A young boy’s dream
Since young, I have been constantly mesmerized and awed by the wildlife documentaries shown on TV, from Africa, South America, to Asia. But one animal would stand above the rest in my interest, the Tiger. The tiger was the reason I had taken up photography in the first place. As a kid I would grab my dad’s camera and photograph the tiger at the zoo, trying to mimic the photos I saw on books and magazines. As my passion for photography grew, I had a dream that one day I will be able to see and photograph a tiger in the wild. It finally came on the 7-12 May 2015, when I planned for a 6D5N trip to Bandhavgarh National Park, India in search of the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). I chose Bandhavgarh as the place I would go for my first tiger safari due to the high density of tigers found in the park.
Bandhavgarh National Park
To get to Bandhavgarh National Park, we (I went with one other photographer) took a direct flight from Singapore to Delhi, stayed a day in the capital before boarding a morning flight to Jabalpur. Only 2 airlines fly from Delhi to Jabalpur, Air India and Spicejet, in which I took the latter airline. My photography guide, Talat Khalid, was at the airport to fetch us to the resort. It was an approx 3.5hr drive from the airport to the park. Temperature here was estimated to be 40 degrees Celsius.
Bandhavgarh National Park is located in India in the Umaria district of Madhya Pradesh. The park derives its name from the most prominent hillock of the area, which is said to be given by Hindu Lord Rama to his brother Lakshmana to keep a watch on Lanka (Ceylon). Hence the name Bandhavgarh (Sanskrit: Brother’s Fort). The Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve spans across a total area of 1598 square kilometers, in which the national park area consist of 446 square kilometers, with 105 square kilometers of the park designated as core area. Tourism is limited to 20% in the core area. Bandhavgarh National Park is one of the smaller national parks of India but with a healthy population of about 60 tigers, it is one of the best places in the world to see a wild tiger. There is a popular saying “In any other park, you are lucky if you see a tiger. In Bandhavgarh, you are unlucky if you don’t see (at least) one.”
The safari areas consist of 3 zones, Tala (named after the nearby village Tala), Magdhi and Khitauli. Tala is known as the premium zone for having the richest biodiversity, and is also the most beautiful and scenic zone. The other 2 zones were a later addition to ease the tourism pressure on Tala. At any one time, only 20 vehicles are allowed into each zone to minimize disturbances to wildlife. Throughout the safari, we were not allowed to leave the vehicle unless in designated rest area.
Bandhavgarh National Park
The landscapes in Bandhavgarh National Park consist of tropical dry deciduous forest of mostly Sal forest in the valleys, bamboo stretches on the lower slopes of the region, and grasslands.
Upon arriving at our resort, we checked into the Nature Heritage Resort, one of the oldest resorts in Bandhavgarh. The resort is beautifully landscaped and have very comfortable rooms and toilets with hot shower. They serve delicious Indian food and the staffs were very friendly and helpful. The resort is also a member of the international organization TOFT – “The Travel Operators for Tigers” who are committed to advocate and encourage sustainable wildlife tourism in tiger reserves and national parks, and to adhere to the eco tourism practice guidelines.
The Safari Begins
After lunch, we proceeded for our first safari game drive to Tala zone. There are 2 safaris each day, morning and afternoon. Our open air 6 seater Maruti Suzuki jeep which we called Gypsy consist of our tour leader/photographer Talat, expert driver/tracker Uttam, a spotter/guide, fellow photographer Cheng Teng and myself. Excitement brewed inside me as it was my very first safari. I tried not to expect too much from the first drive but I am hopeful for a tiger sighting. Driving though the beautiful dry deciduous forest and grasslands, our first animals encountered was a herd of grazing Spotted Deers (Axis axis), aka Chital or Axis Deer. Among them were a lone Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor) and pair of Lesser Adjutant Stork (Leptoptilos javanicus) foraging for food.
Safari Team from left to right: expert driver/tracker Uttam, tour leader/photographer Talat, , Cheng Teng and myself
Spotted Deer stag
Lesser Adjutant Stork
As we drove deeper into the reserve, we sighted more Spotted Deers and Sambar Deers. Hanuman Langurs (Simia entellus), a species of monkey, are also in abundance. While looking for signs of the tiger, we heard an alarm call from the spotted deers. The alarm call is an indication that there might be a predator nearby. We stopped the vehicle and try to locate the tiger or other predators like the leopard. As the sun began to set, we upped our search moving around the hot spots as this is the time tigers are starting to get active. Tigers are mostly nocturnal, being most active at dusk and first light, where their night vision is 6 times better than human. In secure places where human disturbances are absent, tigers have been reported hunting in the day as well. We heard a few more alarm calls but no predators were sighted. We stopped by a waterhole where regular tiger sightings were said to occur. Talat believed the tiger could be on the other side which we could not access, as we frequently heard the alarm calls.
Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis)
Spotted Deer stag with fawn
Hanuman Langur with young
Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta)
Spotted Deer couple
Our first safari ended with no tiger sightings. The feeling of a tiger nearby, but yet hidden from sight, was exciting. I can’t wait for my first wild tiger sighting.
Morning game drive
It was 430am in the morning. I got up and prepared for the first morning safari drive. Every safari, our driver Uttam would pick us up from the resort, before fetching the safari guide and then to the zone that we intend to go. We headed for zone 2, Magdhi, which is about 10 mins drive from our resort. The morning drive was pretty chilling as the jeep breezed through the forest. The terrains here were generally flatter than Tala’s. As always, we looked out for alarm calls and pugmarks for signs of the tiger.
After a couple of hours of searching, our guide spotted something. In a distance, an orange cat laid among the tall grasses. It was a Bengal Tiger cub of about 7 months of age. Slowly, it got up and looked towards our direction. It was an amazing moment and highlight of my life, seeing a tiger, wild and free, for the very first time. I soon realized that there were 3 cubs in total. The cubs were unperturbed by our presence and continued to relax and lay among the grasses. The mother must have been out hunting, leaving her cubs to themselves as they have yet to start following their mother on her hunts. When alone, the cubs are vulnerable to predators such as leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, sloth bears, and from rival male tigers, who will not hesitate to attack or kill the cubs in order to reproduce those of his own. Tiger cubs will follow their mothers until the age of 2 years before parting ways with their mother and siblings and lead a solitary life. The females will establish their territories in nearby areas while the males will venture far in search of a new territory.
My first ever wild tiger sightings
As time passes, the cubs made their way up the rocky slope and made it difficult for us to photograph. We waited around the area for the mother to come back, but there were no signs of her. As the cubs rest, we decided to look for Mom. We drove up and down the dirt road when there was a rush of excitement. Sambar Deers were running away from something. A flash of orange moved within the bamboo thickets. It was the mother of the cubs. She is known as the Patiya female due to the area where her territory lies. She walked out of the thickets and came right in front of the vehicles and crossed a small dry creek. We hurried to keep up as she moved further away. We stopped just right for her to cross the road as she proceeded in the direction of her cubs. We soon lost sight of her as she moved into the slopes.
The mother tiger walked right past us without turning to look at us
We went back for the cubs as the mother might be heading towards them, but they were nowhere to be seen. We waited around before deciding to call time to our morning safari. Just as we were leaving, our guide turned for one last check over the hills and spotted the cubs making their way down the slope. We spent an enjoyable 20 minutes or so watching and photographing them playing around and having fun. According to Talat, this was a really good and rare sighting as it was the first time he had seen the 3 cubs. As much as I would love to stay on to watch the cubs and a possible return of their mother, it was time to leave as we did not have full day pass.
The cubs were spotted once again before we left
Our afternoon game drive started at 330pm in the afternoon and we headed back to zone 2 for the Patiya female and cubs again. However, they were nowhere to be seen during the whole afternoon. It was ought to be another tigerless evening when we sighted a young male tiger lying along the road on the way back to the entrance towards the end of the safari. As we were already running late and needed to get out of the reserve on time, we quickly got our shots and held on tight as our driver Uttam showed how skilled he was, speeding across the dirt road and making high-speed turn around bends. It was a great start to our safari.
Indian Peacock (Pavo cristatus)
As we were heading back to the entrance at the end of the day, we spotted a young male tiger resting on the road. We quickly took a few shots before rushing to the entrance
The next morning we headed for zone 3, Khitauli. The terrains here were hillier than zone 2 with more rocky slopes. This zone is noted for its leopard sightings, but they are very elusive and sightings are rare even though there is a good population of leopards in Bandhavgarh. Just like Africa, leopards are good at remaining hidden. I would be very lucky to see one, even more so to be able to photograph it. We managed to see fresh tiger tracks along the road and sped up in hopes of catching up with it. A spotted deer alarm call alerted us. In the silence of the forest, we heard a faint growl of the tiger, and moved in to try to get a sighting of it.
It was about 2 hours into the safari when we finally saw the tiger. She was sitting by a small waterhole and proceeded to have a drink. She then walked off into the forest and we suspected she could end up on the other side of the road. We moved quickly and waited by the dry riverbed. We saw spotted deers crossing, but no tiger. One of the guides from the other vehicle said she might appear further down. We heeded his advice and drove further.
We spotted the tiger having a drink by the water hole after 2 hours of searching
She moved off into the forest after her drink
We waited for her to appear but only deers were spotted
Suddenly, the tiger appeared right in front of our vehicle, crossing the road towards our direction. I scrambled for my camera and quickly took my shots while it walked towards a rocky slope, entered a small cave and laid down to rest. It is not a common sight to see a tiger resting in a cave. We decided to leave the tiger to its cave and headed to a safer spot to have our breakfast before going back to check on it again. However, the tiger had left the cave after we returned and was nowhere to seen again. We spent the rest of the morning photographing several birds species from a beautiful rocky cliff, and spotted deers, wild boars (Sus scrofa) and langurs around a waterhole.
The tigress appeared right in front of our vehicle as we tried to track her
The tigress made her way up into the cave and rest
Spotted Deers drinking by the waterhole
Wild boar family
As we drove, we came to an area where it looks like the forest had been burned. Reportedly, a portion of Khitauli was caught in a massive bush fire a day back. The forest floors were covered in dark grey ashes and devoid from life. This is a reminder on how devastating Mother Nature can be if she wants to be nasty.
Mother Nature’s devastation
During the afternoon game drive, we went back to the same spots we had been in the morning. We stopped at the rocky cliff where the abundance of birdlife were. Birds such as Racquet-tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus) , Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), Black-naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea), Indian Tree Pie (Dendrocitta vagabunda), Common Iora (Aegithina tiphia) and a white morph Asian Paradise Flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) were among the many birds sighted in the morning and afternoon. It would be great to photograph a tiger resting at the edge of the cliff. After waiting for a period of time and with the irritating flies swarming around, we moved on to check on the waterhole that we went in the morning. It was empty with only a lone Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) coming to greet us. Despite having zero tiger sightings, it was still an enjoyable drive around the park with the natural surroundings and tranquility of the Indian forest…to be continued in Part 2
Red Jungle Fowl
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