It was around 12.30 pm on May 6th and I was in a marriage hall in central Mumbai when I got a call from my friend K Srinivasan (KS). The call had to be an urgent one as normally, KS communicated with me through E-Mails. I came out of the hall and spoke to KS for about 5 minutes during which he told me about his intention to visit the Pench Tiger Reserve between May14-17.He said that after talking to Dr Abheek Ghosh, Cardiologist by profession and a wildlife conservation activist, he planned to be in Pench for 4 days to take 7 safari rides to improve the chances of sighting tigers. KS asked me whether I was interested in joining him for the trip for which I said in affirmation.
The trigger point for KS to take such a sudden decision was the pictures of collarwali tigress with her five cubs uploaded on Indiamike and TBHP sites by Dr Abheek Ghosh. By the end of the day, KS had booked BOM-NGP-BOM flight, the Kipling Court at Pench for our stay and remitted money to book 7 safaris @Rs.3000/- per safari. Indica AC car (Rs.2000/-) was arranged through Kipling Court to pick us from Nagpur airport for Kipling Court drop ( 105 kms). So I was set for my first full-fledge wild life trip in about week’s time.
The Indigo flight landed at the Nagpur airport on schedule (1.00 pm) with the outside temperature of 42C. From the exit point of the airport, the car park was barely 100m away where our driver Shivshankar was waiting for us. But by the time I sat in the car, I was already reeling under the impact of mid day heat. We drove through Nagpur City to take Nagpur-Jabalpur highway. Although there was not much of traffic, Shivshanker never exceeded the speed limit of 60 kmph. We thought that perhaps, he may have been instructed by Kipling Court Manager to drive cautiously on the highway. Later in the day, we came to know that he was a regular Gypsy safari driver inside Pench Tiger Reserve where the speed limit for the safari vehicle was 10 km per hour. After Khawasa village which is the border between Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, we took a left turn on a good single lane village road to reach Kipling Court at around 4.00 pm. The hotel was well maintained with a large lawn and a swimming pool. It was still hot outside and the first thing we did after entering our room was to switch on AC and relax for about an hour. There was a veranda attached to the room facing a dried nala and we were told that if we could sit in the veranda in the night, there was a possibility of spoting some wildlife activities. I felt that the possibility of spotting some wildlife activities may be more when there was water in the stream.
|On the road to Turia gate of Pench NP|
|Safari vehicles in queue at Turia gate at 5.30 a.m.|
|Safari trail to Piyorthadi|
|A male Sambhar crossing our safari trail|
|The scenic Pench river backwaters|
|Spotted deers crossing safari trails on our way to Beejamatta|
|A Collared Owl|
|Peacock on a tree trunk|
Assuming that the tiger may come down from the ridge and cross our trail some 200m ahead of us, we quickly drove to that point and waited for the tiger to cross the trail. But the tiger which Motiram now identified as a grown up cub of Badi Mada tigress, changed his mind and started walking away from us under the cover of forest and dried grass towards the ridge. Probably our two Gypsies' noise must have disturbed the cub and decided to go back to the safety of ridge where Badi Mada tigress must have been watching us from a vintage point. I could see the cub very clearly walking away from us in the cover of forest and dried grass but could not bring my camera to the focus to capture what would have been my first shoot of tiger in the wild. However, KS could somehow capture the retreating tiger cub in his camera. While we were busy locating the whereabouts of the tiger cub, Motiram spotted another tiger cub some 200m behind us descending towards our trail. We quickly took a U turn towards the spot expecting the second tiger cub to cross our trail but the tiger cub was nowhere to be seen. Motiram felt that the cub might have already crossed the trail before we reached the spot.
Disappointed by the turn of the event that unfolded during the last half-an-hour, Motiram decided to move our Gypsy to Beejamatta waterhole assuming that Badi Mada tigress with her two cubs may have gone to cool off in Beejamatta waterhole. We reached Beejamatta in the next 10 minutes or so and waited patiently there for some time. But there were no traces of the tigress and her two cubs. Since there were no alarm calls, Motiram felt that there was no possibility of sighting the tigress and her two cubs in this area. My guess was that the tigress and her siblings must have decided to cool off in one of the wet patches of almost dried up stream somewhere in the midway where no jeep safari could reach.
