In April 2019 Reef and Rainforest clients Ms Moore and Mr Steinmann embarked on a journey to two of India’s most special National Parks with the focus on seeing India’s most celebrated animal, the majestic Bengal Tiger.
“Pench was apparently one of the areas that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book“, but rather than lush green ‘Disney-style’ jungle, it’s actually dry, deciduous forest. And as we were there in the dry season, most of the trees had lost their leaves, so it felt kind of autumnal, but very hot (hovering between about 38 and 45°C) and very dusty. That made for a slightly less interesting landscape but better wildlife watching because you have a clearer view through the trees and also animals tend to congregate at waterholes.
Morning game drives started with the race to be at the front of the queue of jeeps when the park gates opened at 5.45, with a driver, a local guide (who mostly acted as a spotter) and a naturalist on board. Although the number of vehicles allowed into the park and the routes they can take are strictly controlled, at times, it did feel like a bit of a scrum. It was also the start of the Indian school holidays, so the majority of the visitors were local rather than foreign and at times, the people-watching was almost as interesting as the wildlife.
On our first drive, we got an introduction to the ‘everyday’ animals, lots of deer and monkeys, wild boar, gaur (huge Indian bison).
Plus an array of birds (brightly-coloured Indian rollers, kingfishers, peacocks, parakeets, golden orioles, woodpeckers, storks, egrets, buzzards, eagles, hornbills, vultures, bee-eaters … ) – most of which were too small/far away/quick for our rather limited cameras! We did have a couple of tiger-sightings in our first 5 days in Pench which was quite exciting, but they were either very much in the distance or only just visible in the grass.
Then it was on to Tadoba, another park a few hours south into Maharashtra which we’d been told would be better for tiger-sightings, but also bumpier, dustier and more hectic. It was! By now though, we were understanding a bit more how the whole thing worked and realizing that you had to keep asking the guide what was going on to be kept in the picture. We had a couple of drives where we just raced around between waterholes in a cloud of dust seeing nothing very much, but soon the Tadoba tigers started to appear. At first, they were still a way off cooling off in waterholes or just visible through the grass and bamboo. We started to work out who was who though, with one particular female, called Maya, who had a territory in the main bit of the park open to visitors, being very much the leading lady. She was clearly very relaxed with all the vehicles and the noise, and seemed quite happy to show herself off for the assembled paparazzi.
‘Maya’ chilling out and posing for the cameras!
Then one afternoon, we found ourselves on the only tarmacked section of road in the park with several jeeps parked up waiting because there was a rumour of a different female with two cubs in the area. We hung around for a while with several cars giving up and moving on, but both our naturalist and the local guide (who that day was apparently the top bloke and did seem more knowledgeable than the others) were convinced it was worth hanging on a bit longer, then these three appeared …
Apparently, tigers prefer to walk on the roads because they have sensitive paws (bless!) and it’s smoother than the spiky undergrowth. We drove slowly in front of them for nearly 15 minutes as mum padded along, completely unbothered by all the vehicles, occasionally nudging the cubs, who were about 7-8 months old, back onto the road when they strayed towards the verge. Eventually, they all sauntered back into the forest and disappeared and we all stopped holding our breath and just beamed at each other. Truly, truly an awesome experience.
As well as tigers, we spotted a leopard, although it was asleep under a tree and only just visible. We also saw several big black sloth bears (bhaaloo in Hindi), but always partly hidden behind trees or bamboo. We saw jackals and wild dogs, mongoose, monitor lizards and a female crocodile guarding her nest.
(Mugger crocodile gaurding her nest)
(Indian wild dog or dhole)
We went on to have some more great sightings with various tigers walking along very close to the side of the jeep and sauntering nonchalantly across a patch of open ground, as well as plenty cooling off in waterholes.
We met some interesting people, had some great food (which we survived pretty unscathed) and learnt a few wildlife photography tips for future trips. I was a bit fearful halfway through the trip that my body was getting such a battering that I’d be in pain for weeks when I got back, but I think the relaxing effects of the heat managed to counteract the worst of being thrown around in jeeps and apart from being incredibly tired (2 weeks of early starts plus long journeys there and back), I’ve got back remarkably okay and we’ve both had some amazing experiences.
(Young tiger in Tadoba)