We spent a lot of time with this young tiger, her sister and mother at The Ranthambhore National Park, that lies in the Sawai Madhopur district of eastern Rajasthan, India.
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What is a tiger?
If a child were to ask you - what is a tiger? You would probably explain to the child that a tiger is a large cat that lives in the jungle. Would you add, it is a dangerous animal that eats human beings? Would you explain that it is now a threatened species and needs to be protected? Instead, how about showing the child a tiger in the wild and asking what the child thinks it is?
As a child I had seen tigers only in movies, zoos and in a circus! My young mind had been manipulated to believe that a tiger is a snarling, ferocious man-eating beast. Tales of brave men hunting down tigers lingered in my thoughts. In the circus, I never did like the ring masters make the tigers obey the whip. The tigers I used to see in the zoos, moving continuously in a small enclosure, would make me dizzy. Yet, the animal fascinated me, as it would fascinate anyone who set eyes on it!
In my teenage, I was lucky to have associated myself with several outstanding nature lovers. Some of us traveled together into adult hood with many a forest mile under our belt. To this day we continue to share the same inexplicable high on hearing the word “tiger”!
Some three decades ago I made my first visit into the habitat of a tiger. It took five years of craving and constant wandering in the forest for me to sight my first tiger in the wild. The experience remains etched in my memory and is there to stay.
7 am. Nagarahole Forest, Karnataka. It was a fine morning, misty and cold. We gingerly climbed the few steps of the “watch tower” deep in the forest and ever so silently waited inside the elevated wooden cabin, in anticipation! Even a slight clearing of the throat was frowned upon as several pairs of eyes watched intensely, missing nothing. There was a small lake in front of us with thick green growth all around. A couple of view lines had been cleared to the left and right of the watch tower to enable wildlife viewing. We had done this exercise dozens of times before and were quite used to returning disappointed. This day was special!
As we waited, in the view line to our right, in the morning mist appeared a tiger! Gasps! Our breathing seemed too loud as the majestic beast walked slowly into our lives! And then, magic!! Another tiger appeared, and another, and another and another!! There were five of them together right there in front of us. A feast of beasts! A family of five, a mother and her cubs, I suppose. Five years of constant craving and now this. How do I digest this? Jump, shout, clap, dance? All of that later, as of now no one dared to move. Goosebumps of joy silently shared amongst us, by fleeting eye contacts! Moments later they were gone, engulfed by the overwhelming forest. Thus, I saw my first tiger in the wild, amidst friends who shared the exact same joy of sighting a tiger for the first time! A very special day in my life indeed!
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It was a completely different experience compared to my first seeing the same animal in a zoo. I find it very difficult to explain the emotions that passed through me at this time. Seeing these super stars in their natural settings puts the right meaning to the word “awe”! Their gait, their bold vivid colors, their fearless nature as explained by every other living being around them, all add to the excitement, culminating it this everlasting impression that every tiger sighting brings! I surely did not experience the slightest fear. I found it very difficult to take my eyes off the animals. There was so much “life” in these carnivores as they moved fearlessly in the forest. I was unable to relate what I was seeing to anything I had seen before or imagined! There was a kind of thrill amongst us viewers and I sensed none of us wanted the moment to end.
If you have not yet seen a tiger in the wild, do not go by the lies that have been handed over to you by one generation after another, just ask the child in you – what is a tiger? And then try to find the answer yourself!
It is always there!
Tiger (Panthera tigris), aptly called the “King of the Indian Jungle” roams freely in isolated pockets of forests spread throughout India. It leads a solitary life. While, it is fairly easy to spot a tiger in some forests like Ranthambhore in Rajasthan, Kanha and Bandgavgarh in Madhya Pradesh it is normally very difficult to spot one in most Indian forests. On the other hand it is almost always easy to sense its presence in any of its habitats! When you are in tiger habitat you will surely notice its “pugmarks” in soft dry mud or on wet lakebeds. You will notice its scat and will be able to have some fun guessing what its meal had been! You will hear unique alarm calls of Langurs, Peafowls, Sambars and Spotted Deers heralding the presence of a tiger. You will occasionally hear the king himself roaring. If you place a “camera trap” in an appropriate place you are sure to see some fascinating images of this elusive animal.
While I hope to continue enjoying the good fortune of sensing a tiger in its habitat and the occasional glimpse I get of the animal as I wander in the Indian forests, I am extremely happy to share some of my experiences with you.
One evening in Kabini.
More recently, we were roaming in the Kabini area of the Rajiv Gandhi National Park in Karnataka. Like we so often do, we were hoping to see a tiger, while enjoying everything that came our way. Dusk was around the corner as we approached a small water body easily seen from the forest road we were on. Our four-wheeler came to a silent halt and I heard a familiar whisper ‘tiger”! In absolute silence, in the fading light, we watched this drama unfold!
In the water sat a tiger! We hardly noticed the young elephant lingering nearby. Everything was still for a few minutes except the elephant. It was breaking a twig or two and feeding on the bamboo shoots. A full grown Spotted Deer stag approached the water for a drink. It did not notice the tiger until it completed quenching its thirst. The tiger did not move, it was staring intently at the stag only a few feet away. While we were expecting the tiger to pounce on its prey at any moment, the stag suddenly noticed the tiger. It gave a startling alarm call and ran for its life without once glancing back. Everything was still again except the elephant! We then noticed a solitary medium sized gaur approaching the water. What now? The gaur continued without a pause, stepped into the water and gave a loud snort. The tiger that was sitting still until then in the water, stood up, walked slowly out of the water and disappeared into the surrounding bush. The gaur calmly drank its fill and continued on its way. It was almost dark by this time and the elephant had disappeared too.
A tiger from a South Indian forest!
Surprise! On this occasion I had my camera ready and actually mustered enough composure to steady my hands and click a couple of images of the tiger in the fading light. My first and only tiger image from a South Indian forest, until date! Another surprise, one of my companions in the vehicle shot the whole sequence using his handy cam! It was time for us to head to our water hole for a spirited discussion of the magic moments, until we drifted off into blissful sleep.
It is no great secret that one can easily view and photograph a tiger in the wild at the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan . I had heard several fascinating stories from friends who had visited the area about the tigers there and had seen some superb photographs in several magazines and a documentary on the National Geographic channel. Thus, it was quite normal for me to have had some elevated expectations when I set out with a few friends to visit Ranthambhore National Park one fine November morning! What followed completely exceeded any expectations I had!
A tiger habitat at The Ranthambhore National Park.
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On November 8th, 2003, we took the night train from Delhi to Sawai Madhopur City. The train left the New Delhi station at about 11 pm and we reached Sawai Madhopur Railway station at about 6.30 am in the morning. Pinto from Ranthambhore Bagh was waiting for us and within a few minutes we reached our resort - The Ranthambhore Bagh. Poonam and Aditya Singh own and run this resort. They ensured that we felt completely at home throughout our stay at Ranthambhore.
We had time for a cup of tea before our “Open Canter” arrived. A short drive and we entered the enchanting Ranthambhore National Park. Within minutes of entering the park we saw our first tiger and I was already shooting images of it! The majestic beast walked slowly along a stream below us as we followed it from the forest road above. Yes, I had made a hundred trips spread over five years in the South Indian forests to see my first wild tiger and here in Ranthambhore I sighted one in less then five minutes of entering the park! In less than an hour from getting off the train!
A couple of hours later as we drove through the wonderful park full of wildlife, we came across a tiger family, a mother and her two grown up daughters. The three tigers were moving along the road and we stayed with them for a long time! I was shooting happily not realizing I was actually documenting some important data!
The mother appeared at this tree in front of us and smelt it. The bark had several old scratch marks on it. It then scent marked the tree by spraying on it. As we continued to watch, one of her daughters appeared from behind the tree and smelt the scent and then sat down and gave us a "Flehmen Gesture”! I am glad I kept clicking. You can see the whole sequence here …
As the three tigers moved on, our vehicle slowly followed them. At one time the mother stood on the road right in front of our vehicle and looked directly at us! Yes, eye contact with a tiger in the wild. A unique experience, I shall cherish a lifetime.
Eye contact with a wild tiger!
At one point one daughter sat on the road and refused to move. The mother waited a while and then decided to move on. However, the sitting daughter refused to move. The other daughter came over and tried all kinds of antics to try and get her to move on, with no luck. Finally, the second daughter also sat and waited. Do we put a meaning to this behavior? Of course I kept shooting…
Habituated to human presence?
On the evening round we were in a smaller vehicle, just our team. A short drive and we met the same family of the three tigers. The mother was sitting on the forest road and the two daughters had ambled into the bushes. I clicked a few shots as the mother yawned. We waited, as we could not move forward without disturbing the tiger. A few moments passed and we suddenly heard a vehicle coming from the opposite direction. It was packed with people striving to get a look at the tiger. The news spread like a forest fire and almost every vehicle in the park came to get a view of this tiger. Some vehicles pulled up behind us while a couple more came up in front. We were trapped! A traffic jam deep in the forest around a sitting tiger? Seeing is believing!
Traffic jam at the Ranthambhore National Park!
And then, the tiger simply put its head on the ground and went off to sleep!! I just could not believe this was happening. Much later, after the tiger gave way, we escaped from the scene and continued to look for – yet another tiger!?
Ranthambhore Nationl park has an area of 1334 sq kms of which 300 sq km is considered as the core area. The tiger in the wild, lives for about 15 years. India has a population of less than 3000 tigers left in the wild. There are several breeding females residing at Ranthambhore! A very valuable tiger reserve indeed! Just tell me, in such a large reserve, why must this tiger sleep on the road, in broad daylight, with hundreds of human beings striving to get a glimpse of her?
What a day it had been – the 9th of November, 2003!
Next evening we had almost completed our round in the forest and dusk was around the corner when we spied a tiger playing dead in the tall grass on the other bank of the large marsh. It had all its four feet up in the air and was laying flat on its back. Close by, a crocodile was resting on the bank of the marsh. As we watched, the tiger ever so slowly began to roll towards the crocodile. We watched this fascinating roll for over half an hour as the tiger began to close the gap, all the time laying flat on the ground. When it finally got within striking distance, the reptile that had not moved an inch suddenly withdrew and vanished into the marsh. The tiger stretched itself and sat down. Was this just a game? We had to move on as the sun set on one more memorable episode for me. Yes, I was shooting all the time!
I made five long drives inside Ranthambhore National Park stretched over three days on this trip. I was able to sight and photograph seven different tigers. Land of the tiger indeed!
Some lucky breaks…
Over time in the several journeys I have made in various jungles in India, I have often sensed and on a few lucky occasions sighted tigers. Every single sighting is etched in my memory as a special moment.
As a teenager I would actively participate in the “tiger census” conducted by the Karnataka Forest Department. We would set out on a long walk in a tiger habitat and come back with castings of tiger pugmarks. Tiger experts would later examine the castings, as they would try to determine the tiger population in that habitat.
Once I participated in a “Line Transect Census” conducted by a reputed wildlife biologist who was studying tigers in Nagarahole. For a week I walked the same stretch of forest, twice a day, and noted down every single sighting I had of any mammal. This would help the researcher analyze the density of prey in a particular area. I loved the experience.
On one occasion, for a brief while in the field, I actually held the equipment that is used to track a “radio collared” tiger. My hands were trembling as the equipment made a beeping sound when it picked up a signal of the tiger we were tracking. Unique experience.
That’s all folks!
I have no doubt I will continue to enjoy my special relationship with the king of the Indian jungle as I continue to travel through its habitat from time to time. If you have not yet made an attempt to see your first tiger in the wild, there is no time like “now” to make that attempt. If you have already made an attempt and not yet seen one, remember, the joy is in the process.