It has been a hectic but productive June till now. We started our work in Ranthambhore working on T60 and cubs when a news from Bandhavgarh caught our attention. A tigress called Spotty in the Tala zone of Bandhavgarh had given birth to her first litter. Weighing various pros and cons we changed gears and rushed to Bandhavgarh to start some extensive tracking for the newly seen cubs. A 7 day project resulted in some brilliant images of 2 month old tiger cubs for our guest who showed remarkable patience and perseverance in extreme weather conditions.
Monsoons showers have started hitting tiger parks and as we enter the last 10 days of the season lets wish the wild denizens of India a safe monsoon.
Winter photography in tiger parks is always special. The magical morning mist and the soft light filtering through the forest canopies makes you as a photographers look of images rather than tigers. I just completed a 1800 km marathon in central India covering various parks of Madhya Pradesh. The experience was not just about the Rajbehra cubs in Bandhavgarh or the Baghin Nala cubs in Pench but creating some awesome images in the stunning winter backdrops of central Indian forests.
A lot of work is yet to be seen and processed… sharing some of the images. This would probably be my last post for the year 2015. Wishing you all a very happy new year and great luck and light for 2016!
It is the end of season and as I look back at the hectic 9 months, some of those glorious wildlife moments keep flashing in my head. With more than 150 game drives in Ranthambhore, the focus of the season was on Krishna and cubs. My brief fortnight-long stints in Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Corbett and Sunderbans were rewarding as well. Escorting some of the best photographers in business, it was a great knowledge sharing experience on the field. Though in most of the game drives I wasn’t shooting much since I was escorting and mentoring photographers, I did squeeze in time for some personal drives in Ranthambhore and those were the times my camera was in action the most.
Presenting a compilation of my top 14 wildlife moments for 2014-2015.
1. Krishna & Cubs – October 2013
The season started with Ranthambhore and the first glimpse of Krishna and her cubs in the band of golden morning light at Rajbagh remains edged to my memory till date. The experience lasted for not more than 10 mins but our gang of photographers created some dream images that by far are the best images of T19 and cubs from that time from October 2013.
2. The King & The Fisher – Nov 2014
Amidst the hysteria around T39 (Noor) and her cubs one fine morning in November 2014, a tiny kingfisher caught my attention. The background was a typical Ranthambhore habitat and resulted in this image. One of my favorites from the season. Worked on similar concepts whenever the opportunity was right. Infact over the next many months after shooting this, I did a lot of birding around tigers – from Kingfishers, the stone curlews, drongos, peacocks, robins. The first creation is normally the best creation and rest are more of duplications in order to better this.
3. In His Kingdom – Kanha – Dec 2014
Kanha in winters has always been special for photography. Not for tigers but because of the mist and the meadows. During one such game drive in Kanha, we bumped into the majestic Munna. My experiments with Tilt Shift lenses on tigers have helped me in creating some unique wide angle perspectives. The saal forest backdrop offered the perfect opportunity to pull out the glass from the bag.
4. A morning at Rajbagh – Jan 2015
There was something about that morning at Rajbagh. The soft morning light filtering through the mist was just enough for shooting this wonderful show put up by Krishna and her cubs at the edges of the lakes. Our gang of photographers were stunned in silence after this wonderful action packed sequence – probably the best action by this terrific family throughout the season. The soft light, the grand backdrops, the orange winter coats of the cubs… am sure the lensmen present that morning will vouch for this being probably the best tiger action of their lifetime.
5. The Winter Couple – Jan 2015 – Bharatpur
End of Jan, we took a small break from Ranthambhore and shot in Bharatpur for a few days. Despite of the low activity of birds in Bharatpur, I decided to focus on a subject I love to work with – the Sarus Cranes. Morning to evening sessions with Sarus led us to this beautiful pair of cranes that walked out in unison in the early morning mist of Keoladeo with the sun just popping out from behind deep in the horizon. As I looked through the view finder to shoot this image, I had goosebumps all over seeing this dramatic setting of the Keoladeo marshes.
6. Thunderbold Krishna – Feb 2015
The master hunter Krishna silently disappeared in the Rajbagh grasses one evening in Ranthambhore. Unaware of what is going to happen, my vehicle reached the spot and as I changed my equipments to focus on a group of cheetal grazing in a small patch of open grass, Krishna stormed out like lightning in the small patch of light dispersing the group in all directions.
7. Tiger Off-Springs – Ranthambhore – March 2015
It was a 30 mins sighting that morning at Rajbagh and not more than 5 mins of hardcore tiger action. Krishna cubs played like maniacs in that backlit set up. A storm of lenses surrounded them as the lake water splashed all around with the mother joining the play sequence.
8. Bears and Bears – April 2015
I remember this morning as one of my best game drives in the park. We were running after the mother T39 (Noor) while her cubs were already been seen by a flurry of vehicles in zone 1. In our pursuit we bumped into a different specie of a mother who walked on a forest floor bed full of palas (flame of the forest) flowers. Post this all the vehicles dispersed from the cubs location and we spent a nice peaceful exclusive time with T39 and her cubs.
9. His First Catch – Ranthambhore – April 2015
A moment which will be engrained in my memory till my last breath. The inexperience male cub of Krishna (T19) attempted to bring down a cheetal. He struggled for more than 40 mins to kill the cheetal. A power-packed sequence but it was painful to see this through the view finder. Read the entire photo story on this blog – https://shivangmehtaphotography.wordpress.com/2015/05/03/the-first-catch/
10. Stripes – The Extreme Portrait – May 2015
Over the past few years, I have developed this taste of shooting extreme closeups of tigers. Scaling up the focal length to around 1000mm+, composition needs to be really precise. This summer, inspired by some frames and compositions from Tiger Dynasty (by Nalla Muthu) I wanted to go tighter than usual. I had a discussion with Nalla on his certain ultra tight compositions. God was kind to gift me with a calm and composed T24 sighting soon after those talks with Nalla where I made effective use of a 1000mm focal to create a series of super tiger compositions.
11. The Ramganga Queen – May 2015
I normally don’t run after tigers in Corbett. However May 2015 was an exception. The Par tigress was obliging photographers with their dream Corbett images and I forced myself to join this race. A few misses and finally we caught her one morning in Dhikala.
12. The Cave Dwellers – Bandhavgarh – May 2015
The Patiha family has been controlling a major chunk of tiger sightings in Bandhavgarh throughout the season. We spent 1 morning with the 3 cubs in this cave set up which is one of the most unique habitat image series of tigers I have shot till date. The reddish rocks, the contours in the rocks, the gradients and patterns and the sparkling stripes made an interesting combo and the 10 odd images around this cave have been amongst the top backdrops for tiger photography for me.
13. Krishna Clan – Ranthambhore – May 2015
Over the months, it has been an experience the changing behavior of tiger cubs. The playful Krishna cubs were now displaying signs of independence by making their own odd kills and small fights showcasing dominance. But the attachment with the mother was seen time and again and during this morning in May 2015, 14 month old tiger cubs were caught suckling.
14. Star walked the ramp – June 30, 2015
The lakes of Ranthambhore can surprise you anytime of the day. Rains had an impact of the sightings of the park in the last few days of the park closure. It was the morning of June 30th and everyone was hoping for 1 final glimpse before the park closes for monsoons. We decided to take a final lap of the lakes before leaving and caught Star (T28) walking in the pristine backdrop of the fort and on a carpet of green. It was long and silent walk with no vehicles around. A befitting end to a season!
My focus on T19 (Krishna) in Ranthambhore kept me away from one of my favorite hunting grounds in central India. I am very found of Bandhavgarh for its habitat, tiger photography potential and the people… working in this central Indian tiger heartland is always great fun. Made up for the entire season in the last 10 days as I was escorting my photographer guest from the UK. Our focus was the Patiha female and her three 8 month old cubs. Working on tiger cubs outside the Tala zone was a challenge and a different experience from my past Bandhavgarh endeavors. However we got 3 exclusive photo opportunities with the family over the 9 day period which were good enough for an excellent portfolio. More than the images tracking the family in the Patiha area and understanding some new areas of the park was a great learning experience.
Post Bandhavgarh, we spent a few days in Panna National Park and it was awesome to witness the success story of Panna. T1 – the queen of Panna – is in great shape with her 4th litter of 2 cubs. The park has some tremendous potential and is an excellent tiger habitat. Photographers should watch out for Panna – another excellent location with great photographic potential.
(Obituary published in the November issue of Saevus Wildlife)
4 year old Vijaya was a bold, buoyant and a beautiful tigress. Like all striped kings and queens of Bandhavgarh she was a favorite for lens-men who yearned for her 1 shot. It seemed all rosy till the summers of 2010 but as the monsoons approached Vijaya’s ambitions grew bigger and bigger. She wanted to own one of the most pristine areas of tiger estate of Bandhavgarh – the stretch ranging from Chorbehra, Chakradhara right up till the Bandhavgarh fort. She wanted to be crowned as the new queen of the Tala range of the forest.
The thought was good for this has been the dream territory of any tiger of Bandhavgarh. Legends like Charger, Seeta and B2 owned this piece of land because of its abundant prey base, yearlong presence of water, superb hunting ground and lots of shady comforts for rest after a tiring day in the forest.
Competition understandably was quite tough for young Vijaya as 10-year-old Lakshmi (Langadi as she was locally called) was the limping tigress of this area and despite her physical limitations she was managing to rule Vijaya’s dreamlands. Lakshmi’s weakness apart from her sore leg were her young 10 month old cubs and since she relied on livestock kills her movement was restricted in the peripheral areas of the forest.
The rains of 2010 turned the fortunes of Chakradhara. Vijaya knew of the soft cords of Lakshmi and she advanced towards her in what seemed like a lost battle for Lakshmi. However the aging mother put up a fight and the beautiful looking Vijaya lost her eye in this fierce battle. Vijaya’s aggressive streak was evident from this battle as in her fury of anger she not only killed Lakshmi but consumed more than half of her body. It all happened in a dark night of Bandhavgarh and all the forest department could find the following morning were the mortal remains of Lakshmi. The orphaned cubs are still fighting to establish themselves in Bandhavgarh.
With just one eye and a huge territory that she won, survival for ambitious Vijaya seemed tough as tiger history across India has very few warriors who have been able to survive with such critical physical limitations. There was not a change in the attitude of lens-men too. The once beautiful female of Tala range was now being avoided because she wasn’t photogenic enough.
Vijaya, however, had her strategy laid out. She knew that in order to survive and retain this estate she would need the company of a dominant male who could give her adequate protection. She hit the nail on its head by making the right choice as she eyed Shashi (Bamera male).
The dominant male of Bandhavgarh with genes of a legendary family in the form of Charger (his grandfather) and B2 (his father), Shashi (locally known as Bamera male) was expanding his territory at an astronomical rate. He cornered his dad in one area of the park and acquired his legacy and added more land which he acquired on his own to roam about freely in more than a 100 square kilometer area. His rule was unquestioned and he was already the king of Bandhavgarh National Park.
His frequent ventures in the Chakradhara and Chorbehra areas brought him close to Vijaya and in summer of April 2011 they were seen together for almost a week. Their 1 week honeymoon raised hopes for Vijaya’s legacy and she was set to be crowned as the next queen of Bandhavgarh.
The news of Vijaya’s pregnancy was eagerly awaited as the timing of mating was perfect and it seemed that she would deliver before the forest closes for monsoons. Surprisingly within a couple of months the couple was seen together again in first week of June 2011. Was the previous mating just a strategy by Vijaya to bide some more time with Shashi or did the April honeymoon end up into a failure? There are some mysteries in the mysterious world of tigers that are hard to solve.
Post the mating in June the forest closed for monsoons and the forest season post the rains started with a lot of anticipation. As the days of October 2011 passed the search for Vijaya was on and it was a sheer delight to hear the news of Vijaya licking her small 2-month-old cub on the rocky area of Chorbehra. Rigorous elephant patrolling revealed that she was raising a family of 3.
Under the shadow of a father like Shashi the cubs had minimal risk of being killed by another male of the region. However tigers were not the only threat to these young siblings. Vijaya’s area had good movement of leopards and now the question was if Vijaya could see off the crucial period of the first few months when tiger cubs start exploring the world of tigers in the wild.
The cubs were mostly in the bamboo thickets around Chorbehra and their sighting was infrequent. Vijaya was again gaining popularity amongst lens-men who knew that she was another legend in the making. Summers of 2012 was a season everyone was looking forward to as by March 2012 the cubs were growing up well. Mom Vijaya was now the supreme ruler of Chakradhara and her efficiency of hunting was at par with any other fully fit tiger. From large sambhar stags to wild boars she was hunting every prey though with some amount of difficulty but her perseverance was unmatched.
Through the month of April the cubs were seen more regularly. One of the cubs was already showing signs of less dependency and always used to be away from the siblings. At times all 3 were seen together but most of these times mom Vijaya was out for her hunting expeditions as satiating hunger of ever growing tiger cubs is a tough ask.
Finally in the first week of May 2012, Vijaya did something that is not a regular sight in Bandhavgarh. Early in the morning as the cubs were playing in Chakradhara grasslands, Vijaya made a deep throated growl and her entire family followed her. For the first time since they were born, Vijaya boldly displays all her cubs together as she marched alongside them. They marched like an army right up to the Vishnu statue and after seeking the divine intervention she climbed the hills of Bandhavgarh fort.
The cubs survived through the monsoons of 2012 but with the springs of 2013 some new challenges unfolded for Vijaya for her protector – Shashi – the king of Bandhavgarh started loosing his battles with males intruding in his territory and was gradually pushed out of Chakradhara. During the months of March-April 2013, Vijaya boldly stood her ground with her battalion of 3 beautiful looking sub-adult cubs and even tried to deceive this mysterious new male by mating with him and making an attempt to draw him out of the reach of the cubs. However this futile attempts to shield her family went in vain as in May 2013 one of Vijaya’s cubs was found dead in the fort area. This was followed by the death of another cub in the subsequent days.
