Wednesday, July 29, 2020

A Picture and a Story #2 - Magic at Bhakola

For me, this will always be 'The Sighting'.

My first tiger in the wild was in Ranthambhore in March 2002, a tigress known as the Bhakola female, after the area where she resided. The first time, it was just a glimpse and a few ordinary photos. Later that summer, I made another trip, this time with my best friends in tow. Alighting from the train, we were met by a fresh-faced naturalist named Hemraj Meena. It was our first meeting with this amazing person, and that relationship would grow from strength to strength over the next (almost) two decades.

Back to the tigers, and Hemraj led us straight to the Bhakola area where we caught a brief glimpse of the tigress. That evening, she and her little cubs played hide and seek with us through the thick vegetation that surrounds the Bhakola stream. They would come out and pose for a bit, before disappearing into the shrubbery. We loved it, but it wasn't 'all there' as a sighting. Yearning for more the next morning, we headed back to Bhakola. Only to find it completely deserted. Not a stripe or pug-mark to be seen or an alarm call to be heard. It was almost like the entire family had disappeared into thin air overnight!

Disappointed, we drove a bit further before Hemraj asked the driver to stop at one spot. 'We'll wait', he said. And we did for a while, before the driver's patience started to wear thin. 'Kahin aur chalte hain (Let's go elsewhere)', he said. But Hemraj was unyielding. Ten more minutes and the driver started to get agitated. 'Yahan tiger nahi hai (There's no tiger here)' he proclaimed to which Hemraj replied 'Tiger yahin hai. Vo rahi' (The tiger is very much here. There she is) And as if by magic, the tigress walked out of the bushes ten metres behind our jeep!

And she walked with us for nearly half an hour. It was just us and her. She then reached the Bhakola valley, sat in the middle of the road and started calling her cubs. At first her calls were soft and gentle, but when no cubs appeared, they got increasingly urgent and agitated. Not to mention louder. Her angry roars were reverberating all over the rocky valley when finally, four little bundles of fur bounded out of the shrubbery and hurtled towards their mother. We could almost sense the relief in her as she saw her cubs. But as they neared her, she turned away from them and started to walk away, as if in a show of temper. Two of them ran up to her, nuzzled against her, almost in apology and gambolled around her till she slowed down. 

The other two cubs lingered behind, busily sniffing at some bushes. Best to let the first two bear the brunt of mom's anger! Finally assuaged, Mom walked for a bit with the first two cubs (which is when I got this picture) while the other two caught up. The whole family then descended into a waterhole for a drink and a dip. Mom got out first and then made one little call; this time the cubs stopped their splashing were now out in a flash! The whole family quickly disappeared into the bush right behind the water, leaving six new-found fans absolutely spellbound! This was one of the most magical sightings of my life then, and nearly two decades on, it remains as magical. And all thanks to the incredible skills of Hemraj... how he conjured up the tigress is still beyond me!

Every single year after that, every time I pass through the beautiful Bhakola valley, I always play out that sighting in my mind. I've seen a few tigers in Bhakola over the years, but that sighting remains top of the list. And something tells me that's not going to change for a while. Surprise me, Bhakola!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Picture and a Story #1 - Krishna and Arrowhead

It was the summer of 2014 and Ranthambhore's Zone 3 (the prime lake area) had a new queen - Krishna (T19) daughter of the great Machali. Krishna had grown up in these parts but then was banished (along with their mother) by her more aggressive sister Sundari (T17) In a twist of fate, Sundari was forced to abandon her hard-won territory and quiet, unassuming Krishna eased back to inherit her mother's throne.

A few months on and she cemented her reign by giving birth to a litter of four cubs; three of them survived. And one hot May day, I descended on Ranthambhore with my own offspring, a hurried trip put together at her insistence. Luckily, our first safari was in Zone 3 and we went in, knowing that the cubs were holed up in the bushes near the Padam Talao (lake) next to a little water hole. They wouldn't come out without mom around and Her Majesty was on a hunt. And so we waited. And waited. And then realised that our jeep had a broken fan belt. Panic reigned for a bit; but a kindly forest official who was nearby radioed for a replacement. It helped that we were only 5 minutes from the gate. And we set out, only to be summoned back urgently. The Queen was arriving....

Broken fan-belt or not, we hobbled back into attendance and held our breaths as Krishna appeared at a distance behind us. She was breathtaking, regal in her majesty. And she slowly made her way to us, softly(almost inaudibly) calling her cubs with a gentle "Auuummm". But it was only until she was in the water that they broke cover and rushed to her. What followed was one of the most memorable half-hours of my life. Krishna nuzzled and licked and almost cuddled each of her cubs in turn. While two of them, a female called Lightning and a male called PacMan were done with their turn relatively quickly (great to have mom back, but let's go back to play) the third cub, Arrowhead (named after the mark on her forehead) would just not let her mother go. She affectionately butted her mother, rubbed against her repeatedly and wanted to get licked continually. And, being the awesome mother she was, Krishna obliged her little one every time.

And then, it was time to get back to business. She'd come to take the cubs away, presumably to a kill she'd made. And with one little 'Aum', the family was on their way. We managed to exchange jeeps at the gate, but that put us at the back of the queue. But to our delight, two of the cubs decided to cross the road right in front of us (each of the jeeps had given a lot of space between them to let the tigers pass) And they walked alongside us, towards the old ruins of the hunting palace and beyond that, to the fringes of Krishna's territory.

An absolute blessing of a sighting. And one that got my little one hooked to the world of tigers.

Krishna still rules in Ranthambhore, albeit another part of the reserve. She left the Lakes, and its prime real estate to her not-so little-anymore Arrowhead. Who in turn has had another litter to continue the legacy of her grandmother and her mother. But that's for another time.