a face even a mother would find hard to love. But, as this story will show, what it lacks in sex appeal, it more than makes up for with brute strength and sheer grit.

The hero of our story had the rather insipid name of “C98 Male” in reference to the waterhole where he was usually to be seen. But the forest guards called him “Bheem”, and to them atleast, and those who knew him, he was a gaur with the heart of a tiger. I have always found it amusing to hear Forest Guards talk of wild animals like they were people.

A sample: “Did you see how Katrina has been ignoring her cubs of late? I don’t understand whats gotten into her!”.


Dhauna has been behaving like a total bully again! We have to keep a watch on his movements“.

The reference in both these comments being to 2 tigers: female and male respectively. Katrina was so named because of a cut tail: probably the result of a fight with a male to save her cubs. I must also mention at this point, that not all animals are given this “honor” of getting a name: its only animals that have displayed some special personality trait which get this honor. Katrina was the brave and fiercely protective mother. Dhauna: a nasty Prem Chopra like brute with a tendency to pick up fights with the residents of the forest. The Jambhulwadi male on the other hand, was the handsome gentleman with infinite patience at the wooing game! Our friend Bheem certainly deserved the honor of getting a name rather than a number: he was to be the gritty one.

My first encounter with Bheem was purely auditory: we had been dropped off in a Forest department Gypsy at a certain point on the fire line and we were cutting a path through the overgrown weeds and undergrowth towards the C98 waterhole, when we heard a large animal crashing through the woods a few meters to the west of where we stood. The Forest Guard mentioned that it was the resident male Gaur who was known to have a bad temper who was probably running away on hearing or seeing us approach. The guard had chosen a popular abuse in Marathi to describe the animal and even though the sounds of the 2 ton beast crashing through the woods had momentarily put me off-balance, the manner in which the guard chose to describe the animal bought out an involuntary chuckle.

We spent over 2 hours at the waterhole, and in this period, Bheem returned and made his displeasure at our presence pretty obvious with his bellowing grunts while still hidden away in the dense bushes and forest. Having learnt that the animal was a Gaur, all my fear vanished and I remember being quite casual about the whole affair even as angry grunts were periodically shaking the bushes surrounding the clearing around the waterhole. I remember being more fascinated by the brilliantly camouflaged machchan hidden away in the trees beside the waterhole than the furious animal lurking in the bushes. Somehow a member of the bovine species, even a 2 ton beast, doesn’t quite strike the fear that a tiger or leopard would cause in a similar situation! 🙂

Machan is a kind of safety platform in a tree used when hunting big animals such as tigers and leopards; found most commonly in Indian jungles. The simplest of these is no more than a charpoy type bed tied upside down high up in the tree and camouflaged with branches. Sitting up in one at night, especially on a moonless night, is a fab way of seeing wildlife. Can u spot the cleverly hidden machan in the above pic?

It was only 3 days later that I first saw Bheem in person while driving back towards the Patrol House from the C98 area and I remember being distinctly unimpressed. More so, because while returning from C98 3 days earlier, the forest staff had plied me with a dozen stories of Bheem’s mis-adventures, turning him in my mind into a big bully kind of personality. Apparently, Bheem had made the lives of the forest staff miserable with his unusually aggressive behavior. The first sight of Bheem therefore was quite the anti-climax for in front of me was a gaur which was much smaller than what I had expected to see. He was no more than 1200 kilos or so (far from the 2 tons that is normal) and the color of his hair was a light, even pale brown. The hair of alpha-male gaurs tends to get darker, ranging towards jet-black: so this one was probably a low-ranking male. Infact, If it wasn’t for his distinctive high-set shoulders, he was small enough to be easily confused for a female. But looks can be deceptive as it was on this occasion: for under that smallish body beat a mighty heart! We were greeted by snorts and bellows that first time. On our second encounter, later that same day, we were greeted with a mock-charge! The Gypsy is usually good for getting out of tight spots like these and this time was no exception either! 🙂 I floored the throttles and with tyres squealing, we got out of harms way! He didn’t follow through with the charge; he didn’t need to! He had made his point: we could not henceforth come into that area without incurring his wrath!

As earlier mentioned, the brilliantly disguised machchan at the waterhole clearing had attracted my attention. This was an experience I really wanted so I ended up pestering quite a few Forest Officers trying to convince them to allow me to spend a night on the machchan. Persistence pays, and by day 2, I had succeeded in getting the Forest Officer Khan to allow me to spend a night on that machan. Khan warned me that a night on the machaan was not as fun as I seemed to think! And he didnt think that a City Girl like me could handle it! Census Volunteers have always had a love-hate thing with Forest Staff and Khan always took pleasure in seeing us squirm! So i think he was looking forward to me actually doing it! He arranged to have one of the forest Guards drop me off and hoist me into the machaan during his evening patrol. He would come again 12 hours later on his Morning patrol to pick me up! I was going to be alone on that machaan for 12 hours while he would be away in the Patrol House around 4kms to the West of that Waterhole!

Spreading one of 2 blankets on the floor of the machchan helped improve the comfort considerably and I was settled in by the time the Birds were finishing their evening orchestra. Usually there are some birds that come out at night and their calls can be very reassuring. Tonight however they seemed to have gone over to visit relatives in some distant forest, for this forest was eerily silent. No langurs, no chitals calling -NOTHING! Also in my excitement at getting onto the machchan, I had forgotten to take into account the fact that tonight was a moonless night!

Barely a few minutes after I had settled in, I heard the loud sound of something large crashing through the bushes. It was Bheema returning to his favorite hangout at the waterhole. He was unusually testy this evening – did he suspect my presence on the machaan? When I looked down again a little later, he was nowhere to be seen! But in my gut, I knew he was hanging around in the thick jungle brush surrounding the Waterhole.

It was much, much later that night, as I was battling mosquitoes and boredom, when a langur monkey suddenly and inexplicably called from a ridge on the North-North West of C98 waterhole where I was. Now remember that the whole forest had been incredibly quiet till that point. The Langurs make that particular call only when they see a predator and the call is his way of instinctively warning the other residents of the forest that they better watch out! A predator was clearly on the move, and this could well be a Tiger or a Leopard. There was a seasonal rivulet that ran north-wards on the other side of the ridge from where the langur had called and a trail from there led straight down to the fireline which in turn was around 100 meters West of where I was sitting up.

The tone of the call is a good indicator of how things are progressing. The langur’s single call was quite relaxed: which meant that whatever he had seen was ambling along casually and while there was nothing to be seriously worried about he was asking the residents of the forests to stay on guard. An agitated shrill call on the other hand is an indicator that a hunt is on!

I was hoping that other langurs down the line would pick up and relay the alarm call as usually happens in these situations. This would have helped to figure out which way this predator was headed. However nothing of the sort happened. The Forest returned to a deathly silence and I soon started nodding off.

Suddenly and inexplicably, I was jolted awake! I couldn’t see anything but that jungle instinct told me that something had come to the waterhole. I only heard the sound of heavy breating coming from directly beneath the tree where my machaan was tied up. I was not in any real danger because the rolls of heavy barbed wire tied around the base would ensure no Leopard could climb up that Tree. And Tigers cannot climb – well not that well! There was a further “sigh” sound and finally a shadow stepped out from under that Tree and into the Clearing by the Waterhole – it was a Tiger, and a very large Male at that. He walked over to the Waterhole and was taking a leisurely drink when something crashed through the Bushes! Our friend Bheem had arrived in his trademark style and he was clearly very, very mad! With a loud bellow, he charged at the startled Tiger!

Know what a startled Tiger sounds like? Well I do, NOW! It goes something like “YEORGH!!!”

The frightened tiger jumped with that startled roar and made a dash towards the safety of the jungle with that crazy Gaur chasing after him! I didn’t see anything after that! But I heard! For the next hour, I heard loud roars and bellows in the bushes near the waterhole as the 2 went at each other! The forest went eerily silent after that. But then the fight started again! This went on through the night! Short, intense fight punctuated by gaps where the forest went eerily silent. In one of those intervals, I fell asleep! :-O

I woke up with a jolt as the “false dawn” came and went. The waterhole was deserted but a slight guttural sound come from the base of the tree told me there was something there and he was clearly in a lot of pain. I couldn’t see him, but I was sure it was the Tiger from the previous night! A vehicle was approaching – the forest guards accompanied by Khan had come to pick me up. They had heard the sounds of the huge fight from the Patrol House and were relieved to see me seated pretty on the machaan! The wounded tiger had vanished! For two days after that, there was no sight of either the Tiger or Bheem. The general conclusion was that the Tiger had survived the fight but Bheem had not made it! On the 3rd day, a Patrol Guard spotted the Tiger on the Southern trail leading to C98 waterhole – DEAD and from the look of it he had been severely wounded in the fight with Bheem!

The same day evening, I was making one last round through the area before leaving for Nagpur when I saw Bheem sitting on his haunches at the waterhole. Seeing my Gypsy approach, he stood up with difficulty to charge at us like he always did but this time he clearly couldn’t! He was so severely wounded that we were sure he wouldn’t make it! His lower belly had been ripped apart and his intestines were partly hanging out! Bheem had made our lives miserable over the years with his aggression but seeing him in this state was Tragic! I said a tearful goodbye.

2 years later, I was visiting the forest with Manoj. A forest guard heard about our arrival and came excitedly to tell us that Bheem was still alive! We rushed over immediately and there he was! Handsome and Proud as ever!

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