Monday, December 16, 2013

5 Tips to see a Tiger in Indian National Parks

Royal Bengal Tigers in Indian Forests

In the last 5 years we made a dozen trips to national parks and had 15 tiger sightings (and saw 20+ tigers) and three leopards. On our maiden trip to Kenya, we saw 6 Cheetahs and over a dozen lions. On a trip to Canada, we saw 13 bears (2 were grizzly bears). On a night snorkelling tour in Hawaii, we saw 2 dozen Manta Rays at close quarters. On another snorkelling trip in Belize, we swam with nurse sharks and sting rays. I guess you can say that we are generally lucky with sightings. But is it all about luck? Read about a few of my theories on how to maximize your jungle experience.

Dawn and Dusk: The best time to see tigers is either early in the morning or late in the evening because it satisfies Murphy's law - "Thy shall see a tiger only in poor light conditions". Photos come out bad and shaky and in my case, the husband will delete all photos unless the eyes of the tiger are in focus!! It is hard enough to zoom in, focus, frame the photo without the dozen other jeeps but he also wants sharp eyes. I don't know what the deal is with him and eyes. I think tigers are all about stripes and I manage to get those in focus. I also love zooming out and photographing tigers in their habitat rather than zooming in all the way.  (It is also a subtle and incredibly clever way to convince the husband that bigger and expensive lenses are not necessary). 9/10 times when you see a tiger, light is low or there are bushes/other jeeps blocking the view or the tiger is showing his butt.  We have tiger pictures of all the above, especially the butt. I am not kidding. On a recent trip, we had a tiger sighting for almost 45 minutes resulting in hundreds of tiger butt pictures (which were obviously deleted because of the "eye" criteria and just for the heck of it, I made up a rule that I will not post any pictures with its genitals in focus (or family jewels if you prefer that word). Anyway, going back to the dawn/dusk theory - the best thing you can do is be the first jeep to enter the forest. This way, you can look for fresh pug marks (and poop in some cases). On a recent trip to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, we tracked pugmarks for over 1 km. The tigress zigzagged her way on the jeep track all the way to Tadoba lake. A dozen other jeeps were already in the area. We drove up and down that road a few times and spotted the tigress resting in a pond next to a lot of bushes (of course the lighting was poor). So, every time we go to tiger reserves, we wake up early and try to be one of the first few to enter the park. 

On the flipside, a family had woken up late and entered the park at 9 am one morning and 10 minutes later, saw a tigress with its 3 grown cubs!! When we were driving out of Dhilala forest at noon one winter, we saw a tiger sun bathing at 1 pm in the afternoon (it was sitting against the light).  On our last trip to Tadoba, out of the 4 morning safaris, we saw tigers a total of zero times!!


Tigress P2, Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Nov 2013




Picture or Painting, Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Nov 2013


Ramganga River, Corbett National Park, Tiger,  March 2009


Focus on a small area: This is the eternal traveler's dilemma - stay in one place and see it well or go to several areas and get variety. Tigers have territories and if you talk to a good guide, they will tell you where they are and if the tigers give regular sightings. Most popular tiger reserves have 20-100+ tigers but only a few of them are people-friendly and give regular sightings. Your best bet is to pick one or two territories instead of driving the entire park in the hope that a tiger steps on to the jeep tracks at the same exact moment that you are on it. In Corbett last year, a number of sightings were happening right next to the Dhikala forest rest house, so on one of the safari's we stayed put. Luckily for us, we heard some commotion and drove in that direction and saw a handsome tiger cross the path. In Tadoba, we used the same strategy. Our guide had heard lots of alarm calls as he walked from the village and we saw fresh pug marks. Instead of spending 5 hours driving around the park and getting our backs busted, we decided to drive on the road up and down for the entire time and ended up seeing the tigress and her 2 cubs sitting inside the bushes. In Pench, a tiger had a kill the previous day and the guide felt that there was a high probability of seeing it in the same area. We did the rounds and saw this handsome fellow sitting inside the bushes. 
If you think you will get bored seeing the same piece of forest again and again, you are so wrong. There are so many experiences waiting to happen. Like for example.....smelling tiger pee! They say it smells like buttered popcorn (how is that even possible?). On one safari when nothing much was going on, a guide in Pench National Park was showing how a tiger marks its territory by scratching and peeing on barks of trees. Apparently, just by sniffing the urine, a tiger can tell the age, gender and reproductive capacity of the other tiger. We were very close to a tree that was recently sprayed on and the guide asked me to smell it which I readily did and I have to say....that popcorn thing is a bit of a stretch. Saru refused to put his nose anywhere near the tiger urine. 


Tiger, Dhikala Chaurs, Corbett National Park, Nov 2012


Tiger, Pench National Park, Jan 2012
Guides in Ranthambore had the exact opposite strategy and wanted to cover every single inch of the forest. Drive like you are on a race track and hopefully somewhere somebody would have seen a tiger and you can piggyback on their sighting. On our trip in Dec 2009, it was dry and cold and they drove us around like maniacs. All we got was a thick layer of dust on us. When you drive so fast, you miss most of what you came to experience in the forest - the fragrant forest air, beautiful species of trees, flowers and birds. In the case where you don't see a tiger, you end up seeing nothing when you zoom past everything. After a couple of safari's I was so irritated, I made the driver go slow. After a while, we saw pugmarks. The guide and the driver were pissed " If not for you, we would have seen this tiger" they yelled at me. After that, they drove faster, and into another zone. Luckily for them and I guess us, we ran into dozens of jeeps waiting to watch a tiger drink water in a pond. It was a beautiful sighting of almost half hour and some of our best close-ups are from this one. It was getting late and while they were rushing us out, we saw another tiger in a picture perfect setting.



Ranthambore National Park, Dec 2009
Picture or Painting, Ranthambore National Park, Dec 2009


Patience: If going to a wild life reserve were like a zoo with predictable sightings, there would be no charm. The uncertainty is what makes it so exciting. Part of the fun of being in a jungle is to put on the hunting cap and pretend to understand what goes on. If you were ever in a jeep when you hear alarm calls, you will know what I mean. Guides and drivers start to interpret the calls "maybe it just had a kill and had its fill and went to sleep, maybe it is moving (if other animals start giving alarm calls), maybe it is trying to cross the road to get to the water hole (if calls are coming very close to the road) and they go on and on. Most of it is bullshit but it is fun figuring out scenarios. In Tadoba, we heard Sambar deer alarm calls. They came from very close quarters. The tiger was somewhere near but we could not see or hear it. We switched off the jeep and waited. After a few minutes, the alarm calls stopped. Jeeps got bored and drove away. I believe in the bird in hand theory, so we decided to wait. Nothing happened for 20 minutes and there was no movement, so we went a little ahead to check out the fire line when we saw another jeep. They mouthed the words "Bear". We heard something trampling on twigs inside the bushes and the excitement level built up. Out came the binoculars and we combed every inch of the bushes looking for a fluffy black bear. Bears are really shy and we were not sure if it would come out, especially with 3 jeeps around. Nothing happened for a few minutes and then, out of nowhere this huge male tiger walks out without a care. I have no idea why the jeep thought it was a bear. He goes and marks his territory on one side, then moves to the other side, pees a little bit there and then the other side and pees there too. For the next 45 minutes he zigzags left and right of the road marking his territory. We followed him for almost 1 km. 


Leopard face, Tiger at Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Nov 2013


Leopard face, Tiger at Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Nov 2013

Leopard face, Tiger at Tadoba Tiger Reserve, Nov 2013

On another day when we heard alarm calls, we waited for almost an hour and nothing happened. Let me tell you, it is not easy to stay in one place and do nothing. We all mouth dialogues about how much we love being in nature, but when there is nothing happening, it is quite boring. To make the matters worse, we suddenly decide to take an interest in trees (by 'we', I of course mean the husband and I say 'we' because sitting in the jeep, I am captive audience) . So there we are, staring at leaves and barks of trees and trying to remember the names. Some are common enough like teak, tamarind, jamun, crocodile bark etc but 'we' of course want to learn about the not-so-common ones too. The lesson starts with "Bhirra" and "Bheda" and "Bheria". Then there is a "Harra" and a "Dhora". Pop-quizzes ensue in which I fail miserably and give up, but the husband is relentless (no surprises). A few funny stories about drunken monkeys and villagers ( drunk from liquor made of Mahua flowers) were the saving grace of the exercise.
Other jeeps got tired and left the area but we were busy learning that the leaves of "Bheria" are good insect repellents and the flowers of Mahua can be brewed into alcohol. The jeeps that left found out about a leopard that was sitting on a tree near the check post. They rushed there and got fantastic images of the leopard. We came back with half baked knowledge on trees and a recipe for local liquor.  Another morning, while we waited at a spot, a jeep went ahead and saw a tiger. So much for my 'patience' theory.

Positive Thinking: This might seem like bullshit to you, but over the years I have come to believe it. Don't you have an annoying set of friends who claim "We always see a tiger or a leopard" and invariably come back from trips with photographs to prove. The set of friends who say "We never get lucky" in most cases end up not seeing much. As corny as it sounds, good things mostly happen to people when they believe that good things will happen to them. I have always been an optimistic person, but one person who really reinforced this theory was my friend T. On our last trip to Kabini in May 2011, weather played a spoilsport and it was cloudy and rainy most days. Forget seeing cats, we did not even see/hear any birds. Kabini is supposed to have the largest number of Asiatic elephants but even they migrated away that season. 3 safaris and we had seen nothing and I was losing my patience. T however, kept saying "We will see a tiger or a leopard this trip". He didn't just say it, he believed it. He didn't just believe it, he was convinced about it and that too with an un-wavering confidence. Every time I would complain about the weather and bad luck, he would repeat the same thing again and again. At some point we also began to believe it and were very alert to all the sounds and movements. That is the thing with belief system. If you know you are going to see something, you pay a lot more attention that if you were convinced you won't. On the 4th safari, we heard monkey alarm calls. Monkeys get spooked easily and their alarms are not very reliable unlike Sambar alarm calls which almost always means that a tiger is in the vicinity. After a few minutes, and no sign of any activity, our guide wanted to move. We said "NO". The calls continued. We could spot the monkey high up in the tree and it was looking down at the forest floor and was frightened about something. We must have been there almost 1/2 hour. Jeeps came and left and our guide asked us 5 times if we wanted to leave, but we were sure we would see something, so we stayed put. Out of nowhere, a leopard scrambled and  climbed up a tree. Another Leopard was on the floor and growling at it. It was a mother-child pair and the guide later told us that the mother was trying to push the child to leave her and go out on its own. Lighting of course was poor, but we managed to get this image. 


Leopard, Kabini National Park, May 2012

Just Go!!: As you can see from above, for every strategy, I can give you examples proving and disproving it. There are no guarantees in a jungles. The only way to make sure you have great experiences is to "Just go". The tag line might seem like a bad Nike commercial, but it is true. What a lot of us lucky travelers won't publicize is the fact that to get those sightings, we go to the jungles a LOT and when we go, we stay for a minimum of 4-6 safaris. If each safari is 3-4 hours, it means that we spend 12-24 hours a trip outdoors. A number of times, tiger sightings are just for a few seconds or minutes. We have had maybe 2-3 sightings that have been over 20 minutes. In spite of that, it is a lot of fun to be in jungle.On a sudden whim, we went to Pench National Park in Jan 2012 and had the sighting of a lifetime. Nothing can prepare you for seeing 5 fully grown cubs and its mom just a few feet away from you. In Bandipur, we had a dream sighting of a tigress and its 4 cute little cubs cross the road in front of our jeep. On the same trip, we saw a pack of wild dogs chase a Leopard and its cub. In a previous trip to Tadoba, we saw a sloth bear and its 3 cubs drinking water in a pond. Another was cooling in a waterhole next to the road and darted across when it saw our jeep. All these experiences happened because we went and endured many rides with no sightings.  If a person sees a tiger once, it does not mean that they won't go on the next safari. Every ride offers a different experience, a different learning. I like these trips because it really helps us slow down from the fast paced life of a city. It is great to switch off the phones and focus on nature every once in a while. There is a whole beautiful eco-system out there that works in perfect sync and you start to notice and enjoy simple things. That is what life is about isn't it? 


Tiger, Pench National Park, Jan 2012

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Masai Mara 2 - Hyenas, Jackals and Cheetahs

Everybody likes free food. If you ever doubted that, go to a buffet and see how people pile up food on their plates and when have you ever ordered AND eaten half a dozen types of desserts outside of a buffet. After meetings, leftover sandwiches would disappear in minutes and on Fridays when our office manager would bring donuts and bagels, even those on a diet would pick one. The key to getting the best of free food was to be at the right place at the right time. On our first morning in the Masai Mara Game Park, I realized that free food is not just a treat, but a necessity for scavengers such as vultures, hyenas, jackals etc. We might look down on these freeloaders, but in the animal kingdom they are actually doing a service by cleaning up carcasses and preventing the spread of stench and sickness.


Hyena Cub

A little into our morning game drive, we came across a spotted hyena. Light was soft and beautiful, so we stopped to take some pictures. That is when we noticed that it was not alone, but a part of the clan was out to enjoy sunshine. There were about half a dozen of them following the alpha female. Females control the power in hyenas and are supposedly even larger than males. It is believed that evolution made them larger to protect their cubs from cannibalistic tendencies of males. When they noticed that they had company, some disappeared into the grass and some went back into their den. The den looked like a hole on a mound and I wondered how they fit inside the small hole. Our guide explained that depending on the size of the clan, they had a vast network of underground tunnels.


Hyena in the morning light

A little after this encounter, we saw a large group of vultures in one place. That could only mean one thing - fresh meat!! As we drove closer, we saw a large lion walking away into the grasslands. The kill must have happened early in the morning. It looked like the remains of a young wildebeest. Watching the vultures feast on the food reminded me of the song in Ice Age 2. There was a time when Saru and Varsha would repeatedly watch that song and they even memorized the song. How I wish I had recorded a 2 1/2 year old Varsha singing "glorioooous foood"

Poached possum served flambé,
Broth made from a sloth,
Or a saber-tooth souffle,
Why should we be fated to,
Do nothing but brood,
On food, magical food, wonderful food, marvellous food?,
Food, glorious food,

Flesh picked off the dead ones,
Rank, rotten, or chewed,
Soon, we'll be the fed ones!
Just thinking of putrid meat
Puts us in a mood for
Food, glorious food, marvellous food, fabulous food, beautiful food,
Magical food, Glorious food!


Action around the kill


Hyena walking towards the carcass


While these Vultures were busy with their breakfast, there was another group on the other side. They were clearly satiated and were drying their wings and displaying. A lone hyena was also in the area and displayed interesting behaviour. We could tell it had its fill because its stomach was sagging down, but it did not want to leave the food. It would hang out for a few minutes, then leave, then come back, then leave again....it just could not leave the food alone. Then, out of nowhere, 2 black-backed jackals appeared on the scene. The hyena did not like it.  It came back to the kill and marked its territory. The jackals also seemed to be in two minds. They kept leaving and coming back to the kill.  With all this drama around its kill, the Lion decided to come back and show who the boss really was. As he came close to the kill, the vultures flew away and the hyena and jackals also fled the scene. It looked really full, so it did not touch the food, but marked his territory and left after a few minutes. Sun was in the opposite direction, so pictures from this are not great. 


Lion walking towards the kill

The hyena chased away the jackals to the other side of the road and then came back to the kill. It started pulling out a piece of the meat. It did not look like an easy job and the hyena was going at it for a while. We were all looking through our binoculars and cameras and going "Come on....you can do it" And voila, it finally pulled out a leg, crossed our jeep and ran into the grasslands. As we were pulling away, we saw the jackals sneak back. We didn't realize this at the time, but we were at that location watching this action for over an hour and our morning safari time came to an end. 


Black Backed Jackal

Look at the difference in sizes of the Hyena and the Jackal



Hyena runs away with a leg

It was hot during the afternoon safari, but we got to see the one animal that I was dying to see - the Cheetah. I think they are the most handsome of all cats. My friend disagreed and said he thought the Leopard was the best looking while Saru thought a tiger was the best. Personal preferences aside, one cannot deny that those spots are sexy. Watching them stand up and stretch, displaying their long lean body and walking with extreme grace is something I will not forget any time soon. 


Female Cheetah on an Anthill



                                                                                                                       Mom and sub-adult Cheetah



Cheetah in the grass



A mother and its sub-adult cub were sitting on an anthill in the grassland. 3-4 vehicles were already there, so our driver parked our jeep at a distance. Unlike India, drivers there were very mindful of not disturbing the animals and blocking the view of others. The cheetah was surveying the grasslands, looking for prey. Unlike other cats, the cheetahs hunt by sight and not scent. It then got off the mound and started to cross the road.  By then, there were many jeeps and the ranger had arrived. More than 5 jeeps are not allowed to stalk animals, so we drove away and parked at a distance. Slowly the other vehicles lost interest and drove away giving us the chance to come back to the scene. The Cheetah was back up on a mound and was surveying the area. On one side were a herd of wildebeest and far away were a few Thompson's gazelles. The mother got into a hunting mode and started crouching forward in a very deliberate fashion. It looked like it was going for the gazelles, but after stalking for a little bit, it must have realized that they were too far and it was very hot that afternoon. The cheetahs walked away to a water body to quench their thirst. Light was very harsh and the sun was exactly above us, so the images are not that good. I am posting them just to tell the story. We do have better images of Cheetahs from another sighting a day later.

Cheetah goes towards a waterbody



Look at its elegant body



Thursday, September 12, 2013

African Safari - Masai Mara 1 - Lions and Zebras

It was 6:30 in the morning and we were on our morning game drive. Barely a kilometer outside our resort, we saw a vehicle stopped on the road. When we looked in that direction, we saw a pair of lions sitting in the grass, a hundred meters away. There it was - the King of the Jungle, the Pride of Africa. Just like that, without working too hard we had seen not one but 2 lions and that was not all. Our driver/guide, Dedan paused for a few seconds and said "These are too far. This is supposed to be a group of 4, so let's drive a little and look for the other two and come back". Wait a minute here....we see Lions and we are DRIVING AWAY and since when did 100 meters qualify as "far" ? If I were in an Indian jungle and seen a cat , I would be taking a crappy cell phone picture and posting it all over social media and be swollen with pride at all the oooohs and aaaahs and OMGs and other such slang's, kids are using to murder English language.  Anyway, I was in Masai Mara, Kenya where you apparently drive away from lions when they are far and by far, they mean they are not close enough to glare at you with their cold yellow eyes. (Believe me, one look without those eyes is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies). We drove around a little bit, but the grass was golden and even if the lion was next to us we would have driven right by it. So we went back to the original spot. By now, one of the lions stood up and started walking intently towards something. I was looking through my binoculars, Saru was looking through his zoom lens and we combed the area, but could not see any prey. The lion got into a crouching position which meant he was in a hunting mode. He moved very cautiously with his knees bent for a little bit and then BOOM! Without any warning he charged ahead. Two Impalas leap in the air and take off at a lightning speed. The lion chased after them. The impalas ran for their dear lives. The lion gave them a good chase. The second lion which was sitting and watching the spectacle until now got up and started running towards the Impalas. It was a half-ass attempt to help his brother because clearly, the nimble-footed Impalas had a head start and they disappeared into the bushes. 

Lion in the golden morning light (the lazy brother)



Impala ready to leap



Impala leaps
An African Safari was always on the wish list. In fact, it was supposed to be our tenth anniversary gift to ourselves. But when we moved to India, Saru insisted that we first visit the national parks in India before going to Africa. There are not many times I say this and as I am saying this I realize this is going to bite me in the ass but what the heck - " Saru was absolutely right" and more importantly "I was wrong". Indian jungles teach you patience. We don't have the abundance of the African Plains, so when we are out there in the jungle, the odds of being at the exact same spot as a tiger or leopard is as low as winning a lottery. Yet you go out, from time to time to test your luck. When you don't see big cats, you learn to appreciate their ecosystem - the grasslands and the beautiful Sal tree forests of Corbett, the white bark ghost trees of Pench and Tadoba, the bamboo forests of Bandipur etc. You start appreciating birds and other mammals. You learn that there are no timetables in nature and what you see and don't see is completely up to it. With Africa, lot of people think sightings are very easy. Let me tell you something - Going to Africa is not like walking into a National Geographic channel set. We spent about 6 hours a day, for 4 days in Masai Mara, so a total of 24 hours in the wilderness. I didn't count, but I am sure we saw nothing but the vast plains for at least half of the time.



The quintessential Masai Mara sight - Zebras grazing on never ending plains
 Our very first safari in Africa, excitement was very high. As soon as we got out into the plains, we were greeted with herds of zebras and wildebeest. The zebras are a funny lot. To us,  the stripes look silly and make them stick out like a sore thumb but those very patterns work as camouflage against their main predator, the lion. Colours don't matter because the lion is colour blind and their wavy lines blend in with the grass or if they are in a herd, their patterns blend in with each other and they look like one giant striped mass.  Case in point are some pictures below. For some reason, every time we looked at a herd, the closest zebras had their butts towards us. At first we took some butt shots just for the sport and then it became a thing - "Oh look - 3 zebra butts, stop the jeep - there are 4 butts here". And for the rest of the trip, we took pictures of butts of lions, cheetahs, elephants, topis, impalas and rhinos. I was going to create a folder and very cheekily call it "But..but....Butt".  And if you must know....nothing fills a camera frame better than the buttocks of a rhino

2-in-one Zebra


But...but...butt

August being the middle of the peak season, the wildebeest were everywhere. It is a peculiar looking (because calling an animal ugly is not politically correct) animal. It looks like a part-antelope-part-buffalo-part-horse and I don't mean the impressive parts from any of those animals. They were peacefully grazing for most part, but suddenly, as if on a cue, they would retreat into the interiors in a single straight line.



Wildebeest grazing and us gazing

We spent so much time watching the zebras and wildebeest that it was almost time to go back when we saw a Masai Giraffe at a distance. As we were driving in that direction, Thomas and Dedan spotted a mating pair of lions. This was our first lion sighting and we were thrilled. They were sitting behind some bushes next to a water body sniffing each other. The lioness decided to take matters into her hands and started the mating dance. She stood up, stretched for what seemed like a long time, gave the lion a hard look and walked away and sat at another spot. The lion pretended to not care at first, but then stood up and started sniffing, presumably to smell if the lioness was ready. He then growled and made some sounds and started walking towards the female. At the last minute, he changed direction and went and sat about 50 meters behind the lioness. Seeing no reaction from the lioness, he got up again after some time, strutted his stuff and walked towards the lioness, and sat 50 meters short of her. All the while, the lion was sniffing and salivating and growling. It was a fun mating dance to watch and the play of setting sun offered many photo opportunities.



The Lioness gets up


Lion plays it cool, but gives a look


Lion growls
Bored with the antics and yawns


Goes back to giving looks



Lion continues to glare with his yellow eyes


Photographing the Photographer