WE HEAD OUT the next morning for Pench National Park, which is about an eight-hour drive to the southwest and the site of the second Taj and CC Africa lodge. Pench doesn't have near the tiger population of Bandhavgarh, but it is home to a healthy leopard population (name-change suggestion: Pench Leopard Reserve), 350 species of birds, and a whole slew of other animals that, again, none of us have ever heard of.
Pench differs from Bandhavgarh in that it is a teak forest (as opposed to sol) and, overall, much more dense and far less crowded. It's also India's only interstate tiger reserve, as its collective space crosses the border with the neighboring state of Maharashtra. The lodge here, called Baghvan, is scheduled to open a few weeks after our visit, so we stay at a nearby lodge, where we meet Saruth, who is not only our naturalist but also the head naturalist for all of CC Africa's Indian operations. We pick up our local guide and hit the park. Again, there are chital. Lots of chital. We tell Saruth not to bother, as we saw roughly 5,000 in Bandhavgarh.
Thus, the first spotting at Pench that shocks and awes us is of the Indian roller, a gorgeous bird whose dynamic turquoise wingspan looks Photoshopped - it's that vibrant. At this point, I begin to see my future as a birder. It pains me to think about it, but I assume that will ease with time. Next is our first spotting of the aforementioned gaur, an endangered species that, as it turns out, is the largest bovine in the world. Basically, it's a big, bad bull that has an average weight of one ton. Seeing it is the highlight of our morning drive, which otherwise leaves a lot to be desired from a wildlife standpoint.
The afternoon, however, proves radically different. Things immediately start well: Right after entering the park, we spot a jungle cat, one of the more uncommon cat species in this park. Notoriously shy, he waddles on down the road at a slight hustle when he sees us and eventually disappears into the high grass. Then another curious fellow appears, the nilgai, which is an antelope but looks more like what might result if a horse and a deer had a few too many cocktails one night on spring break. Where do all these odd animals come from?
Just a few minutes later, we glimpse one of the rarest sights in Pench: a rusty--spotted cat. Only slightly larger than a domestic cat, it darts across the road a few hundred feet in front of us. Saruth hits the gas to catch up, while our local guide says only one word: "Eagle." At first, the significance of that doesn't register with us. We've seen eagles. Big whoop. We continue to track the cat, but he insists: "Eagle," he says, pointing high above, into the trees. Then we realize what is happening. A crested hawk-eagle, a fierce bird of prey, is stalking the cat and is only moments away from pouncing on it with Discovery Channel brutality. Seconds later, he does just that.
He dives straight down, kamikaze-style, and ambushes the cat from above. Luckily, the knee-high grass blocks our view of the initial blow, but as we pull up alongside the kill zone, we see what likely is every bit as haunting. The eagle has a relentless grip on the cat's neck, and the cat is no longer moving. Through binoculars, we see the eagle's menacing, otherworldly eyes - full of sheer, unadulterated yellow terror - as it stares right at us in a motionless trance. I'm horrified yet fascinated.
The standoff — the eagle with the cat, us with the eagle — lasts 15 minutes. The eagle’s stare never once strays from us, as if sending a very, very serious warning through the most sinister set of eyes I have ever seen in my life. No horror movie could ever do the moment justice. Is this what bird watching is all about? If so, I’m out. Were it a nontraceable sack of a million dollars in this bird’s death grip, I wouldn’t dare make a move toward it. (Sad, I know, but true.) “Shall we go?” asks Saruth. Yes, please.