Saturday, November 15, 2014

Patience or Passion - Tigers of Tadoba Andhari Reserve

A friend recently said to me " Your wildlife trips sound very exciting. I am very happy to see your pictures and read the blog, but I don't think I can go on them. " Surprised by that statement, I asked her to explain and she said " I don't think I have patience. I will be thoroughly bored to sit and wait for hours for a wild animal sighting". This was after our trip to Africa last year and the friend commented on how lucky we always get with wild animal sightings. I explained to her that we try to maximize our chances by staying out in the wild for as long as the park allows us. In most parks, we do 2 safaris a day which adds to 6-8 hours a day spent in the wilderness. Some safaris are very exciting with lots of things happening and there are a few where nothing happens. " Don't you get bored?  She asked. I am not going to lie. Sometimes when nothing happens over a series of safaris it gets very frustrating. But hope is very powerful. Every park, every safari, every ride, you hope that something happens. A slight movement in the bushes, a break in color in a green canopy, an alarm call, a bird call, a fragrant flowering bush, tiger pee ( Oh yes...all part of the wildlife experience)....there is something to see, hear and smell in the forest most of the time. 

The friend persisted " All that sounds great, but I don't think I have patience". The funny thing was that my friend is actually a very patient person. She is a typical wonder woman who works, bakes, reads, takes care of her family and runs marathons. As for me,  anybody that knows me well will tell you that I am very impatient. I have known to give many a hospital staff lectures on how my time is just as precious as the doctor who makes me wait an hour every single time.  It got me thinking that maybe patience is not infinite and very subject specific. The husband who is super patient with our 4 year old will be ready to chew your ear off if you cut lines in a store or honk at him when the traffic signal is red.   My father, who is the all time king of patience (trust me, I tested it multiple times) can get irritated with my mom for no reason.

A number of my friends have recently taken up long distance running and cycling. They run and cycle hundreds of miles. I asked a friend how she has the discipline to wake up at 4 am every morning to run and train for marathons and she replied " It has become a passion, plus we don't do it every day. Mondays are off". I hung on to that bit about Mondays before I hit the 'bingo' moment. Passion!! You don't need patience to go on wildlife holidays, you need passion. Passion for seeing and capturing nature in action, passion for experiencing what one sees on National Geographic channels and passion for simpler things in life like green forests and blue skies and fresh air. I hate waiting, but two of my hobbies, gardening and baking require a lot of it and I am fine with it. Bread dough takes hours to rise and plants take months to grow but I don't mind it because the end product is amazing. It is something similar with wildlife. After periods of nothing, you could end up with an amazing story to show and tell. That to us is a very compelling reason to go back to the forest. This Diwali, October 2014, we went to the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve for a few days. We stayed at Svasara resort, a small luxury lodge close to the Kolara gate entrance of the park.


On our very first safari, we saw a tigress, but it was far away and it pretty much did not count. For the next 4 safaris, we saw nothing....zilch...nada. It was not just us, most jeeps from our gate saw nothing. Our luck changed on the 5th safari when we saw fresh pugmarks at the Jamni chowk intersection. The pugmarks were headed on the hilltop road towards Tadoba lake. We went that way and sure enough, there was our friend Sam in another jeep asking us to hurry and come. P2, the 4/5 year old tigress was sitting in the bushes by the side of the road. It was a miracle they spotted it because it was very well camouflaged  by the grass. Then began the waiting game. We waited for 4 hours in that same spot. The tigress did not budge but disappointment turned into excitement a few hours later when we later realized that it had a kill near it - a baby sambar deer. It must have made the kill early in the morning before the jeeps entered the park at 6 am. It ate its fill and was resting. With the kill, there was no chance the tiger was moving. Every jeep in the park heard about it and was there. At one point, I counted 45 jeeps, all lined up. It felt like one of those famous temples where people were lined up to get a darshan of god. Jeeps would come, go close, click click, wow...omg... wow.....and then the next jeep would nudge them to move.

It was actually more fun to watch human behaviour and judge people rather than seeing the sleeping tiger. "Look at their clothes. Who wears a bright red salwar with a golden border to a tiger reserve. OMG...they are lifting their child up in the air to show the tiger...while the jeep is moving. how stupid. Don't go so close to the tiger, you silly bozo. Are you seriously trying to take a selfie with a TIGER? Holy crap". are right, that was mean but what else am I supposed to do for 4 hours. Judging people is such wonderful time pass. While I was bitching about them non-stop, Saru was displaying  Zen like calmness and was superglued to the camera the entire time. Tiger lifts his click click. Tiger licks his click click. He finally said "I bet you would do the same thing if you were in that jeep". I totally took offense and argued with him that I was better than that. He just smiled at me in a smug-judgey way which meant to say "you-know-I-am-right-but-am-shutting-up'So I ignored him and started talking to the guide Tulsi and the driver (whom I tipped handsomely afterwards). They agreed with everything I said and also told me some cool stories one of which included.....coming face to face with a tiger when they were on foot. What followed was a very dramatically told 'Bhaag Tulsi Bhaag' sequence. Tulsi is one of the best guides at the Kolara gate. He literally thinks like a tiger. The minute he sees pugmarks, his mind starts racing....."If he went into this side of the forest, he will emerge at Kalaamba"...or "He was last seen at Tadoba Lake, so he must have gone to Panchdhara road or Cheetal road". His predictions turned out to be right for most of the guests at the lodge. Even if they are not, he is very entertaining.

Most jeeps from the Moharli gate left with 45 minutes to go. After the long wait, we were losing hope of seeing any action and we had just half an hour to get out of the park. Just when it was time to go back, after 4 hours, the tigress got up and decided it wanted to continue with its meal, so it woke up and started eating. Then we went all " click click, WOW...OMG...WOW". We went close enough to hear it pull the meat, crush the bones and on occasion, it would glance at us the spectators and give a menacing look. It was surreal hearing and watching it eat the deer. Some of my friends were able to click pictures of it with blood on its mouth. I have this not so good video from my phone. In spite of not getting great pictures, it was an incredible sighting. 

That afternoon, we wanted to be one of the first jeeps through the gate. We waited in the hot sun for 1/2 hour and were in. We saw pug marks just before the Jamni village. Then at the Jamni chowk, there were pug marks going towards hilltop and more pug marks towards Jamun bodi. (See how I am casually throwing in road names like a pro. That is what happens when you go on 4 safaris and see nothing. You remember useless trivia)  It was like the tigers had a conference and then left in every direction just to throw us off. Flummoxed, we decided to take the safe bet and return to the morning's location. The Tigress was still there and this time it was sleeping inside the bushes. We wanted to play the waiting game but the forest officer came and shooed us away saying he was not letting any jeep stay there for more than a quick darshan. Cars were lining up and we left. At the next intersection, another jeep told us that they heard alarm calls in Jamun Bodi area.We decided to head that way even though it was a good 20 minutes ride. Jamun Bodi is my favorite area in this part of the forest. It has wide sweeping meadows of part-green, part-golden grass. It is slightly uphill and looks into a lake. We drove up to the view point to see the lake. The forest was silent. We were scanning the lake to see if there were any animals in or around it. A bush quail family was in the grass next to our jeep and I was telling Saru to photograph them. A monkey family was playing in a tree without any worry, so we sighed and just when we gave up hope, the guide said "Arre, yeh dekho, TIGER". We all turned around and saw a beautiful tigress walking into the meadows. The lighting was perfect, but the grass was too tall. It walked through the grass and went downhill towards the lake. And then, it ROARED!! was SO COOL!

Tigers do not roar to scare animals (counter intuitive) but they roar to warn other tigers not to enter into their territory. The tigress, then waded into the water and started moving. I was squealing with joy the entire time. The smiles on our faces were as wide as can be. It sat in the water for a little bit and then started coming out. By this time the langur family got petrified and started giving alarm calls. The tiger came out of the water and started climbing uphill. 

As I was saying "Holy crap...i think it is coming right at us", it did, much to our delight. Saru said " Once it comes close, my lens won't work, so you start clicking". It came so close that I could click a full frame picture with my phone camera. He then walked towards the jeep path and was headed down. We started the jeep and slowly followed. It kept looking back to make sure we were maintaining distance and we were. A Sambar deer woke up to the danger and started calling loudly (i took this video just to record the call). By now other jeeps must have heard the alarm calls and they came up the path and found themselves right in front of the tiger. They slowly reversed their jeeps while the tiger followed.

                                          Samar Deer Alarm Call

Finally, after a good 45 minutes, it disappeared into the woods. What a fantastic sighting.This is what I love, seeing the tiger with no jeeps around. There were 2 jeeps for most of the time until the end. It was just us, the forest and the tiger and what an experience. I can totally go back in time and put up with 4 nothing-safaris to get this amazing experience. We were the only jeep in the resort to have see this tigress and we made it count. Saru quickly downloaded pictures to the computer and copied them to the phone in time for dinner. With his fantastic photos and my flair for dramatic story telling, we were the stars of the night. Rest of the guest surrounded us and oohed and aahed at our pictures.  Oh! What fun it was!!