Tiger sightings in any national park of India have fluctuating cycles. There are times when multiple tigresses start breeding cubs and as a result sightings flourish as the summers approach. As the cubs grow up and start forming their own territories and females become solitary again & there is a brief dip period and the situation takes some time to normalize.
It was during this season of dipping summer sightings when I along with my friend Gautam Pandey visited Bandhavgarh National Park in the warm summer months of 2011. The tiger dynamics of the park were not very encouraging at that point of time as none of current cubs were around and queen Vijaya was still trying to find her ground in the Chakradhara meadows.
As we started our first drive in what was going to be a marathon run inside Bandhavgarh, little did we know that our tiger luck would be at abysmal levels in the days to come. After a few days of dry dusty drives, clouds of negativities surrounded us and we were just waiting to wrap up the shoot as soon as possible.
The heat made us ignore a basic thumb rule – when with nature, it is imperative to be positive and absorb nature in all its forms and shapes. Our 6th day started in a rejuvenating fashion as we stuck to some basics. Something was good about that morning as we started with no pre-defined strategies. In an unusual relaxed fashion we started a bit late and despite of the deliberated 15-20 minutes delay we were the first vehicle to enter the park gate. For a change the desperate cat-seeking prayers transformed into a mere ‘thank you’ to mother nature for making us experience this wonderful forest.
The sunrise over Ghodademon was refreshing and the rocky patterns on the upper reaches of the fort dazzled in morning light. The soft chirps of bush birds were live music to the ears at the vehicle sped leisurely across a forest buzzing with cheetals and langurs busy in their morning chores. Our days of disappointments were in the back-burner and the beauty of nature was touching our souls.
As we moved towards Mirchiani, a sudden movement across the stoned parked boundary attracted our attention. As soon as we breaked, a huge black ball of hair emerged out of the wall peeping right into the vehicle. The beautiful looking male sloth bear then climbed the wall inches away from our vehicle and took the comfort of a tree right next to road. He rolled, scratched himself against the hanging bark and spread inside the bamboo thickets.
The four minutes of bear action was not the best from a photography perspective but was enough to make up for the last 5 days. Nature is full of mysteries and spectacles that keep unfolding in every corner of wilderness. As children of this planet, the onus is on us to respect natural wonders rather than keep expecting and wishing that nature will fullfil all our demands.
Tiger Diary – Published by Tiger Nation
BANDHAVGARH, MAY 2012: Vijaya, like all mother’s, has up till now taken a careful approach to bringing out her gangly 6 month old kids in any formal way. She has preferred to keep them off roads skirting forests and meadows in her bid to protect them.
Not anymore. She set out to lead her family on a distinct Royal tour, sauntering contentedly along the very road that she has watched thousands of pilgrims move on high days and holidays, as well as countless visitors every day.
Her merry band of youngsters followed her quite contentedly, often stopping to play with one another, bite each other tail, or sideling up to mum to complain that they are bored of walking.
Mum though was on a mission, and from the Chakradhara meadows, she proceeded up the hill towards the fort’s main entrance and then up the 10th century carved stairs at Vishnu’s temple before vanishing into the forested hills behind.
Vijaya’s Royal walkabout suggest that she is perfectly comfortable with her ‘Princess’ status in the Tala range.
It was my 18th consecutive drive in Bandhavgarh National Park. Excessive VIP pressure in the premier Tala zone of the park had disturbed my tiger cub hunting project which had started with a bang during the first half of my visit. The development unleashed the explorer in me as I spent considerable time exploring and discovering lesser tracked areas of Bandhavgarh. The satisfaction of emerging with first photographic records of unrecorded stripes in these areas was immense.
The Easter weekend got the Nature Wanderers (NW) and Canon photography shutterbugs in the tiger land. A group of super enthusiastic photographers across the country and across age groups and since over the last 2 weeks my risks were paying rich dividends I decided to ride my luck again. With over 70 vehicles expected to crowd the Mahaman area during one the evenings of the Easter weekend because of the guaranteed presence of mating couple in the Mahaman dam area, I was wondering if it was a good idea to go after this couple.
The tourist pressure in the area forced me and my team to lay down a strategy of entering the Makhdee zone from a less accessed gate quite far of from the main entrance. Reports of the Blue Eyed male being sighted in the afternoon by the forest post further reinforced the decision to take the risk for if we manage to catch hold of the male it would be an exclusive sighting away from the crowd. The NW group was cooperative and agreed to jump into this plan and we all entered the forest with anxiety and anticipation.
I always believe that Nature plays an equalizer and 2 weeks of positive decision making and risks that were hitting the bulls eye backfired that evening. The Blue Eyed male had walked out of the park area to the nearby village. Vehicles around the Mahaman dam had a good sighting of the mating pair of tigers. However the spirits were still up because when in the wild, you need to be prepared for failures.
The next morning I decided to stick to the books and since the movement was evident in the Mahaman area we entered the forest in a routine manner. Within minutes of entering the park, frantic langur alarm calls at the Charger Point attracted our attention. I could faintly see a male tiger in the foliage and his trajectory was towards the road. The elephant mahout who was tracking the tiger had other ideas as he blocked the male and pushed him inside the forest. During the months of March and Apr this was the 8th incident I witnessed when forest officials obstructed the movement of a tiger without any reason.
As I was watching and cursing the dramatic turn of events at Charger Points a series of faint cheetal and sambhar alarm calls excited my driver. “Mahaman area sahib” he remarked. With just a exchange of glances we decided to quietly sneak off the area and rushed towards the Mahaman dam. A fully grown male and female were royally enjoying the early morning breeze. As more and more vehicles piled up at the location, the couple moved towards the foliage.
I had witnessed the legendary mating of Sashi (Bamera) and Vijaya (Kankati) last year but this particular act of mating looked very different. The female seemed to be disinterested and walked off as soon as the male made advances towards her. Every few minutes the female would walk away and for around a couple of hours we hardly saw any actual round of mating.
The identity of the pair was still in question. A section of the naturalist crowd present onsite felt it was Mukunda but the apparent body markings on the male were different from Mukunda (who later turned out to be the tiger blocked by the elephant early in the morning). The female was another question?
Tiger Nation reported later that the female is I9 (Indrani – last litter of Badhrashila female cubs). The male is reported to be Jobi (M9).
The sighting of the this couple continues to be prominent around the Mahaman area as I write this blog. Increasing tourist patrols and awareness levels definitely impacts wildlife positively. As the tiger season has progressed more and more new tiger identities have come into the limelight signaling the presence of stripes in the fringe forests of prime tiger habitats around the country.
My 50mm hysteria continued after the first bit of experimentation in Corbett and this time the decisions were bolder for the subject and opportunities in question were rarer and the risk of missing out superb tight frames was higher. However trying this on the striped cats was great fun never-the-less. The reactions of the people around me was very amusing whenever I mounted this mini-glass on my camera. I remember that while I was creating a 50mm perspective of the devoted one eyed beauty Vijaya (Kankatti), someone in the crowd of tourist was murmuring in the background – “Seems he has forgotten to put his lens in excitement !”
Pleased to share some of the images created during my recent trip to Bandhavgarh National Park: