Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve – Benevolent Tiger Gods

Bamera, the King
The tiger gods smiled. At long last. On our third trip to one of the Meccas of tiger sightings, we finally got the kind of sightings that Bandhavgarh is known for. On five of our 7 safaris, we sighted 9 tigers, including two sets of cubs. But the crowning glory was a superb, hour long, private audience with their father Bamera, the king of Bandhavgarh. And what a tiger he is – truly worthy of the crown that he has inherited from Charger and B2, two of Bandhavgarh’s favourite sons, whose stories are etched in local lore.

Kankati's inquisitive little cubs
On our very first safari, we had three very good reasons to be wowed by Bandhavgarh. The cubs of Kankatti, the Siddh Baba tigress, gave us a great sighting. They appeared on top of a hill and gradually walked down, and sat there as countless cameras clicked. The only bummer was that I was shooting into the light. But then, you can’t ask for everything, can you?

That evening, we went to Khitauli, one of Bandhavgarh’s three tourism ranges  where tourism is allowed, along with Tala (the premium zone) and Magdhi. There we heard sambhar alarm calls at a waterhole and sambhar calls being probably most reliable sign of a tiger, we waited. Finally a sub-adult male tiger walked slowly towards us (and the waterhole), but another gypsy driver was in too much of a hurry and that ensured that the tiger never came near, but walked away into the bushes. We’re Indians after all, patience is a virtue that doesn’t come easily to us.

The next day we drew a blank on the cat sightings. But we did see a tiger. A beautiful little one, with wings no less, very close and in brilliant light. Just shows that there is so more much to see in our forests, when we move our focus even slightly on the big boys.

A tiger with wings
The next morning was the Bamera tease act. He was holed up in a cave the whole day. We were barely 100 metres away, we knew he was there, he must have seen and heard us, but he didn’t move. Little did we know that he was holding out for the grand performance the next morning.

She was watching us for a while before we even realized she was there
That afternoon, we had our first sighting of another family, the Banwei cubs. We were waiting at a waterhole with a patch of thick jungle right behind, where they’d stashed away a kill. Suddenly, with no movement or sign, we saw two burning eyes watching us through the trees. The tiger then came out in the open for a brief while, gave us a photo opp and disappeared back into the jungle. We later caught a glimpse of his siblings and mother as well, but no pictures.

The final morning, we were in a forest department gypsy, kindly provided by the Deputy Director, Mr. Mridul Pathak. As an aside, I was truly impressed by how hard our forest department works to save our precious wildlife. I was trying to reach Mr. Pathak on a couple of occasions, but always had his phone out of coverage area, so I sent him a message. He finally called me at close to 11 pm that night and he had just left the forest after supervising the patrolling of tigers in sensitive areas (read areas with close proximity to human settlement) to avoid any untoward incidents. To have the Deputy Director spend half the night personally patrolling the forests speaks volumes for Mr. Pathak and his team and also the work ethic of the otherwise much-maligned forest department.

Back to the tigers and a dramatic final safari awaited us. As we entered the park, we immediately saw Bamera, striding in full view of all the gathered gypsies. We waited at a distance to allow him room to cross, but he suddenly veered towards us and cross the road barely 10 feet in front of where we were parked. Then regally surveyed his kingdom and headed towards his family – the Siddh Baba cubs.

We tracked him as he walked through the undergrowth, sometimes through sight and at others through the alarm calls.  Finally, we saw him sitting in a clearing, with a male cub right next to him. Father and son sat peacefully till Mama called, and the cub dashed off to her in a flash. They were joined by another cub (the third was probably guarding the kill) as they lazed around digesting what looked like an enormous meal.

Bamera looked like he wanted to move on, so we decided to stay with him. And he thanked us for our choice with a superb walkabout, just for us. He crossed the road, then emerged again, and crossed again, constantly looking at us with not a little curiosity. And some amusement I dare say.

Don't you dare do that again!
We went back to the cubs and found one of them perched on a fallen branch. Her brothers and mum were in no mood for any action, as they had moved to a shaded waterhole. And they did not even move.

We still had time to make a recce of the Banwei area and sure enough, two of the cubs were lying in the open, the kill polished off, taking a post-breakfast snooze. We took a few pictures and left them to their nap. And we left, probably as sated as all the tigers we’d encountered that morning.

Bandhavgarh lived up to its reputation as a tiger paradise. To see both sets of cubs was fascinating, but to see the lord of the jungle in all his glory, was truly mesmerizing.


Bandhavgarh Trip Guide

Getting there
Bandhavgarh is about 180 kms (3 hours) from Jabalpur and 100 kms (2 hrs) from Katni, the two nearest big towns and major rail heads. For the Delhi bound, there is also a daily train from Umaria (34 kms)

Bandhavgarh is one of the most popular wildlife reserves in India so the accommodation options span all sorts of budgets and types of properties. The excellent Bandhav Vilas was where we stayed in (www.bandhavvilas.com) Manish, the GM is a fantastic host and he has a superb set of people working for him. Ram Singh, the Naturalist is again excellent, with fantastic instincts and knowledge. And Jagdish, their ace driver is an accomplished naturalist himself.

The other options include Taj’s Mahua Kothi, Tiger Trails and MPTDC’s resort, all of which have been recommended by other travellers.

As with all MP forests, safari bookings can be made online (www.mponline.gov.in) The Bandhav Vilas folks will arrange your safari bookings and gypsies, if you give them the required details well in advance.

Other Tips
Bandhavgarh will most certainly provide tigers, but before you book your safaris, check with the hotel on sightings to finalize which zone you should travel to.

Also, the hotel will arrange pick ups at the nearest town – Katni or Jabalpur if you let them know in advance.

Also bear in mind that Tala is a ‘premium’ zone, so an additional Rs. 1000 needs to be paid per safari in the Tala Zone.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Kanha Tiger Reserve – Hide and seek with tigers

The tigers won, hands down. Apart from a few glimpses, we didn’t see much of Kanha’s legendary tigers. But they teased us all the way through and showed us enough evidence of a thriving tiger population, definitely in the tourist zone. Though one tiger sighting from elephant back wasn’t really what we would have ideally liked, we heard and saw tracks of several other tigers. And missed a leopard. And saw some beautiful barasingha up close.

Crested Serpent Eagle
Kanha is a 3 hour drive up from Pench, through Seoni and the day we set out, the highway was blocked by protestors agitating against the poor condition of the highway. So our driver had to take back roads and little village roads, so we saw a lot more of the villages than we expected. And I was so thrilled to see how beautiful our villages generally are, clean and neat houses for the most part, neatly painted in white and blue – almost like a uniform. And the DTH dishes were in evidence, sometimes even in the smallest of homes. Bharat Shining, anyone?

Anyways, back to Kanha and it was cold in the mornings! In May, the height of summer. We stayed at the lovely Tuli Tiger Resort, where we were accompanied into the forest by their chief naturalist, Mr. Pradeep Wasunkar, a fine gentleman and a really super source of information on Kanha. Pradeep would get us out of the hotel at 4:10, to be early in line though the gates only opened at 5:30. The gypsies all queue up and go in single file, so the laggards usually get a fine dust bath. Hence the urgency.

On our first morning, we headed down to Kanha, and before we hit the meadows, Pradeep saw fresh tigress tracks. She must have been on the road barely a couple of minutes earlier.  And as if to confirm her presence, we heard her roar, she was in the bush barely 20 feet away.  But we never saw her. We didn’t know where she went. But she was there. And very close!

That afternoon we headed to Kisli to seek a family of four (tigress with three cubs) who were seen near a waterhole next to the gate that morning.  As soon as we got there, langurs started calling and we all looked towards the waterhole for any signs of movement. But the langurs were actually looking towards the hill on the other side of the road. And then we saw them, two tiger cubs in the shrubs on the hill. And we moved our gypsy to create space for them to cross. But they never came, probably put off by the endless stream of impatient vehicles constantly moving back and forth. And just when it was time to go back, amidst a pall of dust, we saw the mother with a cub, much further back on the hill. Not a great sighting, but tiger nevertheless.

Munna - Record shot
The next morning, we went back to Kanha and Pradeep was keen to track Munna, the dominant male, who has an amazing ‘CAT’ marking above his eyebrows. And while we wandered all around for him, we saw some beautiful barasingha in lovely light. Then found out that his majesty had walked out in the open meadows. We came there much later and by then he’s walked to the edge of the meadow, where the safari elephants had caught up with him. And as our elephant came upto him, we saw he wasn’t a happy camper, he was snarling as one of the elephants blocked his path.  We got a couple of record pictures and headed off. I really don’t approve of the Kanha approach of blocking an animal that desperately wants to move on.  So no more elephant safaris in Kanha. 

That afternoon we spent more time in Kisli, explored the interiors of this beautiful part of Kanha. Beautiful waterbodies and lots of birds. And on the final morning, we were back at Kanha. Just before we hit the meadows, we saw fresh tracks of a tigress and two cubs.  Then further ahead, pug marks of another tigress and frantic barking deer alarm calls. Then another set of langur calls at another place. But no tiger! And when we headed to the meadow, we saw gypsies lined up in the centre. Munna had arrived, while we were away and was lying under a tree. At that time, someone told us there was a leopard on a rock at the edge of the meadow.

Dilemma time – should we try for Tiger or Leopard?  We wallowed in indecision for a bit then decided on the leopard. By the time we got there, it had already moved on, disturbed by the safari elephants. Foiled again. We went back to the meadow, but friend Munna was in no mood to surface. As we headed out though, we saw a beautiful herd of gaur in brilliant light. And a serpent eagle just as he was about to take off.

So we headed out of Kanha, having spent a lovely time with Pradeep, wishing that our tiger luck changes at Bandhavgarh!

Brain Fever Bird

Serpent eagle

Kanha Trip Guide

Getting there
Kanha is about 266 kms (5 hours) north-east of Nagpur. Jabalpur, 160 kms (3 hours) is the nearest big town and rail head. It has limited air connectivity as well.

Kanha again has the whole gamut of hotels. We stayed at the excellent Tuli Tiger Resort (www.tulihotels.com) Please so spend some time there with Mr. Pradeep Wasunkar, he’s a wonderful person and great company. Vijay, our driver was excellent as well and the manager Mr. Datta was very attentive and supportive.

As with all MP forests, safari bookings can be made online (www.mponline.gov.in) but the site is not always easy to use. Your hotel can also get your bookings done through the site. The hotel will arrange your gypsies, better to go through with people from the hotel itself.

Other tips
Kanha is extremely dusty, so if you’re allergic, then carry a mask or at least a towel. And unless you’re going in peak summer, it can get chilly at times, so a jumper might not be a bad idea.

What ails wildlife conservation in India?

Every single day, we lose some part of our natural heritage. Somewhere, a tiger dies, or a patch of forest is cut down or a dam floods pristine jungle. And while development will continue to extract a price, this is taking us straight down the precipice of disaster. And disaster not just for the denizens of the forest, but for all mankind. We’re robbing the bank just so we can live better today, but what about leaving the future generations bankrupt and facing utter ruin? How can we claim to be responsible parents, when all we’re going to leave our children is vulnerability to Mother Nature’s most severe tantrums?

These problems are not getting solved, there is not even a comprehensive solution in sight. And all valiant efforts of our conservationists don’t seem to be going anywhere. Isn’t it time we stepped back and asked ourselves one simple question?

"How effective is a cause when it can’t even enlist a few million in a country of a billion plus people?"

But why is enlisting people such an issue?

1. Serious lack of engagement with people

The primary problem is lack of engagement with the people first, and hence, with the issue. Unfortunately, this problem is not visible or immediately apparent to those of us cocooned in our urban comforts. Most people don’t know or don’t realize the seriousness of these problems. Hell, most don’t even understand why we need tigers or forests. They don’t know that their action or inaction is capable of causing disasters for the future. Because if they did and understood the magnitude of the problem, would they not act?

The problem is, very few people in the conservation world really want to engage with regular people. Because engaging means understanding what drives and motivates your subject. It means you need to create messaging that they ‘want to hear’, not necessarily always what you want to tell them.

The preferred solution is to lecture them via any and every media contact point. Unfortunately for them, the decision to engage is dependent on the subject and not on the perpetrator. So, the lack of engagement means it’s obvious that we haven’t been able to engage sufficiently with enough people.

2. Messaging  disconnect

Moaning that the tiger is vanishing is not enough to motivate someone busting his butt in the daily grind. “Save the Tiger”, “Our World is dying”, “Apocalype coming” are all coming out of urban orifices. But the message doesn’t really permeate the surface. Because most people haven’t seen a tiger in the wild. And even the most cynical “I’m not a tiger-person” conservationist will agree that it is a life changing moment. I can count at least a hundred people I know, who’re passionate about saving this animal because they can’t bear the thought of never being able to see it again in the jungle.  But if you haven’t seen one, then how does it matter if Panna loses its tigers? Bannerghatta safari or Alipore Zoo still has tigers!

3. ‘Holier than thou’ attitude to wildlife tourism

“The house is burning down, but we’re more worried about the neighbor stealing the crockery. “

The wildlife tourist is treated like a pariah in this country. Like I heard someone say, “They want our money, but they don’t want us”.

The single most important source of support can be the million plus people who visit our forests every year. And that number is growing.  These are the very people who are there, have taken the time, spent the money and are very likely to sample some of our amazing wildlife.  The iron is hot, someone just has to ram home the message. Imagine a million people petitioning the government to stop mining in Tadoba. Isn’t it easier than a bunch of people repeatedly going to the Supreme Court? Because a million people mean a million VOTES.

But what do we do? Treat them like shit. Find ways to keep them out of the forests with asinine, poorly worded guidelines.  And the problem is not the guideline, it is the thought behind it. Which says – ‘I refuse to engage with you, so I will turf you out.’ Because I can. And on issues which are largely aesthetics-driven and can be addressed with proper enforcement.

So you stop tourists from entering the forest. That’s easy. But is that the solution? What about people who encroach into the forests or about poachers? Or will they meekly obey these ‘new’ guidelines?

So what is the answer?

“A hundred pickaxes pack more power than one mighty sword”

1. Inclusive Conservation

The answer is not to be ‘exclusive’, conservation needs to be ‘inclusive’. Deomcratize conservation, take the onus from the hands of a few onto the shoulders of many.

If you ask a person who’s just seen a tiger whether he’d like it to go extinct, what do you think the answer will be? That’s where ‘Save the Tiger’ will be at it’s most effective. When you find your subject at their most receptive and drive home your message.

2. Get more people to care. Then leverage the Snowball effect

People get people. Believers get more believers. And lovers beget more love. And this snowballing effect is what will enlist more people than a Telethon (which is wonderful, but it is more for people who have already seen the light) So if someone has a wonderful time in Ranthambhore or Velavadar, you bet your life that more will be motivated to follow. Let people create a wildlife epidemic, infecting each other with their experiences. And this will happen on its own. No one need spend any money or effort creating support.

3. Actively empower and enlist people

Empower people, make them feel valued. Like they can contribute. Like they are part of the cause. Make them feel like brand ambassadors or advocates, to go and spread the joy of the wild. We need to make people come to our forests (and behave properly of course) discover their love for the wild and then, enlist their support for the cause.

4. Scale up tourism

Of the responsible kind I may add, before the hawks rip me to shreds. Lay down, clear, transparent and enforceable rules and enforce them. Punish rule-breakers, whoever they may be. Enable people people to have memorable experiences in our forests. After all, isn’t sighting a huge male tiger, an elephant calf between his mother’s legs or thousands of flamingos taking to flight far more of a treasure than watching your thousandth sunset on Baga beach?

This may sound simplistic, but the most effective movements are built on simple, single minded, inclusive ideas. Again, I do not claim that this is the only solution to all our ills, but what it should do is solve one fundamental issue with conservation – lack of engagement and support from people en masse.

And when this does become inclusive and lays claim to becoming a serious movement, trust me, no one will be able to ignore a few million voices. Or should I say VOTES?

Pench Tiger Reserve– Home of the super-tigress

Badi Mada - Pench's Queen Mother
Badi Mada (or Big Female) is the Queen Mother of Pench Tiger Reserve, immortalized with her first litter in the BBC documentary – Tiger-Spy in the Jungle. Since those 4 cubs, she has raised 6 more and has reportedly just given birth to another 4. One of her daughters, the legendary Pattewali tigress has raised 9 cubs, and has just given birth to another 4; another daughter, Baghin Nala tigress has raised one litter of 2 and now has 3 cubs. That makes it a total of 33 tigers (including cubs) in Pench who carry Badi Mada’s genes!! There are other, more celebrated tigers across India, but this quiet rockstar of a tigress should be up there with them all.

On our first afternoon safari in Pench, we saw the Baghin Nala tigress from afar, at a kill on the other side of a lake. Then, to our amazement, we saw 2 forest staff walk by casually, talking loudly. This was enough to drive her into thick cover and the two gents came to the kill and kept walking. And talking. Their supervisor, standing next to our jeep, tried his best to drive us away, saying we were waiting for too long, watching the tiger. The cheek of it all! When pointed out that his men had driven the tigress away, he just shrugged it off. Anyway, it had started raining as well, so between the men and the rain there was no way the tigress was going to emerge again.

Jackal eyeing breakfast
The next morning we went into the Pyorthadi area, Badi Mada’s territory. While we waited for her, we saw a beautiful pair of owls nuzzling each other affectionately, followed by a jackal contemplating whether to make a black-necked stork his breakfast and washed down by a Eurasian Thicknee and a gorgeous white-eyed buzzard. Pench is most definitely India’s jackal capital and has amazing raptor diversity as well. A lovely safari, but no Badi Mada.

White eyed buzzard

Thicknee on her knees
That afternoon, we headed back to look for Badi Mada, and this time she was gracious enough to provide an audience. She emerged from behind a hillock, crossed to the water, sat down for a wallow and disappeared out of sight. A while later, we saw her walking far away in the grass and our driver, Santlal, estimated where she would cross the road, back to her den. We waited there and sure enough, she walked right towards us, crossed in front of us and disappeared into the bush. My first sighting of this amazing tigress. Pench’s true heroine.
Badi Mada
Baghin Nala cub - she had amazingly beautiful eyes
The next morning we got a glimpse of the Baghin Nala cubs as they lay in thick lantana. Not great for photography though, so we left them and started to drive away. And to our surprise, less than 20 metres from the cubs, on the other side of the road was a huge male tiger, also in thick lantana. We’d heard alarm calls of monkeys but thought that they were calling due to the cubs. And here was this huge tiger, walking noiselessly through the bush, sitting completely undiscovered right next to the road.  Amazing stealth for such a massive animal. He then walked into the bush and we followed the alarm calls till we saw him again at a waterhole. He came in for a drink and a wallow then disappeared back into the jungle.

Large Male
That afternoon, we decided to go leopard tracking. Pench was a leopard haven till the tiger population exploded a few years ago, making the smaller leopards a lot more elusive now. But we’d met someone who’d seen a mating pair and we decided to track them. We waited and moved back and forth and waited the whole safari. But no leopards. To make up, we saw a beautiful Indian Hare really close and I just love the violet hues on the Hare’s ears.

Indian Hare
On our final safari, we came across probably the boldest mongoose I have seen. Normally they scurry away from the road but this guy remained where he was, helped himself to a little snack as well and gave us a quick demo of his canines! Just in case! So we left Pench with really happy memories of that wonderful tigress called Badi Mada.

The one thing I’ve experienced repeatedly at Pench is unnecessary interference by the forest staff. And while I really respect that a Forest Officer’s role calls for them to enforce strict discipline with tourists, they take it too far at times. I’ve already spoken about the staff disturbing the tigress on a kill. The Baghin Nala cubs were driven off the road and into the bush by a forest patrol. On our last safari, a forest training patrol all tramped off the road to see a leopard kill, possibly driving the poor leopard away. Now isn’t that disturbing the wildlife? I only wish that our forest protectors don’t get over-zealous with enforcing tourist rules and end up disturbing wildlife instead.

Pench Trip Guide

Getting there
Pench (MP) is about 90 kms north-east of Nagpur (the closest big city and airport) on the road to Seoni. A pleasant 2 hour drive, though the highway needs to be repaired.

Pench has a complete range of tourist accommodation, from the luxury (Baghvan from Taj Hotels) to very good mid-range MPTDC properties and budget hotels.

I can recommend two placed I‘ve stayed in - the Pench Jungle Camp (+91 7695 232817 or +91 9630222417) where I normally stay – a really nice, well spread out property with tents and cottages and a big lawn and pool.  The staff is excellent, the food is superb and Mr. Rathore, the manager is a real star.

Another excellent property is the Tuli Tiger Corridor (www.tulihotels.com), which is more high-end. It has lovely cottages and a spa as well.

Safari bookings can be made online (www.mponline.gov.in) but the site is not always easy to use. Your hotel can also get your bookings done through the site.
We always do our safaris with Santlal Dhurve (+91 9479632387) as our driver. He’s an excellent young driver, can spot wildlife as well, knows the forest inside out and is very keen to ensure his guests have a very good time.

Spotted Owlet