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.

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