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