Monday, June 17, 2013

The Tiger and I (Memorable sightings revisited) - Bhakhola

I have been blessed by the tiger gods. There can be no other reason for the incredible sightings I've had of this most wonderful of animals. Time after time in forest after forest, this amazing animal gives me a 'vision' (sighting would be too blasé a word) and even with all the sightings I've had, the next one still is as exciting, spellbinding and magical as the previous one. Thankfully, (and it is a blessing) I will hopefully be rendered incapable of getting tired of watching tigers in the wild.

And as the rains end the wildlife season, I thought I would bring up some my finest sightings over the years, before I started my travels, when wildlife trips used to be for the odd weekend every summer. And a lot of them will be set in Ranthambhore, because that's where I've had some of my most spectacular sightings over the last decade, with Pench and Bandhavgarh also throwing up some gems. The quality of pictures is not necessarily very good, with most of them being scanned images of prints from the pre-digital era.

Bhakhola (Ranthambhore) June 2002

Bhakhola - Airconditioned comfort for tigers
This was my third to Ranthambhore within 6 months; I drew a blank on sightings on the first trip and finally saw my first tiger(s) on the second. But these average sightings had only whetted my appetite for more. And it also motivated my friends to join me me in the hottest month of the year -June. So Krishnan, his wife Ranjini, Amar, PD and me set off, to be welcomed by one Hemraj Meena, naturalist at Ranthambhore. He was, we were assured by the hotel guys, one of the best guides in Ranthambhore. And he took us straight to this densely wooded place called Bhakhola, home to a tigress and 4 cubs. That morning, through thick bush, we saw the tigress for a while and then returned. My friends, barring PD who was with me on my first trip, had seen their first tiger on their first ever safari! Lucky so-and-so's!!

Curious cub
That evening, we headed back there and waited. and through the bush we saw plenty of activity. Glimpses of black and orange bodies wrestling, sounds of the cubs playing (and the mother scolding them) but no great visuals. Until suddenly, we saw a little face peeking through the bush. A curious cub wanted to give us a once over, or so we thought. He was actually looking for something, so he wandered out, right behind our gypsy and then found what he was looking for, right next to the road. It was a piece of leg (sambhar I think) which he picked up and went back in. 

Some time later, we watched as a huge tiger appeared in a gap - it was a male. Hemraj whispered that it was Bambooram, the dominant male, made famous by being the bloke that Bill Clinton sighted a couple of years earlier. He was obviously the father and quite an indulgent one at that, spending so much time with his cubs. Later, the tigress came out into the open and we watched as she licked and cleaned one of her cubs who lay in her lap. Truly moving sight to see the affection and it made us realize that a mother's love is the same, be it human or tiger. Special sighting, but the next day would be truly spectacular!

Hemraj showed us his incredible tracking skills the next day. Early in the morning as clouds gathered, we headed back to Bhakhola but found no signs of activity. We waited and then drove slowly around the area but it was almost like the tigers had disappeared. Then Hemraj asked the driver to wait at one particular point near Anatpura check post, more than a kilometer away from Bhakhola. And we waited for almost an hour. The driver became impatient and more than once said we should move on and try elsewhere. But Hemraj held firm and said that we would see tigers and see them there. And after the driver's nth disbelieving snort, Hemraj triumphantly said the magic word - "Tiger". And as if on cue, the tigress walked out from the bush 10 metres behind our gypsy.

She then walked behind us (the sole vehicle) all along the road to Bhakhola. Then she sat and started calling her cubs. Gently at first, but her calls increased in volume and annoyance as the minutes passed and the cubs didn't emerge. Soon, her roars started reverberating off the rocks around us and every one of us in the jeep could sense her anger. And just then, four little furry bundles emerged from the grass. And what happened next was incredible - like an annoyed mum, the tigress turned away and started walking, ignoring the cubs. They then ran to her and started to nuzzle her, almost as if to say sorry. Finally she relented and the (now) happy family walked together again.

The cubs then got into a waterhole and splashed about for a bit, but one call from mum and this time they leapt to attention. She led them as they walked into the bush for a rest and that completed one of the most memorable sightings of my life, compounded by the fact that we were the only vehicle the whole time. This would be the first of many many such trips with Hemraj and our relationship has grown stronger with the years. Today, he's more like extended family and his skill and enterprise have taken him very far in his field.

It also taught us the four basic pre-requisites for any sighting in the wild - patience, skill, faith and blessings. As a tourist, your most important virtues faith and patience. Any element of fortune is out of our hands and the skill resides with the guide and driver. Which is where the faith comes in; we learnt that our only chance of a sighting lay in putting all our faith in Hemraj's ability. He later told us that he'd heard a sambhar call once from the bushes half a kilometer away. One call, that's all. We were all privy to that call, but we didn't have the skill (then ) to interpret it. And the driver didn't have the patience to wait. Not all the calls that your guide takes will necessarily pay off, but you respect the jungle and understand the unpredictable nature of wild animals, you realize how special any sighting is. And how much of a tribute it is to your guide and driver.

But the final arbiter is still the tiger god. All the skill, timing, patience and faith can go to nought if the gods aren't smiling at you. And so, when you do get the sighting, please respect the rules of the jungle, behave appropriately and don't disturb the animals. Finally, close your eyes for a second and say a silent vote of thanks to this most incredible of god's creations. For you are fortunate to breathe the same air as these magnificent creatures, even if for a few minutes at a time.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Nagzira 3 - Whole lotta Dhole

There are places that somehow exert a magnetic charm on you and Nagzira is one of them for me.  Time and again, this beautiful little jewel in Vidarbha's green crown beckons me to visit and invariably showers an unbelievable bounty of sightings on me. And while A-Mark and her family invariably bless us with their presence, it is that whistling hunter of the Indian jungle that really draws me there every time.

Nagzira must rate amongst the finest places on the planet to see the Indian wild dog or dhole. This otherwise elusive predator is seen quite frequently here and several times in packs of a dozen or more. There are reported sightings of a legendary pack of upto 40 individuals, but I will reserve comment on that till I have had a chance to feast my own eyes on them. And no, it is not because I am jealous of those who have seen this pack!

This time I set out for Nagzira with school friends Krishnan, Rajesh and Nirav, celebrating our 25th year out of school with a boys' trip. And it turned out to be a trip to savor for each one of us and in more ways than one - Nirav saw his first tiger,  Krishnan and Rajesh their first quality dhole sighting and me with another opportunity to step into this wonderful forest. And to keep my proud record going, of seeing a predator on every safari to date.

Indian Pitta
Oriental Honey Buzzard
Well, that record went in a hurry as our first trip yielded a lot but no predators. Instead, I got my first decent pictures of the Indian pitta, a bird which is so numerous in this season yet so difficult to photograph. With a hawk cuckoo, crested serpent eagle and oriental honey buzzard all giving us a patient sighting, we headed out with some good pictures. And at the last waterhole a peacock's alarm calls put us on high alert. He called repeatedly and sometimes was echoed by a jungle fowl. And close to dusk, it was very probably a leopard. So we waited till we were almost out of time and then reluctantly headed out. So the spotted wonder stayed hidden from our sight but presented himself to the next vehicle, who got a brief glimpse of him at the waterhole. Close, but no dice!

The gods more than made up the next morning as first up, right next to the central check point, we saw a pack of dhole. They seemed to be hungry, sizing up a herd of spotted deer and when some of them split up, we knew that a hunt could be on. Then, to our surprise, this group headed to an old spotted deer kill and proceeded to tear to bits whatever little was left. There was plenty of squealing, yapping and even the odd high pitched yowl. And they seemed not in a mood to hunt, disappearing into the shade of thick bush, we left them to try our luck with A Mark and Jay.

Collared Scops Owl Chicks
And as we headed down Chorkhamara road, we first saw a couple of collared scops owl chicks. Heading onwards, a couple of vehicles lined up near the entry to Tiger Trail told us what we wanted to know - there was a tiger somewhere near. And sure enough, it was A Mark sleeping in the bush. We waited for a while at the waterhole nearby while other vehicles gave up and left. And just as we opened our breakfast packets she walked out and settled down in the water for a drink and a wallow. The aloo parathas and boiled eggs were hastily shoved back into the packet as the queen of Nagzira posed distractedly for the attendant papperazzi. Maybe she wanted a bite but was too embarrassed to ask? Anyways, seeing that she wasn't going to get any, she drank her fill and then crossed over to rest in the bush. There was a suspicion that she could be pregnant again, after unfortunately losing her last litter a few months ago. We don't know for sure, but I'm hoping this amazing tigress has a new bunch of (female) kids to welcome us in the next season.

A Mark lost in thought
So we had tiger and dhole on one safari and we were thrilled. But there was more. As we headed back from centre point, something told me I had to visit the waterhole at the nearby meadow - this was where I had that stupendous dhole sighting last year. And sure enough, there was another pack at the waterhole - just finished drinking and headed into the shade. One of them sat in the water and posed for us, while the lead lookout sat under a tree and glared at us as if we were checking out his mate. We could also smell a kill so they'd probably all had polished off a good meal of spotted deer. Two different dhole packs + A Mark made it a super special safari.

That afternoon, my (now slightly dented) record stayed intact, but only just. We saw A Mark lying in the bush but she didn't emerge. We headed onwards towards Chorkhamara hoping that Jay (or Dendu) might be on the prowl. No signs of either, but we did glimpse a sleeping pack of dhole at Wakda Beda. Once again, dhole and tiger on the same safari, I don't think any other park can claim to provide such abundant sightings of both these predators. And as we headed out, a light shower cooled off things and made the day seem that much more productive!

On our last safari, we headed to New Nagzira, via the Umarzari gate. The resident tigress Alpha had a litter of 6 month old cubs and we were keen to see them. As we drove around the area, we saw monkeys frantically calling near a waterhole at the foot of a hill. We also heard a tigress' 'Aumm', as she called to her cubs. We waited, and even opened our breakfast packets as bait, but this family didn't bite. Maybe they didn't care for poha and sandwiches! As the calls died down, we drove around to the other side of the hill and there were two vehicles next to a nallah, searching for something. They'd seen two of the cubs at the side of the road and they'd since disappeared into the shade of the nallah. So while we were hoping that the family were on the other side of the hill what actually happened was that the tigress was on top of the hill and she called to her cubs to stay put in the nallah this side. And as there was no sign of activity all the jeeps drove off.

Alpha's 6 month old cub
And we waited. Knowing that the cubs were nearby and that the mother could make an appearance. And suddenly, Rajesh said 'tiger'! He'd spotted one of the cubs on a shady ledge in the nallah. And as the cub stretched, snoozed and stared at us in turn, we silently celebrated yet another sighting in this wonderful haven called Nagzira. The other cubs and tigress didn't make an appearance, so we drove off, thanking this little fella for giving us an exclusive audience. Back at the resort, there was some superb birding with sightings of flycatchers, pitta and orange headed thrushes.

Orange headed thrush
Tickell's Blue Flycatcher
Once again, Nagzira played the perfect host, with superb sightings of two of my favorite species and topped by some lovely birding. And this time, it exceeded its brief and threw up a couple of very pleasant surprises for Rajesh and me. I ran into old friends Shrikant and Uma with their kids, and Rajesh into his college mate. Both after nearly 2 decades! Now I'm wondering what I should ask of this incredible park on my next visit.

Maybe A Mark with 4 cubs. Jay, Veeru and Dendu. Alpha with her 4 cubs. A leopard or two perhaps? And topped off by that 40 strong dhole group for good measure? Outlandish it may sound, but never bet against it happening in this most incredible of wild havens called Nagzira!

Nagzira Trip Guide

Nagzira has 2 different areas, New Nagzira and Old Nagzira. Old Nagzira has 3 gates: Pitezari, Chorkhamara and Mangezari while New Nagzira is accessed through Chorkhamara and Umarzari gates.

Getting there
Nagzira is about 140 kms east of Nagpur (the closest big city and airport) while the closest towns to Nagzira are Bhandara (60 kms) one one side and Gondia (60kms) on the other. The roads from Nagpur are being widened so there is a bit of traffic. On the whole you should take around 3 hours from Nagpur.

From Nagpur, you can drive via Bhandara to Sakoli, where you turn off for Pitezari. From Gondia, the closest entry point is the Chorkhamara gate.

There are a few stay options in Nagzira, with more on the anvil.

The newly opened Muba Resort ( near Pitezari gate is very nice, with lovely large rooms and beautiful balconies. This place is built around a little pond and all the rooms are built on stilts with connecting walkways. The food is superb and the staff are very friendly. 

The forest department has two stay options at Pitezari gate - a guest house and the tented complex both of which are decent. The the air-cooled tents are surprisingly comfortable even in summer and and the food is excellent!

Inside the park, the log huts near the Nagzira lake offer pretty decent accommodation as well.

To book the log huts you can visit

Alternatively, check out for information and also updates on the new online reservation system.

There are also a couple of places to stay near the Chorkhamara gate, but I haven't visited any of them yet.


Gypsies are available from locals around the park. Madhav runs a local dhaba at Pitezari gate and also has a gypsy. His driver Chaitram is excellent and highly recommended. To book, you can reach Madhav on 09923928470/9604144602 or Chaitram on 09552122659.

You can also take your own vehicle into the park, though that is planned to be restricted and eventually banned.

There only a limited number of permits issued - Old Nagzira - Pitezari (15) Chorkhamara(7) and Mangezari(5) and New Nagzira - Chorkhamara (8) and  Umarzari(15). 

Entry permits were easy to obtain until recently, but it has now become a bit of an issue in especially on weekends.  You have to queue up hours before and the forms are only distributed a few hours before each safari. Ergo no advance booking.

There is a new online booking system under development, which should solve all these issues. That should hopefully happen by the time the park re-opens next season. 

Safari timings - Morning safari 6-11 am and evening safaris 3-7 pm in summer. Timings change with the seasons, so best to check with the gypsy driver/owner or resort in advance 

Other tips
Nagzira can get really hot and dusty in summer, so best to carry something to cover your head and nose

Always plan for breakfast on the morning safari. You can carry a packed breakfast from your resort (if they do that) or try the canteen at the centre point, which serves excellent poha (with tarri, Vidarbha style) and tea

The dhabas at Pitezari gate serve good food as well. Madhav is my favorite haunt and they make great food including a mean 'gavti' chicken curry if informed in advance.

Forest Department Contacts
Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) 
Balaghat Road, 
Gondia - 441 614 
Tahsil + District - Gondia 
Maharashtra, India. 
Phone: +91-(0)7182-251250, +91-(0)7182-251232Email: