'Jabbaar', my first wild tiger ever.
I first visited Tadoba in November 2007 and was blessed to see my first wild tiger there. It was the 4th that day. We had hired a rickety Tata Sumo which refused to start once it was turned off. And we had to realise this problem only while entering the Mohurli gate after collecting our entry permits. The morning was perfect, with a nip in the air, November mist and the thrill of being in tigerland. We saw gaur, the usual chital, sambar, peafowl and saw the fresh scat of dhole, or the Indian wild dog just before the Khatodi Gate. We had missed them by minutes, may be seconds.
We drove on to Pandarpauni meadow and then down towards the '97' water hole. On the road we noticed the very fresh pugmarks of a tiger, those of the very same morning! Then started thrill of the chase! The mist was lifting and the dawn sunshine was pleasantly warm. We tracked the pugs on a path that took us around a patch of forest on to its other side. There we saw a couple of Gypsies parked with some excited tourists in them. We had missed the tiger by seconds. But the chase didn't end there! Sanjay Munde, a guide in another Gypsy, skillfully predicted the direction the tiger would take from the very bush he had vanished into and we went back towards 97 and waited at the expected point from which he (we knew it was a male by then) would walk out onto the road. The wait was just as exciting as the chase. 4-5 vehicles, pin drop silence, and the tense wait. Then the guide in our vehicle suddenly blurted out in a hushed but urgent tone "arrey, yeh raha tiger!" and pointed somewhere to the left of our Sumo.
That was my near side (I was seated on the front passenger side) and I noticed a pattern of black and gold in the bamboo some distance away and was iimmediately raised to seventh heaven! My first glimpse of a tiger in the jungle! But then what was this- suddenly I saw a great head with lots of white on it hardly 6-7 feet away! I was staring at a patch of sunlight and shadow created by the thin bamboo all this while, some 20 feet away while the real tiger was right next to me! He was bothered by so many vehicles having discovered him and wanted to get away fast. He walked behind the tree line as long as he could and then came on to the road, giving us a splendid view! He smelt a few bushes, sprayed them and settled down in the grass, only to be disturbed by a bus coming from the opposite direction. I didn't know whether to watch or to photograph. When I tried photographing my hands shook like leaves with the amount of adrenalin that was pumped into them. So I gave up and enjoyed the moment.
Truly, nothing in the world captures the moment and your senses like a tiger in the wild... it’s like a phantom... so huge and so striking and absolutely silent when it walks, incredibly fast paced, but never in a hurry. And then it disappears, as soon as it had arrived, leaving you wondering if it was really there at all! That tiger, I was later told, was called 'Jabbaar'. An impressive big male he was. With this, my first wild tiger, by seeing whom I had thought I'd satisfy a long overdue hunger, I realised that I had just managed to make that hunger terribly insatiable. I had to come back. There's nothing in the world like tracking wild tigers and, with skill and luck, being rewarded with even a glimpse of them.
When I got another opportunity to visit Tadoba in April 2008, I grabbed it. I remembered Sanjay's words from my last winter visit- "Sahib, dhupkali mein aao, sab se badhiya tiger sighting milenge." He had asked me to come in the summer, when water would be scarce, to have my best tiger sightings in Tadoba. I couldn't wait for the train to reach Nagpur on 18th April '08. The next three days were to be spent in Tadoba and the three days following that in Pench National Park, Madhya Pradesh.
Day 1, 19, April 2008:
The first morning we drove in with Bubloo Katkar, our driver who had stayed all his life here and who had just bought a used Gypsy. The first place we visited after entering the Mohurli gate was the Telia meadow, which had been recently created after a village by the same name was relocated. Instead of people and cattle, there were a herd of sambar, some peafowl and one of the handsomest wild boars I've ever seen. Bubloo told me that the place was especially known for its sloth bear sightings. We then drove on, the summer morning beginning to heat up, checking waterhole after waterhole and intently listening to catch even the faintest alarm call.
A herd of smabar, Cervus unicolor, at Telia meadow
After checking Jamunbodi hilltop, I wanted to visit the Tadoba's erstwhile canteen area, near the lake, to see what changes it had undergone after being shut off to tourists 20 days earlier. We were driving around the now abandoned buildings, Bubloo and the guide nostalgically remembering many years spent there, and I remembering my last trip and the canteen's lovely omeletes! Just as we rounded a curve after the canteen at the base of a hill, the hill to our right and the lake to our left, the guide shouted "wagh, wagh!" 'Wagh' is Marathi for tiger! Bubloo stopped, the Gypsy stalled. But we were positioned nicely. After about two minutes of searching, I could locate the tiger's white belly. It was resting in the shade of a fallen tree in the lake's cool water. He lifted his head to look at us, the dappled sunlight shining right on his face. It was good old Jabbaar! What a start to the trip!
'Jabbaar' again, cooling off in the Talao
We decided to leave him alone, to rest peacefully through the hot Vidharbha summer day and were keen for other tourists to not know of him and cause a typical 'tiger traffic jam' there, preferring to let Jabbar enjoy his siesta instead. But now there was a problem. Our Gypsy wouldn't start. Bubloo had found a good deal on the Gypsy alright, but that didn't hold true for its battery! When four or five goes at the starter refused to fire the engine, the tiger became a little wary. Finally, there was no other option left but for Bubloo and the guide to get down and push-start the Gypsy while I took the wheel. The Gypsy heaved to a start but poor Jabbaar was scared silly by this whole drama and got up and raced up to the road, right in front of our Gypsy, tail held high, and then up the hill. After climbing up, he slowed down, turned back and gave us a look which asked us to just forget everthing that just happened and that big male tigers like him could never possibly be scared! He then ambled up lazily as if nothing had ever happened!
We drove on to Pandarpauni meadow, the place where all the action takes place in Tadoba. There were over a hundred heads of chital and innumerable wild boar grazing and moving towards the Pandarpauni 2 waterhole. Some sambar were also there, along with most of the morning's visitors. We parked and enjoyed observing the animals at the waterhole. The congregation was impressive. A party in another Gypsy decided to leave and we had to make way for them. Our Gypsy refused to start, again. No amount of pushing would make it start now. A white Gypsy arrived, and offered to give us a lift. In it was a friend, Ravi Naidu, from Hyderabad. Ravi and I had known each other online and had exchanged notes on Tadoba and other wildlife issues earlier. He knows Tadoba like the clichéd back of his hand. He has had extensive experience working for several years in Kanha and in his home forests in Andhra Pradesh. Fate had arranged and excellent way for us to meet! We abandoned Bubloo with his Gypsy and boarded Ravi's. He hadn't had any chances with big cats that morning. No one had, except us. He was delighted when we informed him about Jabbar and we started towards the Tadoba Talao (lake) again, after checking out the Kala Amba waterhole.
The Kala Amba waterhole has an interesting story. A few months ago, a group of 2 or 3 Gypsies were at the waterhole, watching a tigress and her cubs. There were some bee hives on the trees above (these were still there when we visited) and a drongo sat on a bamboo shoot, catching the bees as they flew in and out of the hives. Suddenly, the drongo had a bright idea and it put it to action. Instead of sitting there and catching one bee after the other as they flew around in ones and twos, the drongo did a WWII Japanese Air Force suicide bomber and dived into the hive with full force! The number of bees that swarmed out after that were too many for it to catch and it vanished. So did the tigress and her cubs, and the tourists in the Gypsies, who reversed at full speed and then drove straight to Chandrapur hospital forgetting tigers and forests for a long time!
Oriental Honey Buzzard
With that note we went towards the Talao hoping Jabbaar would have come back after we had left. Jabbaar wasn't there. He must have found some other waterhole away from the disturbing road. We saw instead three Oriental Honey Buzzards drinking from the lake. A mugger crocodile was lying under the surface with its nostrils and eyes sticking above the surface. I was glad to be back in Tadoba!
In the afternoon Bubloo was back with a new battery, ready to pick us up at 3 pm. I took the wheels, as I love driving in the forests and I love Gypsies. It was a lovely drive, with lots of sambar, chital and gaur sightings. Wild boars were there everywhere. We missed a leopard by minutes. Ravi and most other Gypsies had seen it, near Kala Amba. When we arrived at the scene, the others, who had all missed the tiger that day (our was the only sighting) had evened scores with us through that one leopard!
A herd chital, or Spotted Deer, at Pandarpauni 1 waterhole
Splitting up from the Gypsy 'herd' we continued our safari and chose to go back to Pandarpauni to enjoy watching the ungulates that would line up at he waterholes and come to graze on the lush grass of the meadow as the day cooled down. Fingers were also crossed for the Pandarpauni sub adult cubs, who had managed to survive even after their famous mother, called Katrina, had vanished under mysterious circumstances. Soon, it was sundown, and with no luck with the tigers but an excellent, near spiritual time watching the ungulates come one after the other, in huge herds to drink and then graze in the golden twilight, we turned back towards Mohurli. This excellent density of prey base was a sure sign of a healthy tiger population and a healthy forest.
Sambar in the Tadoba Talao
Driving to the gate we chanced upon some sambar that had entered the Tadoba Talao, a scene made famous by the better known Ranthmbhore's Padam Talao on many a BBC and NGC documentary. Shooting some quick pictures, we made our way to the gate in the fast failing light.
Mother and fawn in perfect symmetry, Tadoba Talao
Between the Khatodi and Mohurli gates, we saw a white Gypsy stranded on the road, refusing to start. It was now our turn to give Ravi a lift!
Day 2, 20, April 2008:
On our second morning Ravi and we decided to go together, in two Gypsies. Even before we reached Khatodi Gate, the entrance to the Tadoba National Park from the Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary, we had heard a barking deer giving alarm calls and went to investigate, without result. The rest of the morning was spent in search of the King as it was Ravi's last day and he would leave the same evening. He was desperate as he had never come to Tadoba and not seen a tiger.
Wild boar at '97' waterhole
The chase continued. Fresh pugmarks here, an alarm call there. No results after waiting at Pandarpauni 1, coming under the territory of a huge tiger called Sultan, for over an hour. Soon it was time to leave. We had to be out by 11am. We had been amused by wild boars wallowing in the water, a monitor lizard, a pair of mating Indian Rollers, aka Blue Jays and numerous ungulates, but still no tiger.
Blue Jays or Indian Rollers mating, Pandarpauni
As a last try, we just wanted to check the Vasantbanjara stream. I asked Ravi to wait on the tar road while I went in to check the densely shaded stream. I found no signs of tiger. As we were backing out to the road I could see Ravi wildly waving to us from his Gypsy. We hurried. "Just keep watching the clearing between those two bushes" he whispered and pointed to the left. I watched with baited breath, camera at the ready. A tiger appeared out of a bush, crouching and moving as if he were a lot shorter than he really was. He looked at us with an unpleasant expression on his face and hurried behind the other bush and disappeared towards the stream in less than five seconds. He was an old tiger with a pale coat and Ravi had been lucky enough to see him on the road at close quarters before he vanished behind a bush!
Day #2, Tiger #2!
This is what I love about Tadoba. The tigers here behave absolutely naturally, wary of humans, very unlike the nearly semi-tame ones of Madhya Pradesh. Of course, it takes just as much skill to track the Madhya Pradesh tigers and they are just as beautiful, but the Tadoba tigers have not been adulterated by the constant presence of tourists. Some do tolerate them, but only up to a certain limit. They won’t fall asleep in front of tourists, for example! At least they don't now! I don't mean to criticize Ranthambhore or Bandhavgarh, as the behaviour of their tigers is bare proof of their effective conservation, but the behaviour of Tadoba tigers is that of a truly 'wild' tiger, of a remote forest, untouched by humans. It’s just pleasantly different. This might not appeal to the die hard photographer, but, to an Indian wildlifer, this is the essence of the jungle.
Just after exiting the Mohurli gate, we were witness to yet another spectacle. Two of the Forest Department's elephants were being retired from active service and were being sent off to a 'retirement home'. It was interesting to watch them being coaxed onto trucks.