A number of theories came into place post the death of the cubs. While the forest officials claimed that the cause of the death was the mystery male, another section of local naturalists believed that since the body of the cubs was partially consumed in the same fashion as Lakshmi a few years back, Vijaya – the brave mother – herself decided to sacrifice her family in order to retain her territory for she knew that survival would be tough outside this prime territory specially with her physical disability. The male cub from this litter who was also declared dead however separated from his mother and had set out on an independent journey in the adjoining areas of her mother’s territory.
The hysteria around Vijaya died down for a prolonged period post the monsoons of 2013. Her sighting statistics dropped drastically and the entire focus shifted towards Rajbehra where a female was raising a litter of 4 cubs across the hill.
As the saal bloom dried with the temperatures rising during the summers of 2014, Vijaya made a dramatic comeback by walking down the fort hills, with tiny little cubs. The scarcity of water in the upper areas of the fort forced her to come down to the low-lying areas with natural water bodies in order to beat the scorching heat of May 2014. The queen of Bandhavgarh had again fought her battles against all odds to come up with fresh blood for the park. The meadows of Chakradhara were looking forward to be the playground for yet another litter and Vijaya was all set to be etched as one of the legendary tigers of India at par with Machali because of her resilient spirit. As the park closed for monsoons in June 2014, she had a challenge to face a tough period of 3 months and feed the 3 little striped souls.
Tragedy struck again in Bandhavgarh when the forest department reported that a decomposed body of a tigress was found and a post mortem report revealed that Vijaya was declared dead. Post search operations by the forest department, 2 cubs were declared dead as well. While the entire wildlife fraternity of India mourns the death of Vijaya, her journey and her life showcases some of the true characteristics of this creation of God called The Tiger. A specie which has braved against all odds and continues to strive and survive amidst dwindling forest covers and increasing human habitation. A specie that can adapt brilliantly to changing environmental scenarios and has the grit and willingness to survive. Vijaya’s contribution to Bandhavgarh will be remembered for the longest time and stories of this one eyed queen would echo in my memories whenever I will be traversing through the woods of this tiger heartland of India.
Could her death be averted?
Though Vijaya died in a territorial fight with an intruding male but could her death been averted. For a minute if we close our one eye and try to live that minute with that partial blackout, we would probably want that minute to pass at the earliest. The warrior queen of Bandhavgarh spent 4 long years with this handicap. Tigers are killing machines but their hunting capability goes down drastically in case of any physical ailment. Physical limitations are the main cause of deaths of tigers in old age but in Vijaya’s case it was something she was living with these limitations every day. With the birth of cubs, the hunting pressure on a tigress increases as she has to feed the cubs on the regular basis and take care of her own dietary requirements as well. Having closely observed this tigress for the past so many years, hunting was definitely a painful process for her and there were days when she went without food for days and weeks. The family was going through this stress in the summers of 2014. When a 18 year of tigress in Ranthambhore can be fed and kept alive because she qualifies as an iconic tiger of the park, could partial baiting of Vijaya (specially in the initial months post the birth of the cubs) averted her death? Food for thought for Saevus readers…
© SHIVANG MEHTA
Shivang Mehta is a nature photographer and has spent more than 150 field days in Bandhavgarh documenting Vijaya’s journey since 2010.
It’s the end of June and most parks of India are on the verge of closure for monsoons. I started this month with elephants as the focus of my photography in Corbett National Park and then headed off to escort a gang of 3 photographers who were keen to shoot Vijaya (Kankati – the one eyed warrior queen of Bandhavgarh and one of my favorite tigers across forests of India) and her newly born litter of 3 cubs. While the assignment was challenging since the cubs were too small (two and half months old), the patience and perseverance displayed by our team was exemplary and helped us to move closer to our goal day by day.
Am pleased to share some highlights from June before I head off to the high altitude terrains of Ladakh in July with another gang of young enthusiastic photographers.
As winter bids farewell to Bandhavgarh, mild showers continue to breath a fresh life in a forest which is all set to face a tough summer ahead. The mahua bloom is on the swing and damp smell of the mahua along with the fresh budding on the saal tree tops adds a fresh flavor to the park just before the onset of the summer.
Having said this, Bandhavgarh springs are fascinating to shoot the striped wonders of this tiger country. The soft morning and evening light along with breathtaking backdrops of colorful saal, tesu and cotton silk flowers give the edge to images which are normally very bland during summers.
Here are some images from the 2013 Bandhavgarh spring: