Monday, February 6, 2012

Tigers of Pench National Park

A trip to Pench National Park was not in the plan. The plan was to not take any trips for a couple of months and I almost stuck to my resolution. For a month now, Saru has been mumbling that it has been a while since we went to a National Park. We talked about going to Corbett, but Saru did not have a week to take off before April when it gets too hot for birding, so we ditched the plans. "Why not Pench for a short trip?" he said. "I can only do next weekend, after that I am really busy till the Holi week" I said, fully expecting him to drop the plan. Saru thought for a minute and said "Why not?". Tickets were bought, hotel was booked and just like that we found ourselves on the way to Pench National Park. The park is about 3 hours from Nagpur at the southern border of Madhya Pradesh. We stayed at Tiger n Woods, a place where we stayed on our first trip to Pench 2 years back.

The next morning we were up, bright and early at 5:00 AM. It was still dark and the sky was full of stars when we left for the gate. It was freezing cold and the multiple layers we wore did not help. This was our 2nd national park visit with Varsha and I have to say that these are the easiest trips to take with children. We are in a safari jeep all morning and evening and nap all afternoon. She can't do much mischief when she is locked in a baby carrier except for kicking you in the groin once in a while, but that is something Saru needs to worry about. Also, the movement of the jeep lulls her to sleep, so she is sleeping half of the time which leaves us to enjoy quality time together. When awake, she would enjoy the sights of the forest and animals. Only embarrassing fact was that she insisted on calling the spotted deer as Koala bears and no amount of cajoling changed her mind.

It was a weekday and there were hardly 20 jeeps entering the forest which was nice. A crested serpent eagle was the first big bird we sighted. Racket tailed drongos were everywhere mimicking other birds. Parakeets were screeching and flying all over the place and jungle babblers were creating a ruckus. Other than that, we did not see many species of birds. We drove on, keeping our ears open for calls and soon enough we heard an alarm call of a spotted deer. The driver shut the engine off to figure out where the call was coming from and then drove us in that direction. On the way we met a couple of other jeeps who heard that call too. We stopped at a location and looked hard into the jungle. Crows were circling in the air at one point which meant that the tiger had made a kill. We looked hard, but could not spot the tiger. Just then, a jeep came by with a teacher and her students. In a very excited tone she screamed " You know what, an hour back we saw a tiger kill a baby deer right in front of our eyes. We were driving when a tiger darted across the road, pounced on the fawn and in one swift move, killed it and dragged it inside the forest". This confirmed our suspicions about the kill which meant that the tiger was inside there. We decided to drive up the road for a better vantage point. At that location, we started hearing alarm calls of a langur. With our binoculars we could spot the frightened monkey sitting high up on a tree. It was looking in one direction and giving the alarm call. The jungle was too dense for us to see where the monkey was seeing. We waited there for a little bit and nothing happened. So, we drove back to the earlier location and saw a couple of jeeps pointing to one direction. They had spotted the tiger!! We were super excited. With hearts racing, we started scanning all over the place and soon enough we saw the face of the tiger hidden in the bushes on a hill. I have seen a few tigers till now, but I have to say that this was the cleanest and the most beautiful of all. Most tigers have a rusty/reddish/brownish coat, but this one has a lot of white on its face and neck which made it look stunning. We watched it to our heart's content for at least 10 minutes. It looked like the tiger ate its fill and was lying down and taking rest, but it was still very alert. Some of the people in the jeeps were talking very loudly - no amount of education can teach common sense. The tiger got up and peered through the bushes. She stood for a while and then went back to her earlier position. We were all focussed on one side of the forest and failed to notice a pack of wild dogs on the other side. They had sensed that there was a kill on the other side. The dholes moved restlessly from one side of the road to the other and after a while, disappeared into the forest. "The tiger is going to get up if the dholes disturb it" said our guide. Soon enough, the tiger got up and started to come down the hill. Saru was ready with the camera, but there were a lot of bushes in the way, so there were very few clear shots. The tiger came all the way down to cross the road, but was irritated with the jeeps, so it changed its mind and went back inside. I was trying to take a video of the tiger, but Varsha started pulling my earrings, so it got all shaky.

A tiger sighting in our very first safari - this was a great start to the trip. We came back and narrated the story to other guests and the hotel staff. We went to the afternoon safari a little late, at 3:30pm. It was a little warm, so there was practically no bird or animal activity for 2 hours. We saw a couple of owls - a jungle owlet which is the cutest owl ever and a collared scops owl which has a very weird face. It was 10 minutes to 6:00 PM and we needed to head out . We were crossing a fire line when the driver, Om Prakash screamed "Tiger". The guide and I looked in that direction and said "No, they are spotted deer" He insisted it was a tiger, so we looked through our binoculars and were shocked. They were indeed tigers and I counted 3. The guide told us that this was a tigress called collar-wali and her FIVE fully grown 16 month old cubs. It was not enough that we saw a beautiful tigress in the morning, we were going to see 6 more!! Imagine how excited we were. The tigers were at a distance and saw our jeep and went back into the forest. " They are going to come out and cross the road, please sit very quietly" said the guide. We sat still for a few minutes, but Varsha had enough of the quiet and started squirming in the baby carrier and making noises. The guide looked at us and said " We have to be absolutely quiet". I looked around to see what I could do to entertain her. I had just fed her a granola bar ( Oh yes...I am that kind of mother that feeds her daughter granola bars and fruits for snack), so feeding her was out of the question. Silly Saru threw away the colorful wrapper of the bar which usually keeps her occupied for a few minutes. I looked around and all I saw was a pack of Kleenex tissue. I quickly removed a tissue, gave it to Varsha and said " Here play with this" The girl tore it into pieces, ate some of it and was ready for another. She eats a piece of the newspaper every day when I am not looking, so this is OK, I reasoned to myself and gave her another. Some day Varsha is going to grow up, read this blog and find out that I intentionally fed her paper to increase our chances of a tiger sighting. sigh! Those of you who know my mother, PLEASE do not tell her I did this or she will disown me.

Another jeep passed us and he was reluctant to tell them in the worry that they might cause more disturbance, but gave in and told them in the end. Then they came up with a winning strategy. Their jeep waited at one end of the road and we were in the middle. Each would signal if they saw the tigers coming out. It was a few minutes and we started hearing alarm calls of spotted deer. Looking through the binoculars, I could see them running away in one direction. A peacock flew up a tree in a hurry and started giving alarm calls. Langurs were calling as well. As terrified as these animals are to see a tiger, imagine how much worse it would be for them to see an entire pack of tigers!!
We then heard a big roar! There was silence for a few minutes. The deer stopped running and were looking back. The peacock and langurs were still agitated. "It must have killed an animal. Now it won't come out" said the guide dashing our hopes. It was already dark and we needed to head back. The driver and the guide get fined if the vehicle reaches the gate after 6:30 and we had about 5-6 km to drive. Still hopeful, we decided to wait for 10 more minutes. Nothing was happening and we were losing hope with every passing minute. Another jeep came by and took up position ahead of us by the fire line. A few minutes later, they signalled us to hurry and come. I had the big lens and the binoculars hanging from my neck. I started searching but saw nothing. I started whispering "I don't see anything". Saru was like " They are right here...remove the binoculars and look with your eyes". Sure enough they were right in front of us. Saru was so mesmerized by the sight that he forgot to take the video until I reminded him. I started clicking pictures, but the light was low, so it was hard to get sharp images. First the mother of the pack crossed the road. This amazing tigress is called collar-wali because of the GPS equipped collar that the forest department put on it to study its movements. A few years back, she had 4 cubs and brought all of them safely to adulthood. Now, her 5 cubs are 16 months old. To protect and feed 5 cubs every day is an amazing feat. The guide was telling us that she has to make a kill everyday to feed her cubs. She is always on the move in search of food, providing really thrilling sightings to tourists like us.

Closely following her were 2 female cubs. I got my first ever picture of 2 tigers in one frame. These were followed by the male tiger who was acting a little aloof. We were told that he started hunting and was expected to leave the pack soon. Most mothers train their cubs for about 2 years before they get good at hunting and leave the pack. All five cubs were supposedly getting good at hunting. The guide told us that in one day they killed 12 spotted deer just for sport! They killed them and left without eating! What arrorance!!

The tigers crossed the road one by one and disappeared into the jungle leaving us in awe of the sight. It took a few minutes to register what we saw. One needs to be incredibly lucky to see one tiger and we saw 7 in one day!! Four jeeps witnessed this scene and there was not one person who didn't wear a wide grin the rest of the day. The next evening, we were sitting around the campfire with a large family that just checked it. The guy was telling his family " Apparently, two lucky guests saw 6 tigers all at once" I raised my hand and waved until I caught his attention and said " WE are the 2 guests" and went on to narrate the story to a group of awed people.

The next day, as we were driving along the road, the guide had us stop near a big tree. He pointed to a dark coloured part of the tree's bark and went on to tell us " This is where a tiger marked his territory with his urine. Fresh tiger's urine is very powerful and the smell stays for many weeks. Other animals can smell it and stay away from its territory. If you smell fresh tiger urine, you will feel suffocated by it, but after a few weeks, its power wears off and it smells like the steam from freshly cooked Basmati rice". He rubbed his hand against the bark and smelled it and asked me to do the same. Basmati rice or not, I am NOT smelling tiger pee.

Here are some other blog entries of previous tiger sightings: