Friday, December 6, 2013
The gods of all things wild have been very kind to me. Over the last decade or so, I have been privileged (actually blessed) to experience some amazing moments in our forests. I'm attempting to put together some of those memories (still fresh in my mind) as much for myself as for those who will read this. Hope you enjoy it!
1. The King of Pench
It was a cold winter's morning in Pench and after a very average few safaris, I'd set out on one last attempt. And half an hour on a beautiful morning we heard loud alarm calls in a nallah. And caught a glimpse of this bloke, the dominant male of the area. He then proceeded to put on a superb act for us, walking on the road, spraying and marking territory. This was the moment when it all came together... golden grass and trees in the background, a magnificent male tiger in beautiful light - looking straight at you. Bliss!
2. What can you see?
In the Anamalais (on the road to Valparai) looking for the amazing Nilgiri Tahr. And we spotted some from a distance. And then they vanished! Only when they moved did we realize they were actually still in the frame. Amazing agility and sure-footedness.
3. Once in a lifetime sighting
Headed back from watching the Tahrs above and we'd just rounded a bend when I noticed this animal jumping in the trees. Mongoose maybe? Then I saw the flash of yellow and hissed to the driver "Stop! Marten" And this bloke posed, jumped between trees and disappeared in a flash. Leaving me with the sighting of a lifetime!
4. IPL star of the future?
A rain-marred trip to Bandipur was meandering to a tame close when we saw this group of Bonnet Macaques. There were termites in this little meadow and most of the macaques were going mad jumping and plucking, but in vain. Then we saw this bloke, looking at their evident lack of technique with apparent disdain. He then stood - hands on knees, and got into position. As soon as a termite came close, he made a spectacular leap, caught it cleanly, ate it and was back in position. Quite a catch!
5. The Lord grants an exclusive audience
Bamera is the dominant male in Bandhavgarh's Tala range. And we saw him grant an audience to maybe 40 jeeps... he was virtually at the park's entry gate! He walked off into the bush and we were the only ones to follow him in the hope that he might emerge. And he rewarded our efforts with an amazing sighting as he walked behind us, crossed over, stared at us and finally loped off into the bush. Half an hour with the Lord of Bandhavgarh was an amazing experience.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
The tiger has this incredible, almost hypnotic charm attached to its aura. Very few people who have seen tigers fail to get moved by its incredible beauty, grace and power. Personally, I also come away deeply humbled by every encounter with this majestic beast - and a lot of that comes from a sense of humility and modesty that this animal seems to exhibit. Clearly at the top of the food chain, far more powerful than pretty much all the other denizens of the forest and with relatively no natural predators (greedy human beings are not part of the natural ecosystem) it still does not abuse its bounty. It lives in harmony with its surroundings, takes what is due and gives back what it owes. It does not attack or kill for pleasure or sport and if you leave it alone, it will leave you well alone. And its first instinct at any intrusion is to avoid conflict and melt away into the forest; attack is only the last form of defense. And if the apex predator follows this principle, surely we humans can take a leaf or two from its book?
This is one such sighting where we were pretty much the only ones, surrounded by four grown tigers. We kept our distance and the tigers kept theirs, resulting in two days of absolute bliss.
Berda Valley, Ranthambhore. June 2004
This was a few years ago when Machli ruled the lake area in Ranthambhore with her two sub-adult cubs and we had very good sightings of the sub-adult female, Jhumri on the first two safaris. The second morning, Hemraj suggested we go to Berda to try and sight the family there, a mother with 3 grown cubs (two male and one female). And a bumpy 40 minute ride later, we descend into the Berda valley only to be greeted by a line of jeeps (5-6), patiently waiting for.... tigers!
And as we joined the tail (or was it head?) of the queue, it turned out that the tigers were in the bush near us and they emerged onto the road right in front of our jeep. One parked himself square across the road with a flick of his head and looked haughtily at us, as if to say 'This is mine'. A beautiful male tiger, and future king perhaps. Then he joined his siblings as all three walked the path for a bit and then melted into the bush as it grew hotter. Beautiful sighting but it was to be little more than an appetizer.
That afternoon, we left the rest of the vehicles looking for Machli and headed back to Berda. Hemraj was sure the cubs would be reunited with their mother and that was conviction was good enough for us! We drove around Berda for a bit before he spotted one of the cubs resting in the shade, in thick bush. And we set up our base there, waiting for the tiger to move.
An hour later and no movement, but suddenly we heard an alarm call from beyond the bushes. 'Waterhole' said Hemraj and we head there and watch as the female cub walks straight into the water and immerses herself neck deep. It was a first for me, I'd seen tigers wallow but never immerse themselves like this. And what was even more intriguing was that she walked head-first into the water. Normally, all tigers walk up to the water and then turn around and enter the water rear-first - but this one just walked right into it.
|Her mother's voice|
She seemed to be really relaxed and enjoying herself, when, in the middle of a drink we heard a little sound and the cub dashed out of the water like she had a race to run. That sound (barely audible to us) was the mother calling and we went further ahead to see all the cubs race up to join the mother. And that reunion was so spontaneous and so affectionate, it belied all human claims to be top of the 'emotions' chain. All this happened not far from us but in the bushes, so we didn't get any pictures while we saw the whole sequence clearly.
Then the quartet emerged from the bush, walked to a waterhole and all of them took turns drinking. And making it worth our while as well. While two of them drank, the other two posed for us, the only jeep in the vicinity. Almost like a 'thank you for having the faith' sighting. And then they headed further into the forest as we headed back. Superb sightings but Hemraj promised more the next day. He deduced that the mother had come to fetch the cubs because she had made a kill. So they were bound to be in the area somewhere.
And again, the next morning, we headed back towards Berda. And Hemraj took us all the way to a water hole called Bandarwal ki Bawdi (Bandarwal's pond) There was a guard house virtually right above, on a little incline next to the waterhole. So if a guard were to poke his head above the wall, he could see the waterhole right underneath. We were all convinced that no tiger was going to come near this place in broad daylight. And Hemraj just laughed. And he was joined by MD Parasher, ace painter, a pioneer of wildlife art and dear friend.
And they had the last laugh as a few minutes later one of the cubs walked down from the other end of the incline (away from the guard house) She paused half way, took stock of the two jeeps in attendance and walked right down to the water to drink. Soon one of her brothers joined her for a drink, but they didn't stay long - didn't want mum and junior to wolf down the rest of that delicious meal, no doubt! We were out of time that morning, but the afternoon plan was already clear!
And we arrived early that afternoon, set stall at a safe distance and waited. And like the morning, they came two at a time, drank and wallowed and then left to guard the kill while the others came down. and we had an absolute field day. They walked around our jeeps, posed for us and preened and groomed themselves. Just imagine the scene - two tigers in the water a few metres away, no other human being in sight. Nothing to disturb this tranquil scene with the only sound being that of the cameras.
And then one of the guards put his head over the wall and looked into the waterhole. And the tigers just scrammed, helter-skelter back to their mother, almost falling over each other in their eagerness to get out of the water. The sight of one guard, rather, just his head was enough to send them running, while 8 humans in two jeeps had spent the better part of 8 hours (over 2 days) a few metres away from them. I guess the unfamiliar (guard on foot) is always a threat while the familiar (jeeps) are accounted for in their routine.
We stared rather unkindly at the poor guard, but take a minute to imagine their plight. Here they were, shut inside their huts all day, with 4 tigers wandering around. The poor guy might have come to get a refill of water! Makes you realize how difficult their jobs are even in the best of times.
The tigers duly came back, reassured when the guard went back in. We left them around sunset, still in the water but probably ready to move on that night. The kill would have been demolished so it was onwards to the next one, the next day. Approaching adulthood, they would remain together only for a short time before they found their own territories and started their own families. And we were grateful that they gave us probably one of the last sightings of the family together - an amazing private audience; patiently, gracefully and silently blessing us with sightings of a lifetime.
We left in high spirits, with great hopes for this family. They would move on, the mother would have another little the next season. The female cub would find her own territory and cubs before too long and the handsome males would challenge the established kings for supremacy.
And once again, the Berda valley would resonate with the sounds of a new litter, adding strength to Ranthambhore's precious but fragile tiger population.
But sadly, three of the four tigers (the mother and the two male cubs) were never seen again. What became of them we will never know. The female cub established herself in part of her mother's territory and had two cubs of her own. In turn, she died when the cubs were young, killed after a fight with another tiger. Her female cub (T41) still rules her family's old stomping grounds and with news that she has just had a cub, the Berda family lineage still lives on.
Monday, June 17, 2013
I have been blessed by the tiger gods. There can be no other reason for the incredible sightings I've had of this most wonderful of animals. Time after time in forest after forest, this amazing animal gives me a 'vision' (sighting would be too blasé a word) and even with all the sightings I've had, the next one still is as exciting, spellbinding and magical as the previous one. Thankfully, (and it is a blessing) I will hopefully be rendered incapable of getting tired of watching tigers in the wild.
And as the rains end the wildlife season, I thought I would bring up some my finest sightings over the years, before I started my travels, when wildlife trips used to be for the odd weekend every summer. And a lot of them will be set in Ranthambhore, because that's where I've had some of my most spectacular sightings over the last decade, with Pench and Bandhavgarh also throwing up some gems. The quality of pictures is not necessarily very good, with most of them being scanned images of prints from the pre-digital era.
Bhakhola (Ranthambhore) June 2002
|Bhakhola - Airconditioned comfort for tigers|
This was my third to Ranthambhore within 6 months; I drew a blank on sightings on the first trip and finally saw my first tiger(s) on the second. But these average sightings had only whetted my appetite for more. And it also motivated my friends to join me me in the hottest month of the year -June. So Krishnan, his wife Ranjini, Amar, PD and me set off, to be welcomed by one Hemraj Meena, naturalist at Ranthambhore. He was, we were assured by the hotel guys, one of the best guides in Ranthambhore. And he took us straight to this densely wooded place called Bhakhola, home to a tigress and 4 cubs. That morning, through thick bush, we saw the tigress for a while and then returned. My friends, barring PD who was with me on my first trip, had seen their first tiger on their first ever safari! Lucky so-and-so's!!
That evening, we headed back there and waited. and through the bush we saw plenty of activity. Glimpses of black and orange bodies wrestling, sounds of the cubs playing (and the mother scolding them) but no great visuals. Until suddenly, we saw a little face peeking through the bush. A curious cub wanted to give us a once over, or so we thought. He was actually looking for something, so he wandered out, right behind our gypsy and then found what he was looking for, right next to the road. It was a piece of leg (sambhar I think) which he picked up and went back in.
Some time later, we watched as a huge tiger appeared in a gap - it was a male. Hemraj whispered that it was Bambooram, the dominant male, made famous by being the bloke that Bill Clinton sighted a couple of years earlier. He was obviously the father and quite an indulgent one at that, spending so much time with his cubs. Later, the tigress came out into the open and we watched as she licked and cleaned one of her cubs who lay in her lap. Truly moving sight to see the affection and it made us realize that a mother's love is the same, be it human or tiger. Special sighting, but the next day would be truly spectacular!
Hemraj showed us his incredible tracking skills the next day. Early in the morning as clouds gathered, we headed back to Bhakhola but found no signs of activity. We waited and then drove slowly around the area but it was almost like the tigers had disappeared. Then Hemraj asked the driver to wait at one particular point near Anatpura check post, more than a kilometer away from Bhakhola. And we waited for almost an hour. The driver became impatient and more than once said we should move on and try elsewhere. But Hemraj held firm and said that we would see tigers and see them there. And after the driver's nth disbelieving snort, Hemraj triumphantly said the magic word - "Tiger". And as if on cue, the tigress walked out from the bush 10 metres behind our gypsy.
She then walked behind us (the sole vehicle) all along the road to Bhakhola. Then she sat and started calling her cubs. Gently at first, but her calls increased in volume and annoyance as the minutes passed and the cubs didn't emerge. Soon, her roars started reverberating off the rocks around us and every one of us in the jeep could sense her anger. And just then, four little furry bundles emerged from the grass. And what happened next was incredible - like an annoyed mum, the tigress turned away and started walking, ignoring the cubs. They then ran to her and started to nuzzle her, almost as if to say sorry. Finally she relented and the (now) happy family walked together again.
The cubs then got into a waterhole and splashed about for a bit, but one call from mum and this time they leapt to attention. She led them as they walked into the bush for a rest and that completed one of the most memorable sightings of my life, compounded by the fact that we were the only vehicle the whole time. This would be the first of many many such trips with Hemraj and our relationship has grown stronger with the years. Today, he's more like extended family and his skill and enterprise have taken him very far in his field.
It also taught us the four basic pre-requisites for any sighting in the wild - patience, skill, faith and blessings. As a tourist, your most important virtues faith and patience. Any element of fortune is out of our hands and the skill resides with the guide and driver. Which is where the faith comes in; we learnt that our only chance of a sighting lay in putting all our faith in Hemraj's ability. He later told us that he'd heard a sambhar call once from the bushes half a kilometer away. One call, that's all. We were all privy to that call, but we didn't have the skill (then ) to interpret it. And the driver didn't have the patience to wait. Not all the calls that your guide takes will necessarily pay off, but you respect the jungle and understand the unpredictable nature of wild animals, you realize how special any sighting is. And how much of a tribute it is to your guide and driver.
But the final arbiter is still the tiger god. All the skill, timing, patience and faith can go to nought if the gods aren't smiling at you. And so, when you do get the sighting, please respect the rules of the jungle, behave appropriately and don't disturb the animals. Finally, close your eyes for a second and say a silent vote of thanks to this most incredible of god's creations. For you are fortunate to breathe the same air as these magnificent creatures, even if for a few minutes at a time.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
There are places that somehow exert a magnetic charm on you and Nagzira is one of them for me. Time and again, this beautiful little jewel in Vidarbha's green crown beckons me to visit and invariably showers an unbelievable bounty of sightings on me. And while A-Mark and her family invariably bless us with their presence, it is that whistling hunter of the Indian jungle that really draws me there every time.
Nagzira must rate amongst the finest places on the planet to see the Indian wild dog or dhole. This otherwise elusive predator is seen quite frequently here and several times in packs of a dozen or more. There are reported sightings of a legendary pack of upto 40 individuals, but I will reserve comment on that till I have had a chance to feast my own eyes on them. And no, it is not because I am jealous of those who have seen this pack!
This time I set out for Nagzira with school friends Krishnan, Rajesh and Nirav, celebrating our 25th year out of school with a boys' trip. And it turned out to be a trip to savor for each one of us and in more ways than one - Nirav saw his first tiger, Krishnan and Rajesh their first quality dhole sighting and me with another opportunity to step into this wonderful forest. And to keep my proud record going, of seeing a predator on every safari to date.
|Oriental Honey Buzzard|
The gods more than made up the next morning as first up, right next to the central check point, we saw a pack of dhole. They seemed to be hungry, sizing up a herd of spotted deer and when some of them split up, we knew that a hunt could be on. Then, to our surprise, this group headed to an old spotted deer kill and proceeded to tear to bits whatever little was left. There was plenty of squealing, yapping and even the odd high pitched yowl. And they seemed not in a mood to hunt, disappearing into the shade of thick bush, we left them to try our luck with A Mark and Jay.
|Collared Scops Owl Chicks|
|A Mark lost in thought|
That afternoon, my (now slightly dented) record stayed intact, but only just. We saw A Mark lying in the bush but she didn't emerge. We headed onwards towards Chorkhamara hoping that Jay (or Dendu) might be on the prowl. No signs of either, but we did glimpse a sleeping pack of dhole at Wakda Beda. Once again, dhole and tiger on the same safari, I don't think any other park can claim to provide such abundant sightings of both these predators. And as we headed out, a light shower cooled off things and made the day seem that much more productive!
On our last safari, we headed to New Nagzira, via the Umarzari gate. The resident tigress Alpha had a litter of 6 month old cubs and we were keen to see them. As we drove around the area, we saw monkeys frantically calling near a waterhole at the foot of a hill. We also heard a tigress' 'Aumm', as she called to her cubs. We waited, and even opened our breakfast packets as bait, but this family didn't bite. Maybe they didn't care for poha and sandwiches! As the calls died down, we drove around to the other side of the hill and there were two vehicles next to a nallah, searching for something. They'd seen two of the cubs at the side of the road and they'd since disappeared into the shade of the nallah. So while we were hoping that the family were on the other side of the hill what actually happened was that the tigress was on top of the hill and she called to her cubs to stay put in the nallah this side. And as there was no sign of activity all the jeeps drove off.
|Alpha's 6 month old cub|
|Orange headed thrush|
|Tickell's Blue Flycatcher|
Maybe A Mark with 4 cubs. Jay, Veeru and Dendu. Alpha with her 4 cubs. A leopard or two perhaps? And topped off by that 40 strong dhole group for good measure? Outlandish it may sound, but never bet against it happening in this most incredible of wild havens called Nagzira!
Nagzira Trip Guide
From Nagpur, you can drive via Bhandara to Sakoli, where you turn off for Pitezari. From Gondia, the closest entry point is the Chorkhamara gate.
There are a few stay options in Nagzira, with more on the anvil.
The newly opened Muba Resort (www.mubaresorts.com) near Pitezari gate is very nice, with lovely large rooms and beautiful balconies. This place is built around a little pond and all the rooms are built on stilts with connecting walkways. The food is superb and the staff are very friendly.
The forest department has two stay options at Pitezari gate - a guest house and the tented complex both of which are decent. The the air-cooled tents are surprisingly comfortable even in summer and and the food is excellent!
Inside the park, the log huts near the Nagzira lake offer pretty decent accommodation as well.
Alternatively, check out www.nagzira.com for information and also updates on the new online reservation system.
There are also a couple of places to stay near the Chorkhamara gate, but I haven't visited any of them yet.
Gypsies are available from locals around the park. Madhav runs a local dhaba at Pitezari gate and also has a gypsy. His driver Chaitram is excellent and highly recommended. To book, you can reach Madhav on 09923928470/9604144602 or Chaitram on 09552122659.
You can also take your own vehicle into the park, though that is planned to be restricted and eventually banned.
There only a limited number of permits issued - Old Nagzira - Pitezari (15) Chorkhamara(7) and Mangezari(5) and New Nagzira - Chorkhamara (8) and Umarzari(15).
Entry permits were easy to obtain until recently, but it has now become a bit of an issue in especially on weekends. You have to queue up hours before and the forms are only distributed a few hours before each safari. Ergo no advance booking.
There is a new online booking system under development, which should solve all these issues. That should hopefully happen by the time the park re-opens next season.
Safari timings - Morning safari 6-11 am and evening safaris 3-7 pm in summer. Timings change with the seasons, so best to check with the gypsy driver/owner or resort in advance
Nagzira can get really hot and dusty in summer, so best to carry something to cover your head and nose
Always plan for breakfast on the morning safari. You can carry a packed breakfast from your resort (if they do that) or try the canteen at the centre point, which serves excellent poha (with tarri, Vidarbha style) and tea
The dhabas at Pitezari gate serve good food as well. Madhav is my favorite haunt and they make great food including a mean 'gavti' chicken curry if informed in advance.
Forest Department Contacts
Conservator of Forest (Wildlife)
Gondia - 441 614
Tahsil + District - Gondia
Phone: +91-(0)7182-251250, +91-(0)7182-251232Email: email@example.com
Monday, April 22, 2013
The tiger stretched languidly. Even in this most innocuous of movements, one could not miss the power that lay within. Coupled with his sheer size, it was no wonder that in Nagzira's tiger hierarchy, this guy (Jay) has clearly been anointed (at least by his human followers) crown prince and heir apparent. He is one of two male cubs (Veeru being the other - Sholay fans anyone?) from the previous litter of the legendary A-Mark, Nagzira's queen mother and living legend. And he was gracious enough to join us for a drink one afternoon. Well, he drank and we watched.
I was back in Nagzira (with Rajnesh, Nissim and a new friend Amit Srivastava) for my first real trip since that amazing debut trip last summer. Arrived at the spanking new Muba resort and was reassured to learn that A Mark was still going strong and happy that Jay and Veeru were staking out on their own and finding new territories as soon-to-be-adult male tigers. I was also itching to see some dhole. Memories of last summer's dhole sightings were all too fresh in the mind and I crossed my fingers for some more please!
Our first visit threw up a glimpse of A Mark in a waterhole. Glimpse because we were lined up behind a few vehicles and rather than join that and add to the crowd, we decided to stake out at a distance in case she headed that way post her drink. She chose to head in another direction, presumably towards a kill and we chose to head back to the resort. Lovely to see her of course and also very excited to know that she was pregnant and expecting her litter very soon. This is one incredible lady! The heavens opened up that evening - thunder and lightening livened up Muba Resorts' official opening. It was almost like the gods were joining the party. But I was a bit worried about the next day. But I shouldn't have; it all got taken care of.
The next morning dawned bright, beautiful and dust free. As we headed towards Nagzira lake, we saw a jeep parked and a couple of guys furiously clicking something on the left. And as we neared, we saw it was a pack of dhole. On a kill! The jeep ahead had seen them just after they had taken down an adult chital stag. And over the next ten minutes or so, we saw this pack (of about 12-14 individuals) completely demolish the carcass. Nipping, snarling and biting, they ate through a large deer like it was a small portion of chicken nuggets! Though they were a bit far (where was that 500mm lens when you really needed it?) we managed to get some decent pictures. And yet again, Nagzira lived up to it's (really) high standards of being dhole heaven.
That afternoon, we headed back to #1 Taka (waterhole) where A Mark and her family sometimes hang out. And Rajnesh, with his eagle eyes, spotted 2 tigers in thick bush. For the life of me, I couldn't even see one for a while. But his insistent nudging finally made me identify stripes. So I did see the tiger, even though I confess to not know which one or how many there were. As we waited awhile, Rajnesh decided to check out the parallel 'Bison' road; he was sure that one of the tigers had moved and could emerge on that road. And as if on cue, out in the open lay a large male tiger - Jay!
Then we all settled down for a comfortable afternoon next to a pool. But the crown prince wasn't on top of his game and he wasn't very chatty as he drank. He had a few scratches on him, possibly from a fight with either his brother Veeru or his father, Dendu. Though we didn't really discuss much, this intra-family feud and the pressure to take over the kingdom seemed to be weighing on him. He looked confused, ponderous, pre-occupied and seemed a bit lost. Time and again, he would lift his head and look for someone, presumably his mother, since she was also in the vicinity. We were amused to see that even large male tigers sometimes still need mommy to make things right!
Mommy didn't make an appearance till sun-down and so we left young Jay and wished him well, just in case we didn't see him on our last safari. And indeed, on our final safari, we didn't see him. But thanks to a tip from another jeep, we saw A Mark, a fair distance from where she was a couple of days ago. She was presumably finding a safe place to deliver her cubs, somewhere quiet and peaceful, without any other tiger in the vicinity. we saw her drinking from a trough of water and when she finished, she walked up almost all the way to us, then descended into a nala and disappeared into the bush. As she passed us, we could see her stomach was slightly bloated. Also, her teats were distended, a sure sign that she was pregnant. We left her in peace, and drove off, wishing this wonderful tigress all the very best for her new litter. And a small prayer to grant her 4 female cubs, which could grow up and boost Nagzira's (currently fragile) breeding female population.
|The legendary A Mark|
It was only as we were leaving did I realize that my incredible strike rate in Nagzira still continued, I had now done 8 safaris in total and had seen either tiger or dhole (or both) on every single safari. Another small prayer and a vote of thanks to the animal gods who smiled on me and who continue to provide some of my life's most memorable moments.
And to Rajnesh, as ever motivated and enthused to preserve Vidarbha's incredible wildlife. And to Nissim, who saw his first tiger in the wild and who has now been smitten - hook, line and sinker. And to the incredible Amit Srivastava - multi-faceted, fun and inspirational.
To friends, then. And to tigers, new and otherwise!
And to Dhole. Of course.
Nagzira Trip Guide
Nagzira is about 140 kms east of Nagpur (the closest big city and airport) while the closest town to Nagzira is Bhandara (60 kms) The roads from Nagpur are very good, on the whole and should be around 2 ½ hours or so.
There are now more options to stay in Nagzira, with more on the anvil.
The newly opened Muba Resort (www.mubaresorts.com) is very nice, with lovely large rooms and beautiful balconies. This place is built around a little pond and all the rooms are built on stilts with connecting walkways. The food is superb and the staff are very friendly.
There is also the forest department tented complex at Pitezari gate which is clean and pleasant and the air-cooled tents are very comfortable. And the food is excellent!
To book, you can contact the President of the Eco-Development Committee, Nagzira. Alternatively, check out www.nagzira.com for information and also updates on the new online reservation system.
Safaris can be booked through the hotel. Private vehicles are still allowed in the forest, though there are plans to ban their entry from next season onwards.