Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ranthambhore - Tiger Home in more ways than one!!

The soft, short 'Aum' of the tigress was barely audible to the excited throng of humans gathered near the Padam Talao one hot afternoon... but those of us who heard it, knew exactly what it meant! She was calling her cubs; we knew they were in the bushes around us. But like obedient and well behaved children, they stayed hidden till Mom appeared on the scene. And the prospect of spending the afternoon with a tigress and her three little ones made the heart race in all kinds of crazy directions.

It felt awesome to be back at Ranthambhore, at the insistence of my 6 year old daughter. I hadn't seen a tiger for a year, the longest hiatus for more than a decade. Till she put her little foot down, the trip just didn't look like happening. Then suddenly, everything magically fell into place, train tickets got confirmed, safaris organized and of course, rooms at Tiger Home. The tiger gods do move in mysterious ways! 
Our first safari was on Zone 3, with the magnificent Rajbagh lake in it, home to T19 and her 3 little cubs. Our resident expert, Hemraj told us that the cubs were hiding in the bushes, but with their mother away, they only served up a few stray glimpses over the last few safaris. So, with a silent prayer to the guardians of luck, we headed forth into the forest. Within seconds though, it seemed like our prayers had backfired... our gypsy had a broken part and made an awful racket every time the wheel turned. Our driver did a bit of patchwork and declared the gypsy match-fit. After all we had a very short way to go - barely a couple of kms till we reached where the cubs were.

And so we joined an attendant throng of jeeps, next to a little stream. The cubs were in the bush the other side of the stream, and we were all waiting for them to pop their cute little faces, even if for a few seconds. They weren't acting up but our jeep certainly was - the noise started again and we got dirty looks from all and sundry around us. Time to call in reinforcements - a forest guard in one of the jeeps radioed for a replacement and we traveled half way to the gate to change into the new one. Barely did we round the first bend, when Hemraj (in another jeep) waved frantically at us. And that could only mean one thing! Tiger!

Replacement be damned, our driver turned around and nursed the jeep into position, within the paparazzi line-up. Then the whisper went out.... "she's coming"; it was the mother T19, she was coming from behind us. We watched as she came... stood, watched and took a circuitous route to the stream. And as she walked, she called just a couple of times, a couple of short "Aums" and then lowered herself into the stream. And before long, one little face poked out of the bushes and launched himself(or herself) at mum. Followed by the second and then the shyest one, the third. The next half an hour was pure bliss as the cubs gamboled around and played in the open, safe and secure with their mother around. One by one, each of them came up and nuzzled their mother, who in turn licked them with equal affection. A mother with her children, this was as 'human' as it could get - so much for them being called beasts! And then, as suddenly as she came, she stood up to leave.

Her cubs were given a short little grunt as a 'follow me' command and the whole entourage walked purposefully towards Rajbagh. We followed at a safe distance and got some good pictures of the family as they crossed the road in front of us. But she wasn't headed to Rajbagh like we all thought. The queen of the lakes walked beyond her summer palace and headed beyond Zone 3, to a thickly wooded area in Zone 4, beyond Malik Talao. Given her body language and urgency, it did seem like she'd made a kill there and had come to fetch her cubs to feed. If that was indeed the case, then they would be out of bounds for a day or two. And that was exactly how it turned out... no sightings for the next 3 days as they went off on an extended lunch 'break'!

The next morning, we went into Zone 1, to try and snatch a glimpse of T39 (or Noor) who had also given birth to 2 little beauties. With the excellent Rajesh Gujar as our guide we kept our eyes peeled for any signs of Noor, or indeed Sultan, her cub from a previous litter. And then there was T24 (Ustad) who seemingly everybody on the planet, bar me, had seen. Deep into Zone 1, we go over a hump in the road and on the road in front of us - Noor! We wait far away, hoping she'll call her cubs. Instead, she went up the slope and settled down in a little clearing and soon, 2 little balls of fur ran over and nuzzled their mama. She nursed them as we watched, but they were too far for pictures. All this while, we were silently hoping that she would bring them down. At that precise moment, the rain gods decided to shower their blessings on us so instead of coming down to us, the cubs melted away into the bush. Noor then strode down purposefully to the road; she looked lean and was definitely on a mission to make a kill. We watched as she stalked a sambhar herd carefully and when she was ready, she charged at a sub-adult in the bushes. We heard the sambhar cry out so concluded that the kill was successful. No chance of seeing her though, the bush was too thick. So we left her and moved on.

A couple of kms ahead and the air erupted with sambhar alarm calls, normally the most reliable sign of a predator. Rajesh and our driver kept looking and maneuvering the jeep, when, something told me to look behind us and there was a tiger emerging onto the road. I hoped it was Sultan or (even better) Ustad, but much to our surprise, it was Noor. So the kill hadn't been successful and this hungry mother was on the move to try and wager a meal somewhere else. As we waited, she walked right towards us, and cut into the bushes and up the hill. Gorgeous girl, this one!

That afternoon was a disappointment, not because we didn't see tigers, but because of our driver (and guide) They were both disinterested, bored and refused to even do their jobs right. Like there was a tiger sighted in the Adi Dagar valley that morning, but neither of these gentlemen even ventured near... apparently the valley was tough to drive into, and climb out of! Full marks for laziness. But, on some serious persuasion, they did help me get my first sightings of the Pied (Or Jacobin) Cuckoo and Painted Snipe. Add a lovely hour in Mallik Talao with Whistling teals, Painted Storks and Peacock, and the safari was eventually well worth it.

We followed that up with a trip to Zone 5 the next morning, to seek  Machali, the Queen Mother of Ranthambhore was living her retirement years. A far cry from her glory days when her commanding presence ruled much of the forest's prime territory, she has been reduced to a small patch where she lives her life and tries her best to stay away from other tigers. We went in and found fresh tracks around a water hole, a sign that she had taken her drink and was resting in the bush. We went further ahead and saw fresh tracks and scat of a large male tiger, possibly T6 (or Romeo) We followed his tracks for a good 5 kms, but he'd finally veered off and taken a short cut into out of bounds areas. So that was a dead end. Back again to Machali and no luck, so we had only the last safari left.

And that was superb! We headed to Zone 1 again to check out on Noor (she'd been seen with her cubs in the open that morning) and while we waited for her without luck, we were hugely fortunate to see 2 different sloth bears, both at close quarters. One even walked in front of us on the road, much like a tiger. Added to that was a beautiful Asian Paradise Flycatcher and the last safari was a memorable one.

Another trip to this most amazing of tiger forests and I can't help marveling at how it never fails to delight. In this case, my little daughter was completely hooked, much to my delight. And for her, while the tigers were a bonus, the real joy came in watching (and counting) peacock. And these beautifully attired feathered friends put on an amazing show for her. She counted more than 40 peacocks per safari, took pictures of dancing peacocks, peacocks on trees, peacocks preening, peacocks alarm calling... pretty much any conceivable 'peacockian' behavior that they were willing to exhibit in public.

And the best bit about this dad-daughter trip was that no sooner had we got onto the train for our return journey, then she asked me when we were going for our next forest trip! Yoohoo!

And as always, we stayed at the lovely Tiger Home, all the comforts of home with all the things you'd want on a wildlife holiday. Just perfect! 

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