This summer we chose to visit the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, Central India. We planned this wildlife trip with a desire to see the tiger and spend some time in the jungle after our successful visits at Pench & Tadoba – Andhari Tiger Reserves 18 months ago.
The seeds of wildlife safaris in a game reserve were sown into our psyche by the visit we made to Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa in 2012 and my good friend Dr Anand (Kedsan Adeventures) was prompt in suggesting this destination to us and making all our arrangements.
There are 47 tiger reserves in India which are governed by Project Tiger which is administered by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. India is home to 70% of tigers in the world. In 2006, there were 1,411 tigers which increased to 1,706 in 2011 and 2,226 in 2014. That’s a healthy trend, but still a long way to go before we can be ‘Tiger-Rich’ again. Poaching and loss of habitat are the greatest dangers facing tigers today.
Founded in 1968, the Bandhavgarh National Park, derives its name from the most prominent hillock of the area, which is said to be given by Lord Ram to his brother Laxman to keep a watch on Lanka. Hence the name Bandhavgarh (Sanskrit: Brother’s Fort).
It has a rich historical past. Prior to becoming a national park, the forests around Bandhavgarh had long been maintained as a Shikargah (Hunter’s Land), for the Maharajas of the Rewa and their guests. The four main zones of the national park are Tala, Magdhi, Khitauli, and Panpatta. As of today the Magdhi zone is the richest zone in terms tiger sightings. Together, these four ranges comprise the ‘Core’ of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve constituting a total area of 694 km2. Along with the buffer zone this area shoots up to approximately 1600 km2 as per the local information. Our journey started with a flight to Jabalpur. Four hours of driving from Jabalpur took us to the forests of Bandhavgarh. We stayed in a house atop a tree, called the Treehouse Hideaway.
Our quaint machaan was a spacious, tidy place with a large central bed having a canopy of mosquito net. It had an ‘old world’ charm to it. The balcony was a huge one with a coffee table overlooking the dense forest on all sides. This was going to be our share of the forest for the next 3 days.
Our room was called ‘Palash Tree’, commonly called the flame of the forest as it lights up the greens and browns of the forest with a fiery orange. Our nest had a great library.
I love spending time with the books in the library in these wildlife centric places. It’s all about tigers and other animals and I could spend days reading about these. It allows me to subtly sow some seeds for love of the nature and wildlife in my little daughters mind. Tell her stories about life in wild. Hope she will remember them when she grows up.
We could do a maximum of six safaris in this trip and we were booked for all. Our morning safaris started at 5.30 am and we were up by 4.30 am every day. There was an unexpected chill in the air that felt stronger with the anticipation of sighting the tiger. Although that was our main goal, the sighting of other wildlife and the feel of the forest was something we were looking forward too.
As we entered the forest through the gate we were wide awake listening for the sounds of the jungle to tell us where the tiger is. On the way the smell of fresh morning air was rejuvenating and a welcome change from the polluted air of the overcrowded cities we live in. The first sign of a healthy jungle is abundant deer’s, monkeys and languor. This means that there is lot of food for the predators.
The prey went about their daily feeding routine without even sparing us a glance. Travelling in slow motion in our gypsy, with an eerie silence, except the rustling of the dry leaves, all our animal instincts were called in to play. We sensed the tiger close by; an alarm call a few seconds ago was a dead giveaway.
It’s surprising how the meaning of “alarm call” changes when you are in the jungle as compared to when you are in the busy urban setting. I hate the alarm calls that wake me up every morning, but I love these calls of the chital that tells you something is about to happen, the tiger is on the prowl. And when that happens the entire jungle becomes alert. The forest guide stops to examine a few pug marks and makes a calculated guess regarding the whereabouts of the tiger. We did not sight a tiger in the mornings, but the hope that we will, made us go back in the sizzling afternoon heat.
On one of our afternoon safaris we saw a tiger cub resting in the bushes, truly well camouflaged. We waited there for almost 90 minutes, but he left our frantic prayers unanswered and did not budge from his comfortable resting position. The best I could get was a faint picture when he stood up after his afternoon siesta. This sighting just made us all the more desperate to see the master of the jungle, up close. The evenings in these game reserves bring us experiences that we remember for a long time. Everyone is talking about the beautiful day they had in wilderness. It’s great to see the euphoria in those who could capture good pictures of the tiger while the sadness in those who failed to sight one is difficult to observe.
A giant screen was arranged in the common area of our tour abode and a short wildlife movie about the difficulties in filming a tiger while it hunts was played for us all. This was followed by some really awesome food. The chef at this place was truly gifted in bringing out freshness on our plates as far as the taste and ingredients of the food was concerned. Dinner was usually followed by early sleep. The sounds and smell of the jungle kept us motivated on all days. The rich density of evergreen Sal trees that rarely get completely bare as they shed leaves by rotation was a revelation to me. Some of these grow up to 30 meters tall and are the centre of a large number of religious and cultural beliefs apart from the variety of medicinal uses. Speaking of medicinal uses, the Mahua is another prominent tree in these forests. It adds to the refreshing scent in the air and its flowers while being edible can be used to make a potent alcoholic drink; the monkeys in the jungle seem to be having a lot of these and are thus always jumping around happily.
The magnificently anaemic, Indian ghost tree was a rarity here in contrast to the jungles of Tadoba in Maharashtra. A large diverse population of birds made up for the absence of the great predator. To see the look in children’s eyes and know that they love this was really satisfying. On one of the evenings our manager and naturalist, Ashish Tirkey, made a special dinner arrangement for us. Candle lights and lanterns lit up an open area where the table for the four of us was arranged under the moonlit sky with the stars peeping into our plates. With the right ambience and some exquisitely prepared food from the chef, we felt blessed and well taken care of. As we walked back after dinner, hundreds of fireflies lit the outside of our room and cicadas produced a sweet cacophony that was surprisingly soothing to my ears. Our Morning safari on last day was in the Tala zone and we didn’t expect any sightings. The dynamics of wildlife and the fiercely territorial tigers in particular are fascinating. This once coveted zone, renowned for its tiger sightings fell short this year due to its aging former dominant male tiger. Without the security of a strong male tiger, the tigresses with cubs moved to the safer environs of the Magdhi zone. The Tala zone turned out to be a brilliant excursion although the tiger eluded us.
We saw some nice birds, up close, like the two Storks parked cosily on a tree top, a Double Crested Cormorant that was settled comfortably with wings spread in the same way as SRK spreads his arms in kal ho na ho movie. The colourful Kingfisher is always a great sighting but difficult to photograph. A close sighting of the crested serpentine eagle made for a nice picture and the abundant peacocks added some bright colour at regular intervals.
The opportunistic Vultures were seen awaiting their turn to feast on the next kill by some other animal. The highlight for me was a scene by a pond where we saw a group of thirsty deer’s quenching their thirst. On the hills of Bandhavgarh we saw a 2000 year old statue of Lord Vishnu that made for a very peacefully shaded setting in the otherwise scorching sun. We saw one of 39 caves in the Tala zone most of which are 2000 years old and were used for the kings soldiers as a resting place.
Five safaris done and we were down to the wire. No great tiger sightings, kids were sad; we were almost frustrated and started to curse our luck. We started 15 mins earlier than our scheduled time for the last safari, we reached the gate first. We were desperate to see the tiger and the feeling was positive. I knew that if we don’t see a tiger close by in this one, we will have to wait another year to see one. As soon as the gate opened we rushed in, our driver had a sense of urgency that I haven’t experienced before. The sweltering heat of the early summer was enough reason for us to believe that the tiger will be close to an artificial pond in the Maghdi zone. Ravi, our experienced driver was at the wheel for this one. As we rumbled and tumbled on our approach to the watering hole, holding on to dear life; we all felt; this is it, we will see one. And then, there it was, lying royally on the open field chilling out in the shade of bamboo shrub, unaware of the relief that his presence would bring to us. A young sub adult male, about 3 years old. As we were the first vehicle to be there we parked right in front of him and waited for a good 20 minutes before he decided to stretch a bit and get up. It’s a feeling of great satisfaction to see the walk of the tiger and if that walk is towards you it all the more exciting. As we eagerly awaited, he walked to the small pond and bending downwards had a few swigs of water. While giving me a piercing look he quenched his thirst and I quenched mine looking at him. As we kept looking at each other, I fell in love. One sided, it was, but from experience I know that we cannot help such feelings when they surface. The sounds of millions of shutters firing away in burst mode were the only unnatural sound in the jungle.
The scorching heat tested our patience but we stood our ground and were rewarded with the male cub deciding to cool off in the water for a good 15 minutes before he got up, growled once and walked away majestically into the jungle. On the way he slowly turned his head to look back, condescendingly at some insignificant insect and the noisy shutter bugs in the jeeps and then proceeded with an expression that said ‘this is my territory’. Ah! That walk! If only he knew how much we had prayed to see that.
I thought this is it, now I will never want to come and see the tiger, I had a sighting for almost an hour, but as we drove back, I realized that my hunger was insatiable, in fact watching the tiger up close is like an addiction, you want to keep going back for more. We are already planning our next visit to another glorious tiger reserve in India to have a fresh experience of the rich forests. I hope you do to!