Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Let’s start with the stats of the trip - 12 tiger sightings and 1 leopard sighting in 4 safaris.

It was my second visit to the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in less than a year. I fell in love with the park on my first visit last year. Of the all parks I have visited, it provides the best possibility of seeing a tiger in wild. Despite the high possibility and a good tiger density, sighting of a tiger in wild is still a matter of luck. And if luck is with you, you are bound to see more than one tiger here. We saw 12 tigers in this trip. Two of my friends who were in a different gypsy saw 8 in 4 safaris. A minimum of 3 safaris is benchmark out of which at least 2 should be in Tala zone.

Despite large no of tiger sighting, the trip did not started off well for us. This time I took my mother to show her a tiger in the wild. Misfortune stuck us even before we landed at Umaria as my mother’s purse was stolen in the train (Jammu Tawi – Durg Express) where she lost her mobile and cash. With a bit of sadness we arrived at the Green Woods Resort. The resort is about 6 km from the Tala gate which turned out to be a bit too far for a small place like Tala. It is actually inside the Panpatha WLS. The other resort there was the Tiger Lagoon. These two resorts are the farthest located resort at Tala. For the 6am safari, you have to leave resort by 5:15am. If you leave by 5:30am, you are bound to get late. We had stayed there for we could bargain a nice package. Though located far away, its location is quite scenic.

We had planned and booked the safaris well in advance, in Feb itself. It is very important to get safaris for Tala booked in advance. Booking online is not easy as the web portal is problematic. After a couple of futile attempts to book tickets ourselves, we had got it booked through the resort and got the receipts mailed to be double sure that safaris are booked. On our arrival we had found that because of a long weekend, there was considerable rush at Bandhavgarh. So much so that even the Magadhi zone with 65 vehicles was also sold out. Under pressure, the resort staff did not handle the safaris well, even for other guests.

Magadhi madness
Our first safari was planned for Magadhi zone. It was on the afternoon of our arrival. Being a non-premium zone, a safari in this zone cost Rs.3100/-. There is only one area where you get to see tiger in this zone – the Mahaman dam. As it was quite early for tiger movement, we decided to take a round of that area. But finally returned to the Mahaman dam. There was lot activity those days around the dam with Mahaman female with 3 cubs and Mukunda male giving them company. But this being only point to have a tiger sighting, all of 65 vehicles would converge there creating a scene of chaos. Entire stretch of 100 meters or so was blocked by gypsies leaving no passage for tigers to cross. The result was that, in the late afternoon one tiger came out from the bushes and as there was no passage for it to move to the pond, it went back. Only a couple gypsies could see it, one of them being my friends. For my friend Sanjib, it was his first tiger sighting after 2 futile attempts at Corbett. He was the happiest man that night. The no of vehicles allowed – 65 had scared me even before I had booked a Magadhi trip. Even half that no would have been too much. This scare actually turned into a nightmare with 65 vehciles in that evening. It is always better to pay 1000 bucks more for a Tala trip. In fact this Mahaman dam area falls under A-C route of Tala. If you do 3-4 safaris in Tala, then you are bound to get at least one A-C route trip, which would mean you not only have access to Tala zone tigers, but also to the only tiger sighting point of Magadhi zone.

Next morning we set out for Tala. We had booked our both Tala trips in the morning half. Second half safaris are not good for photography as light falls off very fast once it is past 4:30pm or so. The resort staff created another mess by changing my gyspy. The driver had to revalidate the pass. We lost almost 20 min of prime morning time. Later I realized that we lost that time more for the driver then the resort staff. The driver had actually killed time at the counter. In order to save fuel, some drivers tend to waste time at every possible opportunity and uses short cuts in connivance with the guide. With such a driver in tow, I had another bad trip. Though the route was A-C, we did not see any tiger. My friends again saw a tiger that trip, that too in A-C.

While returning we had started to feel a bit depressed. Misfortune and bad luck was refusing to leave us. Before coming to Bandhavgarh, I had a feeling that one would not see a tiger here only if he carries extreme bad luck. Was that happening to us! I felt bad for my mother who at almost 63 had taken all the pain to come this far to see a tiger in wild. She wanted to go to Jaipur, instead I took her to Bandhavgarh. Even my wife and daughter had started showing signs of stress, despite having seen tigers earlier. During the noon break, we tried to keep us upbeat by shooting birds and butterflies at a stream flowing near our resort. I know that with 8 more safaris lined up in next two months at Ranthambhore and TATR, I will get to see tigers. But time was running out for my mother.

The safari that evening was for Khitauli zone. My friend and mentor Shivang Mehta who was leading a photo tour had told me previous evening that there is only one place in Khitauli to spot tiger – Damdama water hole. He saw a tigress there once out of five safaris he took. So he suggested waiting there. After entering Khitauli gate, we came across human settlement. It was more of a buffer zone then a core zone. We wondered as to how to how those village children were playing in an area which is frequented by Mukunda male. Given the human habitation around, the chance of seeing a tiger appeared further remote. But this time my both my driver and guide were good. God sent them to lighten our misery. The guide suggested that a new male is getting sighted regularly at Mazhargarh River. While most gypsies were seen returning for a wait at Damdama (which also helps them saves fuel) ours decided to press further. One need to make an entry at a gate at the end of the road, then cross the main road to Borohi to enter into the Mazargarh area. When we had reached Mazargarh, there was no tiger, but around 6-7 vehicles were waiting. Just imagine that out of 25-30 odd vehicles that had entered the zone that day, only 6-7 had come this deep. This is where the importance of a good driver and guide lies in a safari. Thought the spot looked ideal for tiger spotting, no tiger ventured out that evening. No luck. As was time was running out eventually all vehicles left, we being the penultimate ones. Only a gypsy with couple of photographers with bazookas stayed back. While returning there were no vehicles in sight for long. We were comfortably seated as not even a deer was in sight. Then the vehicle braked suddenly. A leopard had jumped onto the road barley 50 feet in front of us. The braking of the vehicle also startled it. What a moment. I had seen many tigers in wild, but not a leopard. Honestly speaking, I had told my wife before departing that I wanted to see a leopard this time. And it had just happened. By the time I pulled my camera out it leaped into the bushes. I got a couple of docu shots of my first leopard sighting. Being almost evening with very low light did not give me a good shot. But I was happy. So do all of us – my daughter, wife, and more importantly my mother. Even the guide and driver were ecstatic. They are used to tiger sighting, but leopard sighting is very rare and hence it was special even for them.

Surprisingly enough, my friends saw another tiger that evening. That too in Khitauli  zone. It was not one of the generally seen tiger there. This made 3 out of 3 for them. That evening everyone was happy. The moods have changed. So did our luck. The resort organized a folk dance program that night. Sipping beer we discussed events of the last two days. We decided to start off early next morning and try for route B-D.

Next morning, we set out for our final safari with elated mood. It was again Tala. By tipping the driver of last trip I had ensured that he remains with us for this final trip. While my friends got route B-D, we were again assigned route A-C. While misfortune followed us, everything was going right for them. My wife was not happy with it. She tried to get the route changed to B-D, but eventually gave up and resigned to fate. The drivers counseled her as it is not route, but luck which matters for tigers. However by starting early we could enter the park as soon as the gates opened. Every min of prime time in morning is very crucial. Losing 15-20 min might be a disaster.

Vijaya aka Kankati
Barely 10 min into our trip, we had our first tiger sighting. The Kankati female (Vijaya) was sitting majestically just 20-25 feet from the track. It was an ideal sighting. I mean the way one dreams of sighting a tiger. The next best is a tiger walking straight at you, as if looking into your camera. The elusive tiger had finally appeared in a grand way. There were just 6 vehicles. It is not a melee seen on Magadhi. Only 8 vehicles allowed into each route at Tala out of which 2 misfortunate vehicles went different way. Everyone had enjoyed those 20 min when Vijaya gave us a majestic darshan. She has 3 cubs around 6 months old which were playing at the hill nearby. After sometime she stood up and started walking towards the hill where cubs were playing. But then changed her track midway and vanished into the bushes. We decided to follow the cubs. Forest deptt elephants were chasing the cubs in the hills, probably to manage one of those notorious tiger shows. Forest deptt mahouts have become notorious to chase away tigers from areas closer to road, to deprive tourist from an easy and free sighting. If tiger remains inside bushes, then it is a tiger show, meaning lot of tips to the mahouts. Please for god shake; do not tip the mahouts after tiger shows. They are actually fleecing tourist. The cubs of Vijaya were running up and down the hills. They did not provide a good sighting.

The guide decided to move on and instructed the driver to go to Mahaman. The guide Tej Pratap aka TP turned out to be a jolly good fellow. His sense of humor kept us entertained. The collusion of driver and guide previous day had deprived us a take at Mahaman. On arrival at Mahaman, we found another melee. It was pure chaos. There were at least 3 tigers in the bushes about 100mtrs away. It was the Mahaman family. Vehicles have left no passage for them to come out. Later I came to know from Shivang that Mukunda male was also there, but it was chased away by the greedy mahouts. Though tigers were visible, it was not a good sighting. We decided to move on.

After arriving at centre point, we were offered the option of either trying to spot the Vijaya cubs or go for tiger show which was happening with Banbai (Wakeeta) family in route B-D. On enquiring I came to know that even majestic Bamera male (now Sashi) is also there. The thought of seeing Bamera again made me decide in favour of the tiger show. When we had arrived there was a queue of about 7-8 vehicles. We had to wait for about 20 min for our turn. The Banbai female with 3 sub-adult cubs were cooling off in the bushes by a stream. Bamera, the father of the cubs, were paying them a visit. A 2 day old sambhar kill had kept the family there. One of the cubs was seen trying to finish off whatever is left of the carcass. It was nice to see 5 tigers together up so close. It was my third sighting of majestic Bamera.

As it was well past 10am, we headed out of the park. We were more than happy. We were ecstatic. The count of tiger sighting of the trip that morning is 12. Unbelievable, but true! Luck had finally smiled on us. Thus we had 2 trips with no sighting, 1 trip had the leopard sighting, and 1 trip had 12 tiger sightings.

Bandhavgarh is rocking with so many cubs. Vijaya, Banbai (Wakeeta) and Mahaman – all are having 3 cubs each (as of April 2012). Now my friend Sanjib vouches that if there is any place which almost guarantees a tiger sighting, it is Bandhavgarh. I wish there was little less crowd. Next time I will plan my visit when there are no holidays around. I will certainly skip Magadhi and instead will do Tala and Khitauli.