Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bandhavgarh: In the eye of the tiger

For the standard tourist, spotting a tiger in its natural habitat at a protected reserve requires no special skill. It’s the combination of a competent guide and an attentive driver that performs the required task of picking up signals and alerting. What a visitor definitely needs is loads of luck for that chance rendezvous; else there’s always the next best option of intently gazing at ‘fresh’ pugmarks and furiously capturing it through the lens for a boast back home.

Lady Luck and I have never been the best of mates, especially so when it comes to tiger sighting. All my attempts at various ecospheres dotting the country have drawn a blank.  Until recently, when the fickle maiden finally decided to roll the fortune dice in my favour, not once but twice in succession, at the inviting jungle of Bandhavgarh, eastern Madhya Pradesh.

The Bandhavgarh National Park, once the hunting preserve of the erstwhile royals of Rewa, is a relatively small habitat appearing almost custom-made, consisting of a 105 sq km core area and a buffer zone of 448 sq km. The advantage lies in its diverse topography ranging from steep ridges, plunging valleys, flat meadows and marshes, all centered around a knoll rising up to about 800 m. This assures an assortment of foliage — including the much-worshipped Mahua tree whose springtime blossoms are fermented to produce a heady brew, the elixir of life for many a soul — and secluded watering-holes, both features best suited for fauna, making the park an attractive biosphere offering a fair chance of sightings.

The evening safari at Bandhavgarh is a three-hour affair (3 pm-6 pm) and our initial forays yielded the usual four-legged. An interesting fact I learnt during the drive was the deer-primate friendship, with the latter—primarily langur/monkey at this park—helping in gathering food for the kin of deer, who in turn warn during times of danger.

For about two hours we mapped our given route drinking in the views, trying to decipher jungle calls, and listening to the few nuggets the guide rolled out, even as he kept his ears and eyes open for an indicator on the all-elusive one. Mission Tiger almost seemed to be drawing to a close till a passing jeep mentioned a sighting on another path. And that’s when the chase began.

Ajju, the young driver of our Gypsy, swung into action, literally. The 20 km speed limit in the jungle zone was forgotten as he morphed into Schumacher, throwing all caution to the winds in his race against time. En route, bystanders as the spotted deer, sambhar, neelgai, langur…star attractions up till now, were reduced to nonentities. The King’s arrival had been announced and everything else was a blur. As we approached Chua, the spot the tiger was to make an appearance, we were greeted by a swarm of already-stationed jeeps that frantically gestured us to halt in our tracks. They had caught a glimpse of the tiger approaching and no one wanted that precious chance ruined.  Silence ruled as the crowd awaited the arrival. Seconds ticked by and no movement was heard. And then in a flash emerged B2, the current ageing monarch of these jungles! He nonchalantly walked passed the jeeps, almost at touching distance, least bothered by the rush of flashing cameras or the excited squeals of children. This was his kingdom and he was gracious with us outsiders. B2 crossed the path in less than 15 seconds before disappearing into a bamboo thicket but that was enough to have the crowd agog. They had witnessed a moment that would be long spoken-off. It was my first sighting of an untamed tiger and it took a while to sink in.  

On Day Two we were inside the park by 6 am. November onwards, mornings are considered a fine time for tiger sighting, as the soft paws of the big cats try avoiding the dew, preferring to walk on mud tracks where jeeps ply. We had barely manoeuvred a few bends when sharp warning calls of the langur began booming. The guide immediately directed the driver to change track and move towards Barua Nullah. He was spot on, for we arrived within minutes to find a striped beauty blocking our path. Oh! She was gorgeous.  Young and intense, there was a sort of determination writ across her face. In comparison, seeing the aged B2 yesterday had been a tame, zoo-like episode. We both stood still for a while before she made the first move. Her actions had guide Manjeet Singh exclaiming. “You are fortunate to see this tigress. She is Bhitari, who’s new to the area and is marking territory,” he said, eagerly explaining her moves, as she spray marked and clawed a tree trunk. 
Then suddenly she changed her path and began approaching us. Ours was the only jeep in front of her and seeing the majestic advance was quite an up-close feeling. Meanwhile, word had got around in the park and soon there was a pile of vehicles at her rear too. All of us feverishly clicked on our cameras. After a few moments, though, I had the urge of tossing my SLR. I felt we were akin to paparazzi hounding a femme fatale. I wanted to watch her intently, but not through the viewfinder. However, the temptation to capture the instant for posterity was too irresistible and the camera stayed on. Her walk towards us was electrifying and I couldn’t divert my gaze from those glowing green eyes. But as she got still closer to our jeep the guide became chary. “Reverse!” he yelled to the driver. “She’s hungry and angry. This can turn ugly.” We slumped onto our seats, with some among us getting visions of a tiger springing forth! Driver Uttam was a master behind the wheel and just as the tigress came within sniffing distance he swiftly drove off. We watched her from a securer position till she faded out of sight, her gait unflustered and regal, so befitting her stature. It was sheer providence that she chose to tread the route we were on, providing an experience to treasure.        

Moments such as these get further stimulating when interacting with persons dedicated to conservation of fauna and its habitat. My opting for accommodation at King’s Lodge — a tasteful eco-friendly property from the stable of Pugdundee Safaris, which also offers the widely-acclaimed Tree House Hideaway in the vicinity — ensured I tuned into absorbing discussions on  tigers, trackers, poachers and more. The force behind the Pugdundee group is founder Shyamendra Singh, an engrossing raconteur of tiger tales, who’s been joined in his passion for providing guests a holistic experience in the wild by naturalist Karan Rana and Manav Khanduja. Their properties speak for themselves: no tree has been felled for construction; the wild grass landscape has been left untouched ensuring a sense of true living in the jungle; and most material used to dress the snug cottages and lounges is in its natural form, particularly arresting being the ingenious use of redundant railway rafters as mirror and windowpane frames.    

The cornerstone of my entire experience was one entity: the tiger. It’s a shame that its tribe is under attack from members of our tribe. Word on conservation needs to spread fast and wide. Chennai-based film-maker Shekar Dattatri is one such individual with an aim to doing precisely that. His recent film The Truth about Tigers is a work of commitment and should be viewed by all. Log on to to know more on what you can do. As Shekar questions: If we cannot save our national animal, what can we save? 

Quick facts:
Air: The closest airport is at Jabalpur (164 km/2.5 hrs).
Railways: The nearest railheads are Umaria (31 km/35 min) and Katni (102 km/2hrs), which has better connectivity. Convenient trains from Delhi (boarding at Hzn Nizamuddin) include MP Sampark Kranti and Gondwana Express. From Chennai Sangha Mitra Express is an option.  
Best time: The park opens from mid-October to mid-June. Mid-November onwards is good weather for sightings, barring the fortnight-plus of intense cold beginning around end-December. The harsh summers, though, offer the finest chances of fauna spotting.
AccommodationKing’s Lodge or Tree House Hideaway 
0124-4222657-59, 09810253436 

Published in The New Indian ExpressNovember 2010

Bandhavgarh: Some pix of King's Lodge (click on image to view larger size) 

Stars minus stripes
 We also roam these jungles...   


Anonymous said...

Kings Lodgelooks really good and sighting two tigers makes it a super lucky stop!! Shall plan my next holiday there -thanks to the write up!!

Sourav said...

Hi your story is so so intense and gripping that I could almost see the tigress at arm's length...bandhavgarh is definitely next on my agenda!

Ridhima said...

I loved the article. Now I want to go to Bandhavgarh. Very nice pictures too..totally adds to the narrative! Nice work!