It was the first day of a meek sunny November in the year 2013, an idyllic morning, when we went on a spree to Bandhavgarh National Park 170 km from Jabalpur. Taking pleasure in the playful hide and seek of the sun and shadow as though the duo were little school children in a pleasurable mood of the first day of Diwali vacation; and playing Move On; one of my school time favorites on the audio system, turned to be a perfect blend. The careless mood was complimented by the thrill of gliding on the winding silky road. The melody filled the air produced by “rollers in the ocean” from the cheering “Abba” number.
The State Highway no. 22 had a star reputation of sturdiness traversed by us in the monsoons only 5 months ago, but we were a bit apprehensive about its durability after the monsoons, as is the normal predictability with roads in Madhya Pradesh. Astonishingly it proved a hit, wiping away all our fears. The drive was beautified with the Teak and Saal trees on both sides as we rolled past the rising and falling ghats and valleys. We had to bifurcate from Shahpura towards Umariya crossroad on State Highway no.11, from where again there was an unease of violently jagged road ahead. Surprisingly it was smooth sailing on the National Highway no.78 except for the last 16 km or so, of rutted and dusty ride; the entrance to the park. It struck me as we advanced; the advantage of family togetherness in such tours is a great means to defeat and almost brush aside the rickety day out.
The spectacle of green harvest patched with bright yellow beaming mustard crop in the wide expanse of fields, tall green teaks and dense bamboo shrubs on either side was also one reason why I stopped thinking about the road’s crudeness.
As a well-known and a commonly accepted belief, every safari is an assurance of tiger sighting at Bandhavgarh National Park. To fall short for not having spotted even one is an unusual phenomenon, mainly because the density of tigers here is more. Sheltering this belief intact in our hearts we spent no time to secure our bookings for the evening safari into the jungle, expecting at the same time, a close-up of the ‘king’s’ glimpse right away. The euphoria led to a hurried lunch but an unforeseen long wait at the Tala Gate just for paperwork and doc check was a pitiful waste, draining away half the fervor.
Finally entering the forest and minutes later spotting the Lesser Edudent Stork, the first wildlife life form, articulated in the manifestly well-defined vocal effort of our guide, Pandeyji, perked up our already weakened zeal. Straining and bending our necks in all possible ways to get a better look at the half hidden bird behind the leaves, on top of a tall tree, we moved ahead with more expectations. As a Woolly Net Horn Bill flew past, we were told by our guide that Grey Hornbill was also another common species in the region. Sensing and taking our longing seriously, Pandeyji quite professionally let us know that out of the three routes; A, B and C; we were on route A, considered best for Tiger spotting. There were 47 Tigers in all and that route B was more known for Leopards and Sloth Bear. For a while I was lost in the spell of the mixed forest, watching the Saal and Bamboo in abundance, rotating my eyes in glee, for having spotted the amply loaded Amla trees with the light green tangy fruit and enjoying the tweets of a wide variety of parakeets flying past at short intervals. Abruptly, as though remembering to play his defined role of pouring his well rehearsed knowledge, Pandeyji would shoot, “You see, leopards don’t hang about in tiger zone, as the tiger bosses over all else. Moreover, leopards are lesser in number; and you see, they are not so easy to sight too. They remain hidden in the densest areas. Of course, if at all you are very lucky, only then you will see them, otherwise – ask me, no chance!” The tone of his voice made me feel that we were certainly not among those handfuls of ‘lucky few’. He continued, “If by sheer chance you happen to spot one, it would be seen stretched out in full vigil either on a high rock, maybe beside the trail or even on a lower branch of a tree, cunningly watchful and even camouflaged at times. He is the most unpredictable beast and can pounce on you or his kill with lightening speed.” His words sent a shiver and chill down my spine allowing me or one of us to respond with a feeble “Achchaa!” that conveyed ignorance at the same time, to such useful information let out intermittently.
Trailing ahead, I suddenly noticed strong wire net fencing roughly 12ft high, visibly erected on the left side of our pathway. On the other side lay privately owned stretch of land meant for cultivation and also invariably as a grazing ground for cattle. Our guide knowledgably explained, whenever a tiger was hungry for days together, or desperately needed to feed his cubs, he would daringly leap over for his kill, as cattle was easy to hunt. Not much effort was required, moreover being a large kill; it would suffice the family for a week. He later told us that smaller kills like a deer or a wild boar would last for only a day, after which he would have to hunt every other day. Lazy bone! I uttered, feeling ashamed at the same time, having said this for a tiger. Although the tiger could leap over a 12 ft fence yet he could not take the kill back. So he would sit at the spot continuously for hours together helping himself till the last morsel. If cubs were waiting, then smaller chunks had to be dragged by him to the fence to feed them. A tiger even had the capacity to gorge upto 40 kg of flesh at a time. After a feast on a large kill it would rest for 3 to 4 days or even to the extent of a week. The tiger information was real knowledge and with it came his narrative style as entertainment for free.
Scattered monkeys on tree tops, mostly feasting, grey jungle fowl scurrying between small bushes and grazing chitals, was a frequent sight. Fillers between major entertainments! Sometimes fillers were more than interesting; just like the very innovative advertisements between movies are for TV freaks. We were lucky to capture one such unexpected activity. Four sambars were sighted basking in the sun and splashing water in a small pool. The coffee coloured shy animals were sadly disturbed by our unwanted intrusion. They went helter-skelter in no time, sprinkling water all over at an untimely shriek of delight by one among us at sighting them.
On hearing the call of parakeets I enquired about the birds. At this our guide displayed his treasure of knowledge once again. There were three varieties of parakeets and drongoes each. Bulbuls and babblers were also permanent settlers. As for the migratory birds, there were Siberian Cranes and Sarus, which came to breed for 2-3 months during monsoons and winter. He gave us an exact figure of 250 species of birds that were found in the park.
Sighting animals! Something I took in depended only on luck or an accidental encounter. So I took pleasure in admiring thick bamboo growth. The mere feel of moving through a dense jungle and to be able to glide your eyes at the natural wilderness so close to you is one thing that has always awed me. How many of us really appreciate such beauty the almighty has bestowed upon us I do not know. I could be rubbished out at being over sensitive and concerned, and also without a remedy to either restore the already lost resource or to supplement it, but I genuinely feel sad at the fast diminishing wealth of forests believing that the efforts to conserve it are not sufficient.
In a jiffy the Gypsy driver brought us to a water source where several jeeps were waiting for a tiger that was spotted early that morning. It had leapt across the fence for cattle kill. The tourists in the convoy of jeeps were hoping to spot it and here. Tongue in cheek; I become cheeky in saying this for fellow tourists! No offence meant really; nevertheless a good chance to boast to friends, “You see we caught it red-handed in the act”; then hurriedly adding, “Of course, on its return!” Darkness was closing in and we did not want to miss any other less momentous sighting, maybe for others, but equally noteworthy to us, so instead of waiting in uncertainty, we moved on.
The run of sequence related to this event did not end here. I am by now quite accustomed to a very commonly followed system of mutual understanding and expectation of information in National Parks that I have visited so far; be it Kanha, Pench, Ranthambor, Achanakmar, Sunderbans or elsewhere. Monosyllables or short phrases and gestures are passed on to one another by guides and drivers of these parks wherever they cross each other during the safari. Over time they become code words and are quite intelligible to an attentive observer. Mostly meant for spreading information of tiger spotting to one another, but other significant events and sightings are also conveyed very truthfully. A very well knit community feeling, a sense of affectionate brotherhood is noticeable in this otherwise inconsequential activity, where we the tourists either gape at one another foolishly or take up an expression of being complete strangers, a not bothered look towards one another. Strangers we are and remain so indeed, but. . . . At one such encounter of park Gypsies I enjoyed a subtle sense of humour by the driver escorting another group of tourists. Answering to a look of enquiry when our guide told him about people waiting patiently for the tiger to come back with his kill, that driver remarked, “Makarand Judev ke chacha hain. Itni asani se kahan uthne wale!” ( It’s the uncle of Makarand Judev. Will not budge from his place so easily.) The driver of that jeep was obviously referring to the last human raja (the ruler of the region) of Bandhavgarh, identifying his personal traits with this tiger.
A couple of intriguing narratives and anecdotes lent a rewarding tang to our trip. Although we did not spot a single tiger that day, yet the anecdotes about the lifestyle of tigers and a few real hair-raising and poignant incidents told to us with interest and excitement by our guide, wrought images in my mind as though I had seen them live. Here are a few:
For female tigers, family responsibility and raising cubs are as important a sense of duty as we see among humans. Right from giving birth, the tigress starts concentrating on training the cubs for self-reliance. It is she who initially protects them from any danger as even the tiger who has fathered her cubs could pose a danger for them. She hunts to feed them but gradually takes them along from hiding to let them see and learn the art of killing for food. She ensures before letting them an independent life; that this training is the most important of all, for their survival. That is tiger disposition and vocation. For this a tigress has to be strong, aggressive and fit.
The father has no more roles to play and abandons his family immediately after she gives birth. A male tiger’s life is more naturally suited to marking his territory and to make sure there is no incursion or infringement of any kind. For this it has to prove his strength time and again by combating out his rival/rivals, by marking the tree trunks with his paw nails or/and leaving his scent (it’s more a stench) on tree trunks. The guide showed us a couple of such markings. Another important activity of the monarch is to acquire as many females as possible. Even for a single tigress he will have to prove his worth by way of muscular power. The guide told us of a tiger in the park, whose rivalry for as many as four females acquired by him, made him a celebrity once, as the strongest male tiger in the region. After all he is a supreme ruler, so he has to demarcate his territory for the safety of his kingdom and also to wield his authority there in more ways than one. Apart from this difference that unlike human males, considered a provider and protector in traditional sense, the similarity I found was that here too patriarchal society was prevalent. It is the females who slog and suffer for the family and the males make the cake and eat it too. (It’s his kill that is referred)
There was an interesting story of how a farmer poisoned the tiger’s kill out of revenge for killing his cow for which he is now in prison. This happened only five years ago. The government has made a provision to provide a handsome compensation to cattle owners of this region if any such mishap does occur; especially after conservation scheme like Project Tiger came into being. Upset and in a fit of rage, this farmer poured poison to the kill revengefully. When the tiger returned he died on the spot while helping himself.
Another interesting and a true episode was recounted to us about a famous tiger of Bandhavgarh; Charger. In fact it is about his cubs. But first I would like to introduce Charger. He was and will possibly remain the biggest cat (in size and in muscular power too) of the park. Near about 16 years ago on my first visit to the park I had seen it; and seen it with lasting memory of the macho silhouette, in a relaxed posture, stretched out under a wild shrub just beside the safari trail. The memory is exceptionally fresh. It was a rare sight and whenever I remember him I only have to look into the photograph I had taken then. The glory of the beautiful animal makes it difficult for me to call him a beast. How fortunate of those who saw him then. No tiger has grown as big as Charger after him.
And now, about his cubs! The guide told us that his cubs were trained very well. A brilliant incident illustrates, as to how ideal tiger cubs should be. A huge python had gobbled up a deer once. A swelling to the extent of a huge hump was prominently visible on the reptile’s supine length. Charger’s cubs were midway in being trained for stalking, chasing and mauling. When they saw the heavy python, unable to move, they tore open the reptile and ate the deer to their heart’s fill. This was their first independent hunt.
Another true story of a contrary nature was rather pathetic. The four cubs of Sita, another famous female tiger, could not be trained at all, as she had gone completely blind after a ferocious encounter with another female. She had somehow managed to hunt for sometime after that. But her movement became restricted gradually and so she could not teach her cubs to hunt. It is natural and very important for tiger cubs to be trained and prepared by the mother to hunt for food and to defend from other predators for survival. If a tiger cub is not taught this art at an early age, it is an unnatural life and also a very short one. This is what happened with Sita’s cubs. After her untimely death the cubs were taken into sheltered custody by the forest personnel and looked after. They were fed at first then served later with raw meat. The cub lazed away without the need for any strenuous activity or botheration for survival. They became tame with the wild nature gone. Two of them could not live long. As for the other two, I read about their sad demise nearly after a week after we came back from the outing. A short spell of sadness enveloped me. But I will never be able to forget this incident as long as memory lasts.
We had started climbing a winding route with dense saal trees. But just before we had begun scaling the altitude, we were faced with a rare species of the wild; guess what! A barking deer! I had seen it for the first time and the thrill felt within was unexplainable. When we were told that it was hardly sighted as it preferred a reserved life, I felt so privileged for having seen one. We were also shown plenty of spotted joint wood spider on our way. As we climbed their number grew as well as their size. The unusually large ones and their many more silver webs were again a phenomenon that could be seen only at a particular time. It was the ideal breeding season right after the rains. We enjoyed seeing and observing these with interest. Something only a wildlife specialist, a researcher in the field or an unusual enthusiast would normally do. Not relaxed tourists in a safari like us.
Sighting was formally over; with it all expectations too. The guide and the Gypsy driver were left with spending the leftover time to take us to more made up locations, locally called ‘points’. At first to an open meadow for a scenic view of the Bandhavgarh fort and then whatever lady luck had in store for us. Indeed the timing was perfect. The long elephant grass with white glittering kaans in the foreground of the setting sun. Two groups consisting of wild boars was also an unusual sighting half hidden in the tall glimmering grass. While the sun was setting we stood still for a while to capture the beauty created by the combination of a few sambars loitering against the shinning elephant grass and kaans (white flowers). The blend of yellow, orange, white and green created an unmatched golden impression on the canvass of fading blue sky. What a tone! What a feel!
Bird watching and being able to admire it completely in its natural habitat is the most difficult of all wildlife watching, especially if it’s in flight. You have to be really alert with a quick eye to take it all in a glance. This is what happened when we were alerted and took an unexpected and hurried impression of a tree pie and also caught a tiger pie in the act of flying past as we trailed back. Our destination was drawing closer but before that we once again stopped. God seemed to have made an effort to make us happy by showcasing his creativity in other creatures as much as possible. Or was it a compensation for the tiger? We encountered two lesser edudent storks once again. This time they were closer and also in the company of few feeding and strolling chital.
Early next morning of our return, when the natural lights had just begun to set in, the time was one of the most rewarding. So many sambars had come out! A pair of fox crossing the road before us appeared satiated after a sumptuous meal. Besides, one of them was carrying a kill clasped in the mouth. Buy one, get one free! Plenty of chital and monkeys and a very big . . . I’d like to say an unusually huge peacock, which is not at all an exaggeration; lovely! The words of our guide the previous day struck me and I asked myself; do we belong to those handfuls of “lucky few” with the “accidental encounter” or not?
We began discussing on the reason why approach roads to these areas are not repaired; and came to the assumption that it is because of recent rulings of Supreme Court of India for wildlife and forest conservation. If the roads are good the vehicles would fly past producing polluting noise. If they are bad, they would move slowly, with undue care and caution; without noise. The animals will not be afraid, will not be much disturbed and chances of hitting wildlife by the vehicles will be minimized this way. Most of the time, vehicles enter or exit the park early morning or evening; the most suitable time for the animals to come out in the open for water and sunlight. Logic justified? And more importantly on our way back this justification also favored us, as we found wildlife loitering in the enclosing dense, much more than what we had witnessed in the safari. This was the real reward and an eye-opener that brightened us all up while we were almost on our way out of the park. This is a case in point that can be another way to justify the existing bad roads.
Author: Apara Tiwari
Updated: July 22, 2015