Tusker on a truck
Pictures were shared over glasses of chilled lemonade and our terrific luck discussed. Two tigers in two consecutive mornings! I couldn't ask for more! Old friends from the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT) Vinod and Rundan had come to visit us.
Langurs at late afternoon
Post lunch, we started for the evening drive, this time, in one Gypsy. After having some great gaur sightings, we went to the '97' waterhole. We saw some sambar there, looking down into the water, which had shrunk down below our view in the summer heat. We couldn't see what the sambar were looking at, but they were very tense, their tails raised and eyes wide, a tense hoof stamping hard from time to time. Then, a small, bright orange head appeared, looking at us inquisitively. A few others followed. Dholes! We had chanced upon a pack of India's Wild Dogs (Cuon alpinus) which had cornered a small herd of sambar!
Wild dog cornering sambar, 97 waterhole
This is a rarely witnessed drama of the Indian jungle and we were extremely fortunate to be witnessing it. Soon, about ten or more pups and sub adults leaped out from behind. Two stags were trying to defend a hind and a fawn from the dogs. The fraction of moment for which we had distracted the dholes had given the sambar a chance to escape. They gradually began retreating. The dhole suddenly took their eyes off us and realising their prey was slipping, followed them cautiously. We had spoiled their hunt... but were still grateful for the moment. Ravi left that evening, his record unbroken.
Day 3, 21, April 2008:
Dinner table talks at the MTDC Resort the previous night revolved around our exceptional tiger luck. Everyone was sure we'd see one on our last day, and have a 'hattrick'! We kept our fingers crossed!
It was a Monday and there were almost no other visitors except 2-3 Gypsies including ours. The others went towards Kolsa and we were the only Gypsy in the Tadoba side. As we left the Talao area that morning and drove towards Pandarpauni, from a distance we noticed hundreds of chital running together- a scene reminiscent of Africa's famous wildebeest and zebra herds migrating. We rushed to see what the commotion was all about. The chital were running as fast as they could, wasting time for nothing, not even alarm calls. They were running in circles and we noticed that a pack of wild dogs were right inside the herd, a feast in the offing for them. There was more than a single kill that morning. The dogs were whistling maniacally.
Dhole with chital kill
As we watched the nearest dog grabbed a fawn by the throat, deviating from typical canine style and behaving more like a big cat. After the fawn was dead in its grip, the dog used all its strength to drag the kill to a nearby bush where it began to eat it. Strangely, no other dogs joined. There surely were more kills.
Dragging the kill
A herd of sambar chanced upon the scene just then, and vanished with equal suddenness, belling out their alarm calls. A pup, which didn't know which way to go, which whistle to answer to, jumped around in agitation and excitement for a few seconds before diving into Pandarpauni 1 and swimming to the other bank, the ten inches of his height enough to send a sounder of wild boar fleeing! This was some action! Pandarpauni bore a strange, eerie look, not an animal on its otherwise teaming meadows!
A dhole pup swims
We drove towards Katejhari, and on our way, chanced into another Gypsy with an elderly couple. They asked us if we had seen our third consecutive tiger yet, and hearing we hadn't, reassured us of our ‘hattrick’. In Katejhari we came across our first nilgai. Shortly after, we saw a lone sambar. It was getting late and we decided to head back. But Bubloo said, since we had come that far, why not check a waterhole that was only a few metres away. Just as we reached, a big male tiger turned to look towards us! He was cooling off in the water.
Day #3, tiger #3
Seeing us, he got up and climbed onto the bank, turned to give us another look and vanished! A chital called in alarm to tell us where he headed. Unbelievable good luck!
That evening we enjoyed a bit more a Tadoba, especially the gaur in the magical late evening light on top of Jamunbodi. There were over twenty of them scattered around, calling and grazing. Their reddish brown bodies, stockinged legs and the beautiful yellow grass looked fantastic in that light.
A bull gaur at Jamunbodi
A particularly cooperative one horned bull, whom I had seen before, gave some good photo opportunities. The next morning we were to head back to Nagpur, and then to the forests of Kipling's 'Jungle Book'- Pench National Park.
To view more images from this trip, CLICK HERE
All rights reserved.
Text and images © Aditya C. Panda, 2008