At the end of our first safari, we returned to our hotel at 10.30 a.m. At the breakfast table, while discussing the morning safari events, KS jokingly told me that tigress and her cubs cleverly hoodwinked us. A thought came to my mind later that after all she was Badi Mada tigress (Elder female tigress) with many years of experience in dealing with peeping tourist crowd. In the milieu, she must have mastered the art of hoodwinking the tourist crowd!!! If deers and langurs can give alarm calls after sighting predators, so can Badi Mada tigress give her own call to cubs after sighting two legged animals called human beings. By the way, we did not see Badi Mada tigress and her two cubs in our remaining six safaris.
|Alert spotted deers wait after hearing alarm calls signalling predators nearby|
|A zoom shot of Badi Mada tiger cub retreating to forest after seeing us. Photo courtsey: K Srinivasan|
|We in our safari Gypsy on way to Beejamatta.|
In the night, Dr Abheek informed us that his preferred driver Bablu will be back from Kanha National Park and he would be assigned to us for our remaining 5 safaris. He was supposed to be an ace spotter of tigers in Pench. He has good knowledge of the topography of the park and a keen interest in wildlife.
|A Sambhar family|
|Deers watches as a Jackal (top left) takes away a part of deer kill|
|Tourists on elephant rides for watching collarwali tigress and her cubs|
|Collarwali tigress with her Neelgai kill|
|Two of Collarwali tigress's five cubs in deep slumber after a hearty meals of Neelgai|
|One of the two cubs of Baghini Nala tigress resting on the earthen extension of check dam at 5.30 am.|
|The second cub joins the first cub in retreating to a higher slope|
|The first cub sits on a higher slope and scratches his body with one of his rear legs|
|Now the first cub and Baghini Nala tigress ( top right) in one frame|
So, Bablu was correct in assessing that Baghini Nala tigress and her two cubs were holed up here. With two Gypsies with 10-12 persons, there was no way in expecting that the tigress and her two cubs will move towards us to give us a better darshan. On the contrary, tigress and her two cubs moved away to the other side of the ridge after hearing the noise from a bike on which two forest guards arrived at Baghini Nala to regulate the safari vehicles.
Encouraged by the yesterday’s sighting of collarwali tigress and her five cubs on elephant ride, we decided to have one more elephant ride for a relook. So we drove towards Ali Katta. Just one km before Ali Katta, we passed through a beautiful meadow with a small pond. This was a very scenic spot worth spending some time. So even at the cost of delay for the elephant ride, we decided to spend sometime in the midst of this meadow. There were herds of spotted deers, a couple of dancing peacocks, red ring-necked Parakeets, black beek Storks and Pond Ibis (Heron?) all sharing the same pond. On the trees surrounding the meadow, we saw a group of yellow legged Pigeons for the first time. Occasionally, Parakeets and Indian Rollers flew over the meadows.
|A vast meadow on way to Ali Katta|
|Yellow legged Pigeon|
|Deers, black beek storks and rose ringed neck Parakeets ( in the foreground) around waterhole|
|At the same waterhole, a peacock (left) dances|
|A flying Indian Roller|
At Ali Katta, we got a good news that elephant rides were going on to see collarwali tigress and her five cubs at the same spot as we had seen yesterday. So we got the token for the elephant rides and drove to the elephant boarding place. As we reached the place, we came to know that collarwali tigress and her cubs had moved further up away from the banks of the stream necessitating the forest authorities to shift the elephant boarding place a further 200m away. All the safari vehicles in the queue were directed to form the fresh queue in the same order. After about 30 minutes, we boarded for the elephant ride and less than two minutes, we spotted the first cub in the bush looking at the elephant but did not panic. Just few feet away were two more cubs sleeping under the cover of bushes. At some distance from these cubs were the collarwali tigress with her two other cubs sharing the same rocky mould. While the cubs were sleeping, tigress was resting. After taking some quick pictures of tigress and her cubs, we returned to our base where our Gypsy was parked. This sighting of collarwali tigress and her five cubs was better than the one of yesterday as we got to see them more or less together.
|Collarwali tigress with her two of the five cubs resting on a rocky mould|
|A close up of collarwali tigress and her one of five cubs|
|Another cub is resting behind the shrubs|
|One more cub under the shrubs|
We must have barely drove some 300m on a connecting trail to Turia gate, when we saw a Gypsy stopping and its occupants all looking towards the pond. What we saw was a mind blowing sight of 4 of collarwali tigress’s cub in the pond to cool off. After sometime, they were all looking at the direction where we had seen the tigress. Later it transpired that collarwali tigress was moving towards the pond to join the cubs. It was the most beautiful sight to watch some 300m away from us, tigress and her four of five cubs playing and swimming in the pond. The fifth cub did not join as we had seen earlier, it was in deep slumber in the cover of nearby bushes. Some more safari vehicles arrived and this prompted collarwali tigress to keep a watch over us while two of the four cubs were looking to cross over to a grassy patch for a walk. But they soon returned to the pond probably to cool off than walking in the heat.
At this point of time, forest guards asked us to move away from the spot as it would have disturbed the tigress and her cubs apart from jamming the narrow trail. I was just visualising a scenario in which if collarwali tigress felt threatened with our presence, she could just come charging towards us from a distance of about 300m and we would have no time to run away even in our Gypsy. This reminded me of an incidence in Kaziranga National Park few years back where a tiger suddenly came charging and jumped on elephant mahout injuring him badly. It is said that tigers leave their mesmerising impact on their viewers and in that process, they tend to forget about the impending danger from them. So the forest guards were right in cautioning us especially when tigress had cubs with her.
This was the best sighting of our safari and we wished we had longer zoom lenses to shoot the pictures. At the end of the morning safari, KS said “Paisa Vasool” (worth the money). There was a background to this statement. I was thinking that the cost of 4 days trip to Pench NP was working out more than the cost of our proposed 12 days trek. But we felt that if we got to see tigers, it was worth spending money. At the end of five safari rides, we had already seen 10 tigers (including cubs).
|Four of the five cubs in the pond for cooling off while Collarwali tigress joins them later|
|Now cubs with Collarwali tigress (right)|
|Collarwali tigress (right) looks at us while two of her cubs want to go on the other side.|
|Three cubs who had gone outside the pond come back in the water to join Collarwali tigress (right).|
As usual, we started our afternoon safari late by one hour to avoid heat. We got slightly different route covering trail towards Karmaziri and returning via Baghini Nala. We were now hoping to see male Tigers and Leopards in our remaining two safaris. There were not much of new wildlife sightings other than those already seen by us. Motiram, the guide on our first safari had told me that with more tiger population in Pench requiring larger territories for them, some of the leopards were driven out to nearby forests. Even though there are still more leopards than tigers in Pench, the chances of sighting leopards are low because they are shy animals. Within the tigers, sighting a male tiger is more difficult than female ones as the former has to protect his large territories and in that process, the male tiger is always on the move. Bablu told me that few days back a male tiger was sighted near the Turia gate but the chances of sighting him again in a day or two around Turia gate were low as he would be moving to other areas of his territories to ensure that he remained undisputed king of his territories. On the other hand, spotting tigresses is relatively easy as their territories are smaller than that of the male tigers and if they have cubs with them, their movements become further restricted.
With no chance of sighting male tigers and leopards, Bablu decided to take one more chance at Baghini Nala in the late evening to spot Baghini tigress her two cubs. But again we had no luck. All our afternoon safari ended without sighting any predators. When we were back in the hotel, one of the hotel guests told me that he was lucky to spot Badi Mada tigress and her two cubs crossing the road very close to his safari vehicle in the late evening today. He showed me the pictures of Badi Mada tigress crossing the road.
|A Neelgai looks at us while waiting to cross the safari trail|
|A Bison rushes to cross the safari trail before our Gypsy|
|A smiling langur family|