Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Tiger's real Home - a tribute




The annual pilgrimage to Ranthambhore this year was a tribute to my brother - the captain of the ship, my mentor, guide and wildlife infector. He planned this trip for all of us before fate took him elsewhere. But I'm sure he was watching and guiding us from the great forest in the sky, because we had every type of sighting that he would have loved to have - Tigers in 8 out of 9 safaris, including a family with little cubs. Ranthambhore was his spiritual home and part of him will remain here forever with his beloved tigers.

Day 1 - Re-connecting with T19s family

Arrowhead resting under the Banyan
Hemraj met us at the station and we drove straight to the park, just stopping at Tiger Home to drop off our bags. We had Zone 3, home to the 3 lakes and prime real estate for tigers in the park. Currently occupied by Arrowhead (sub adult female cub of T19) and her brother PacMan. We headed straight to the beautiful Rajbagh lake and at once Hemraj spotted a tiger on the far side of the lake. We drove on towards Dudh Bawdi, a medieval stepwell under a massive banyan tree and saw a few jeeps parked there. And amidst the giant banyan's roots sat Arrowhead. We got a few pictures between the roots and quickly moved to look for the third cub - Lightning. Driving around the Mandoop plateau, we saw fresh pugmarks, but no tiger. We returned just in time to see Arrowhead cross into the ruins of the summer palace on Rajbagh. And our first safari ended with 2 tigers.


Lightning in the valley
That afternoon we headed to Zone 4 to look for the rest of T19's family - Lightning and T19 herself. Zone 4 is by far the most bumpy route in Ranthambhore and while one understands that they are forest roads, why they're in constant and deliberate disrepair is beyond me. We passed the territories of both these tigresses without any sign of either and continued towards Berda to look for T41 (Laila) a beautiful female I'd never seen before. No sign of her anywhere and we headed back to see if we could spot Lightning. As we descended the slope to Mallik Talao (lake), we saw 2 jeeps frantically waving to us - they were on the border of Zone 3 and Lighting had crossed into Zone 4, just a few minuted behind us. 


Lightning up close
Hemraj got the driver to whip the jeep around and we zipped back to the anicut above Malilk Talao. A couple of stationery jeeps told us what we wanted to know. The tigress had headed down a slope and these jeeps blocked the entrance to that path. Now Hemraj's instincts and knowledge came to the fore - he got the driver to turn around and take the road around the hillock - so we came face to face with this beautiful tigress. She sat next to the road, stretched and yawned and walked down into the valley. Suddenly, her lazy walk morphed into high alert - she had spotted a sounder of wild boar. Immediately, she froze and got into hunt mode. Over the next 10 minutes, she inched forward to try and get within range. She was almost there when a sambhar's alarm call gave her away. She abandoned the chase and chose to get a drink of water instead, reflecting on how thankless a tiger's life can be at times. 

Day 2 - Arrowhead, Pac Man and a new tiger!


And what do you want, says Arrowhead!
Back to Zone 3 in the morning and this time our jeep was with Rajesh Gujar, another of Ranthambhore's ace naturalists and also a dear friend. Hemraj was in the other jeep with the rest of our group. Again we saw PacMan at a distance and as he moved into the bush, Rajesh decided to drive around to see if he emerged on the other side. Even as we reached, a volley of chital (spotted deer) alarm calls rang out. But it wasn't for PacMan, it was for his sister Arowhead who came from the opposite side. She crossed in front of us and settled at the edge of the water for a drink and a little rest in the cool, wet mud. The light was excellent and we got a proper photoshoot with her majesty. 


PacMan approaches
A few minutes later Pac Man also emerged on the far side of the waterhole and parked under a bush. He got up a few minutes later and sent all the jeeps into a tizzy as they charged back and forth trying to find him. All except our jeep - we stayed put with the female because Rajesh said they wouldn't find the male now and he was right - all the other jeeps returned empty handed. A few minutes later, he showed his genius - he estimated that the male would emerge on the other side of Rajbagh lake and we made our way there. And sure enough, we saw PacMan crossing the 'bridge'. Rajesh took us to the spot where the tiger would cross and we waited at a distance. But this handsome tiger decided to walk right up to our stationery jeep and cross a few feet behind us. He was so close that we could smell him and hear him breathe, while we all held our own collective breaths. He passed with nary a care for his admiring audience and descended into a waterhole in a shady nallah. He would spend the day there, only to emerge right in front of our other jeep during the afternoon safari. Talk about close encounters!


And PacMan is close enough to smell
That afternoon, it was our turn to head to Zone 4. The other jeep had seen T19 walk with them that morning and even saw her fight her daughter Lightning. So we were hopeful of seeing both. But we saw no signs of either, so we headed further towards Lakkarda and Semli, hoping to catch either T41 or one of the other males there. Entering the Semli nallah, we heard a high pitched squeal but couldn't spot the animal that made the sound since the waterhole was surrounded by thick bush. Then Rajesh and a couple of the other guides saw a pair of ears through the undergrowth - Tiger! The tiger then proceeded to show a glimpse and then promptly lay down for a snooze. Watching through the binoculars, Rajesh declared that this was Laila (T41) and that she was heavily pregnant. Two signs of that - distended teats and the fact that she lay on her back and not her belly, so as not to put her weight on her stomach.

Laila with her precious stash
Laila seemed in no mood to get up and we were sighting imaginary wedge tailed pigeons (turned out to be the more common Yellow footed cousin) when, in a flash, she jumped to the edge of the water and snarled at something inside. A few seconds later, she disappeared out of sight behind the bushes, only to emerge with a sambhar fawn in her jaws. It was the sound of this sambhar that we'd heard as we entered the nallah. And she was probably snarling at a crocodile who'd tried to steal the kill. Even as we watched, she dragged the kill away from the water, stopping to catch her breath after a few seconds. Amazingly, for one so heavily pregnant, she jumped up one ledge and then another with the kill in her jaws. Our jaws dropped in amazement and respect for this amazing animal, as she made off with her kill into the bush. Hope Semli/Bhakhola echo with the sounds of a happy new family when the park reopens after the rains!

Day 3 - First Blanks, then bliss


Painted Spurfowl
The morning safari was in Zone 1, home to Noor (T39) and possibly her litter. A cub had been seen a couple of months ago, but there were no signs since. We were all worried for this gorgeous and bold tigress. And though she wasn't sighted at all the past few days, we still wanted to go find her. But there was absolutely no sign of her anywhere, or of her male T57. We had a very fruitful birding safari though, as Rajesh took us to the beautiful Gadhadoop waterbody where we saw painted spur fowl, great thicknee, darters, cormorants and many other birds. On our way back, we saw a family of barred button quails right next to the road, but they proved too frisky for photos.

Great Thicknee
As an aside, this was the only safari where I didn't see a tiger. And the fact that it happened to be on Zone 1 was a sign that my brother was with us on this trip because the old Zone 1 (now divided into 1 & 6) were his least favourite zones. This goes back to a time when this  was a 'punishment' zone (with no sightings) where lesser mortals were shunted while the privileged got the prime tiger zones. To labour the point, the rest of the gang went to Zone 6 the following day, and they too drew a blank! Big Bro had the last laugh for sure!

T60 walks to the water
The afternoon however was in a different realm altogether. Both vehicles headed to Zone 2, home to Ranthambhore's newest family, T60 and her little cubs. As we drove through Zone 2, I kept my eyes peeled at the Phootabanda waterbody for any signs of Noor (she comes here too) without any joy. As we neared Guda checkpost, we saw a sure indicator of a tiger - stationery jeeps with people watching. And there she was, in the bush, with her back to us. She was in two minds, between a snooze and a hunt and we left her in peace to head further forward. Rajesh took us a few hundred metres ahead and stopped - he said she would come to a nearby waterhole and that she would take this path. And we waited. Till alarm calls rang out from the waterhole and while Rajesh's instincts still told him that the tigress would emerge where we were waiting, the flurry of activity (and anxious tourists in the jeep) made him ask the driver to drive ahead. We all looked ahead towards the waterhole, but Sriram stole a glimpse behind and saw her hind quarters disappear into a bush - exactly where we were stationed. We exchanged sheepish looks with Rajesh (for totally different reasons) and drove slowly towards the waterhole where other vehicles had already made a beeline.

T60 Catwalk pose
We drove slowly and the tigress walked head-on towards us and passed us as she headed to the water. We then took the longer way around and waited at the far end of the clearing where the waterhole was situated, taking care that we stood far enough. The light wasn't perfect, but we stopped at the best possible angle. And soon enough, she came out and into the water and had a drink and a little wallow. But she didn't call her cubs at all, which worried Rajesh a bit - he wondered whether the back and forth movement of a couple of vehicles had made her nervous. Certainly seemed like it was going to be a 'cub-less' safari as she got out of the water and walked directly towards us and beyond. Then she stopped and turned around. And waited. And then came the sound that we (and I daresay the cubs) were waiting to hear - the tigress' call - a soft 'Aummm'. 


