Monday, August 13, 2012

Ranthambhore II - Magical Sequel!

T17 or Sundari, Queen of the Lakes
Rarely, if ever, does a sequel perform better than its first part. And our first Ranthambhore trip had already set the bar really high. Add to that a superb Bandhavgarh visit and the Ranthambhore sequel had a virtually impossible job to go to the top of the table. So we went in hoping, but not expecting to end our Wildlife Wander on a real high. But hey, this was Ranthambhore and when the gods are with you, boy do they lay out a treat!! 7 safaris, tiger sightings on 6, 11 different tigers sighted. Plus Shikra, White eyed buzzards, Golden Orioles, Paradise Flycatchers, Thicknees, Crocodiles. All added up to make it my best trip to Ranthambhore ever!

It all started with a rather frustrating first safari. We looked all over Zone 3 for T17 or T19 and her cubs but no juice. On our way back we passed by Rajbagh, the summer palace and there was his majesty T28 perched on a little bridge across the water. He started to walk towards us so we all headed to where we expected him to emerge. But the rascal stopped midway and lay down somewhere in an island with thick bush. And never emerged.

T28, the dominant male
The next morning, we entered through a different gate to head to Zone 5. Barely a couple of minutes in, I saw a huge form move languidly through the bushes. Tiger! And, wonder of wonders, it was T28! Probably making up for last evening. He walked down to the road, marked his territory a few times and climbed a hill to head back to Rajbagh. I still believe he came all the way only because he wanted to make up for the previous evening!

Spirits boosted, we headed further and as we climbed a beautiful hilly path, Vijay Kumawat (superb wildlife painter, more on him later) said in the middle of another conversation – Tiger on road. I thought he was joking but as we looked ahead, there indeed was a tiger on the road. It was T17, queen of the lakes and a new mother. She very rarely ventured this side of the park, especially now that she had two-week old cubs!  As we walked with her, it was clear that she’d come to mark her territory. She sprayed at every turn in the road and strutted about like the queen she was. She stopped for a drink and then wandered about, spraying and sniffing every other minute. As she finally headed back into the bushes, we could barely believe our luck. Two superb sightings, that too of tigers who were very rarely seen in this part of the park. When you’re meant to see something…




The third morning was thrilling even though it was the only safari without a sighting. But in less than 10 kilometres, we saw evidence (very, very fresh) of 5 tigers. And as far as the signs go, we saw them all – fresh pugmarks of T25 (a large male) really fresh tracks of T17 again, straight out of a waterhole. We saw droplets still wet on the mud track. But no sign of either tiger. Then we carried on further into Zone 5 and were suddenly assaulted with a pungent odour. The unmistakable scent of fresh tiger scat, which our driver had run over. We retraced our tracks and saw pugmarks of a tigress with two cubs and even signs of them sitting in the middle of the road. And this tigress had never been seen in that area before. Much though we tried, we saw no tigers but it was an incredible safari all the same because we were so close to so many tigers. Made us reflect on all our incredible sightings and how lucky we were to be at the right place at exactly the right time.

Brahminy Mynah
That evening, Hemraj joined us on the safari and we had Zone 4, home to Machali (or T16) Ranthambhore’s Queen Mother and probably the most photographed tiger on the planet. She wasn’t in a mood to appear (she came out an hour after we crossed her area) but Hemraj said that he was sure we would see T6 (or Romeo – a handsome male tiger) lazing in a cave. And as if on cue, there he was, in a little cave next to the road. As we drove by, he raised his magnificent head to look at us and then plopped back to rest. He was an exceptionally good-looking tiger! We quickly got out as the rest of the circus arrived went looking elsewhere.

T6 or Romeo - What a handsome bloke!
And that happened to be right behind the hill where T6 was lying. There was a leopard kill there and we decided we would wait for the spotted one. While we waited near a waterhole (at a distance from the kill to allow the leopard undisturbed access) we saw some beautiful birds frolicking in the water – mynas, paradise flycatchers, drongos, fan tailed flycatchers and bulbuls all enjoying themselves, and keeping an eye on the shikra who looked to gatecrash.

Wild boar feasting on a leopard's kill
And then, we saw something move towards the kill. Accelerated heartbeats, adrenaline rushing, we slowly made our way there. And saw something dark starting to feast on the carcass. Finally a Leopard, we thought!! But our hopes of seeing a rare leopard were bested by something even more rare – a wild boar eating a kill!! While I’d heard of wild boar scavenging kills, I was seeing one for the first time. Here he was, confidently tearing into someone else’s hard earned kill. What a pig!
A pair of thicknees with their little 'chicknee'
The last day of our Wildlife Wander – three incredible months coming to an end. What did it have to offer us? How would this amazing journey end? Straight up as we entered Zone 3, we saw tracks – vehicle tracks, all headed towards Mandook (or high point) And that could only mean one thing – Tiger! Either T19 with her cubs or her sister T17. So we obediently followed, till we hit a traffic jam near a waterhole. And sure enough, in the water were T19 and two of her cubs. As we waited for our turn in the queue, the crowd was turning increasingly restless. But we waited, and the reward came (as it always does for patience) Just as we got our turn, the tigress and one cub came together and affectionately nuzzled. What an awesome sight!!






T19 or 'Krishna'
Then we knew they were going to move. So Hemraj asked the driver to drive way out in front. So we left the rest of the crowd and drive a few hundred metres away where we hoped they would cross. And we waited. Again, patience was rewarded as they walked towards us, and crossed in front, giving us a friendly (??) looked as they walked past. They disappeared into the valley and as the VIP jeeps followed (in vain I may add) we turned back and spent a pleasant half an hour on the shores of Rajbagh lake. Watching the water-birds and enjoying the breeze. And there, we saw a mother sambhar cleaning her calf’s ears with her tongue! The things you see in the jungle.


That evening we got Zone 5 again. A tad disappointed, since I had already been on this route twice and wanted to go to a different part of the park. And this time, we saw another male tiger, T25 or Zaalim. He was resting peacefully in a waterhole as we drove by and gave us a quiet 15 minute audience. For those who don’t know, he’s the father who’s bringing up his two female cubs after their mother died. A phenomenon that was hitherto never ever recorded. We knew that the cubs were also in the vicinity, but didn’t manage to see them. But we did manage to see and salute this amazingly responsible father. May his tribe increase.


Zaalim (T25) looking longingly at a passing lapwing
And so we left Ranthambhore on a serious high. So many different tigers, wonderful, close sightings – couldn’t have asked for more. And with the news that three tigresses had given birth to cubs (T17, T39 and T41) the forthcoming season holds a lot of promise at this most spectacular of tiger reserves.

Supreme Court willing, of course!!

Ranthambhore’s ‘people to meet’

Hemraj Meena
Naturalist, home-stay owner and living-breathing Ranthambhore encyclopedia. He grew up in a village on the periphery of the park and is living proof on how the tiger can benefit enterprising local villagers. And there are few better in this country than Hemraj at tracking tigers – I have been the beneficiary of his incredible skills many many times and spent so many happy safaris in Ranthambhore with him. Over the years, he has also developed into a fine photographer. Also, from being a fantastic guide, his own hard work and zeal has helped him progress tremendously. Do stay at his Tiger Home (or drop in at least) for some incredible stories of Ranthambhore’s amazing tigers. Check out Tiger Home at www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com

Murli Dher Parasher
Another product of the local villages, Parasherji is an incredibly gifted wildlife painter – a pioneer in his craft. It’s hard to tell a painting from a photograph sometimes. But more importantly, he has used his gift to inspire and aid a whole generation of wildlife painters at Ranthambhore. His Ranthambhore School of art teaches talented young village kids to paint and has spawned a new income stream for many local youth. Check out their remarkable charcoal technique, which uses soot and rolled up newspapers so even kids with little resources can learn to paint.

Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh
One of Ranthambhore’s free spirits, avid conservationist, superb photographer and hotelier, Dicky is another Ranthambhore lifer.  His Ranthambhore Bagh is another of those properties that wildlifers prefer over ‘resorts’ and over a drink or six, he will regale you with his stories of Ranthambhore. Check out Ranthambhore Bagh at www.ranthambhore.com or Dicky's own blog at www.dickysingh.com

Vijay Kumawat
One of Ranthambhore’s up and coming young painters, Vijay is remarkably gifted. His paintings and charcoals are simply superb. Added to this is his gift for photography, his knowledge of the park and his overall interest in wildlife. Check out his work (both paintings and photography) on Facebook and you’ll know what I mean.


Drongo

Juvenile Shikra

Kingfisher

Paradise Flycatcher

Peacock from an interesting angle 
White-eyed buzzard