Mom and her 3 cubs
As if on cue, two little tiger bundles emerged from the bush on the far side and trotted to the water. There was no sign of the third one, the runt of the litter and the most shy. So mama walked up to the bush and escorted the little one back into the water. We watched them drink and splash for a bit, post which they got on their bike and said their goodbyes to the assembled (and enthralled) throng. Little cubs at last, and this sighting was especially for my brother.

Day 4 - Ho hum by comparison


T60 having a wallow
After that sighting, everything was going to pale in comparison. The next morning, we set out in a canter this time, back to Zone 2. No sign of tigress or cubs and we spent the morning to-ing and fro-ing without luck. Till Rajesh noticed that a few jeeps were missing, so we retraced our route towards a waterhole further back and sure enough, we saw T60 walking along on the hillside. She was continuously stalking. The jeeps gave her space to cross,  as she arrived on the road and headed to Pandu Deh, the next waterhole. Another wallow-and-drink sighting and we had to leave for the exit. But not before meeting avid wildlifer Vinod YN over an exchange of batteries at the waterhole!

Dusky Eagle Owl - a real beauty
That afternoon, I decided to sit out since we were now 13 people and 2 jeeps could take a maximum of 12. But Hemraj had anticipated this, and he'd booked a seat for me with one of his other guests. I joined (gatecrashed?) Satish Pradhan and Harish Raichandani, and was delighted to be re-acquainted with Vinod as he too joined us. We headed to Zone 5, which held promise for many tigers- T19, T28, T17's family of three, as well as T64 and Laila (T41) enroute. We saw fresh pugmarks at Bhootkhorra, but didn't see anything as we headed towards my favourite part of Ranthambhore - the Bhakhola valley. This densely wooded paradise (A/c comfort for tigers is what Hemraj called it) was home to my first memorable tiger sighting many moons ago. Today, we entered the valley to see the male T64 (Aakash) lying in a shaded thicket barely 10 feet from the road. We left him in peace and went further ahead to the waterhole where we expected him to emerge. The aroma of rotting meat wafted around, telling us that there was a kill nearby. 


Brown Crake, a much sought after lifer!
While we waited for him, the waterhole turned into a birding paradise as in that hour and a half, nearly 25 species made their appearance - the highlights for me were Dusky Eagle Owls, Brown Crakes, White Bellied Minivets, Jungle Bush Quails, Brown Rock Chat and a Common Woodshrike. While they more than entertained us, the star attraction did not make an appearance, preferring to stay with his meal. 

T28, the king
We drove back, sated with the birds but hungry for a tiger. And something told me, as we rounded the Kachida forest chowki, that there was a tiger ahead. And sure enough, a few kilometres ahead, a solitary jeep parked at a waterhole indicated that my gut was spot on. In the water lazed T28 or Star Male, one of Ranthambhore's dominant males, and an old favourite. He and I had locked eyes on a safari a few years ago, one of the most memorable few seconds of my life. I was seeing him after nearly 3 years and while still majestic, he looked visibly older and not a little tired. We got a few pictures of him lazing about and headed back, to beat the 7pm exit deadline. But the sightings weren't quite done yet - a family of beautiful Indian Scops Owls made a special evening even more special.

Indian Scops Owl chick giving us a once over
 Thus ended a great safari, and not only because of the sightings. It was wonderful to meet Mr. Pradhan and to hear all his experiences, as a wildlife enthusiast and also as one of the driving forces at the venerable BNHS. Harish, on his maiden trip, had already experienced the glory of Ranthambhore and Vinay was a die-hard fan already! Meeting new people united by a common love is truly fascinating and enjoyable - even more so when that common love happens to be (arguably) the finest creature to walk this planet - Pantera tigris!

Day 5 - The Last Hurrah
T61 gives us the look
And what a hurrah it was. A slightly depleted bunch (some of the group had left on Day 4) headed to Zone 8, home to tigress T61 and her two cubs. A freak rain had rendered the forest lush green with water everywhere and when Hemraj had visited this zone the morning before (with Mr. Pradhan) he got no tigers, though he did get a pair of squabbling sloth bears. We drive up the slope to the plateau and at once Rajesh spotted fresh pugmarks. We drove further and saw a cub alongside the road. Further ahead was a waterhole where his mother and sister sat in peaceful silence. The light was beautiful and the tigers even more so. They sat for a bit and then walked out right in front of our jeep - she was so close that I put down my camera and took a picture with my phone! We decided to let the tigers walk away and not follow them. 


The injured cub, fiesty fella
Instead, Rajesh again took the long way around to park at a place where he knew the tigers would emerge. Once again, they walked past us in gorgeous light and descended into a shady nallah where they would presumably spend the rest of the day. The one worry was with the male cub, who had a badly swollen forepaw, probably a thorn or a porcupine quill. The foresters there saw our pictures, didn't seem to concerned and decided to let nature heal his paw. They did monitor him to make sure he was OK, and I just heard that he was back to normal. 

And that ended one of the most spectacular Ranthambhore visits ever. It wasn't just about the number of tigers, it was the quality and diversity of sightings that made it so memorable. The icing on that cake was the people we met, be it Mr. Pradhan, Harish, Vinod or the superbly enthu group from Bhubaneswar, and the cherry was spending time with experts like Hemraj, Rajesh and Suraj (Hemraj's sister). 

It was indeed the finest tribute that I could give the man who I owe everything to The annual pilgrimage will happen, every year, in his honour, to his real home. Ranthambhore.

Special call out to the real tiger defenders
The forest department staffers have an impossibly thankless job. Managing a free ranging, instinctively migratory, fiercely territorial animal like a tiger is no mean feat. They spend their days in raging heat or freezing cold, with only basic chowkies for shelter, often with bare supplies for days on end. Their jobs are made harder by the tigers, who don't recognise parks and boundaries, and often wander into neighbouring forests, human infested areas or even migrate into far away jungles. It is impossible to monitor every tiger all the time, so please cut these people some slack when 'missing' tigers are reported. Vilifying them on social media by us armchair critics only serves to de-motivate the only real defenders of the tiger on the ground. May their tribe increase. And prosper.

Ranthambhore Trip Guide

Getting there

Ranthambhore is arguably the 'most easy to access' Tiger Reserve. Sawai Madhopur (SWM), the adjoining town is a major junction on the Mumbai to Delhi/Jaipur trunk line hence train connectivity is excellent. From Mumbai, the Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani is the best option (leaves Mumbai at 17:40 and reaches SWM the next morning at 06:30) and on the way back it leaves SWM at 20:45 and gets into Mumbai at 10:15 the next morning. There are a number of options to Delhi, including the August Kranti.

Jaipur (140 kms) is the nearest big city and airport, a comfortable 3 hour journey on excellent roads.

Stay
Ranthambhore has it all. From budget hotels to home stays to mid range to complete opulence, you can get the whole nine yards. 



For those who prefer a home-like ambience, there is none better than Tiger Home (www.ranthambhoretigerhome.com) built by Hemraj Meena, a local who is one of the park's finest naturalists. A personal friend, Hemraj's dream had always been to have a place of his own where he can host wildlife lovers. And Tiger Home does exactly that. It's a really comfortable 8 room house with air-conditioned rooms and all the mod cons. Excellent home cooked food and very helpful staff make you feel genuinely like you're at home. And the best part is the company, Hemraj's experiences are incredible and you could well hear all about his stories with Ranthambhore's amazing tigers.


  


At the mid-level, two of Ranthambhore's best options are the Ranthambhore Regency (www.ranthambhor.com) and Aditya Singh's Ranthambhore Bagh (www.ranthambhore.com)



The luxury options include Taj Hotels' Sawai Madhopur Lodge, Oberoi Vanyavilas and Amanbagh. 

There are many many other hotels and resorts, but for me, home is Tiger Home!

Safaris
Ranthambhore offers two types of safaris - gypsy (6 seats) and canter (approx 25-30 seats) Unlike most other parks, here the bookings are on a seat basis, so you can book 2 gypsy or canter seats without having to pay for the whole vehicle. All bookings need to be made on the website (www.rajasthanwildlife.com

Please do book well in advance, especially if you need gypsy bookings. And always carry your ID proof with you, since there is invariably some checking at the entry gates.

Other attractions 
Ranthambhore Fort and the Ganesh Temple - one of Ranthambhore's most distinctive features is the huge fort that looms over the park. This medieval fort also has Rajasthan's oldest Ganesh temple, which attracts thousands of visitors, especially on Wednesdays.

There are village visits and homestays - Hemraj's village Bhuri Pahari is an example where there are some comfortable stay options. You can explore and experience village life and also spot some interesting birds, especially in winter.

Other Tips
Ranthambhore can get really hot in summer, so sunscreen and comfortable clothes and headgear is important. It can get equally cold in winter, so a thick jacket is a definite requirement.


Another factor is the dust, so if you're troubled or allergic, a face mask will come in handy.


Asian Brown Flycatcher


Barred Buttonquail


Brown Rock Chat


Crested Bunting (Female)


Indian Scops Owl chick (Thomson or Thompson?)


Jungle bush quails at a family feast


White bellied minivet