Tiger Safari – Bandhavgarh National Park (Part 2)

On my previous post, I shared my first tiger safari during the first 3 days and also a short introduction on Bandhavgarh National Park. For part 2, I will continue my sharing on the safari and also take the opportunity to share with everyone on tiger conservation and some tips on photographing a safari in India.

 

A supposedly disappointing morning

Day 4, morning game drive. We were expecting another great morning as the last 2 morning drives had resulted in awesome tiger sightings. We went back to Magdhi where we saw the Patiya female and her 3 cubs and were hopeful of seeing them again. 3 hours into the drive, no tigers were sighted. We did saw a young sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) within the bamboos but it was very shy and retreat into the thickets before we could get a picture. We were coming to the end of our morning drive when we decided to make a last check at one of the waterhole. There were a few jeeps parked along the area and the were told the tiger cubs were hidden behind the bamboo thickets. I could see the ear tips of the cubs as I peered through the bamboo with my camera. And so we waited, hoping something special would happen.

Suddenly, there were whispers of excitement. The Patiya female led her 2 cubs out of the vegetation and into the open sandy slope, heading towards the waterhole. The third cub was nowhere to be seen and it made me wonder if something has happened to it. The mother walked around the edge of the waterhole, with one cub following closely behind while the other took its own time. They took to the water and began to relax. For the next 10mins, we watched the family enjoying themselves in the water. The cubs showed a lot of affection to their mother, often nuzzling her and even climbed up onto her back and gave her a lick on her head. This was totally awesome and unexpected. Not everyday would one be able to see this. People sign up for a full day passes or stayed for weeks just to witness moments like this. I cannot believe that I would actually be so lucky encountering something so special during my short one week stay here. As I sat here typing, I am still blown away by that moment. As the 2 cubs played around, the mother was calling out for the third cub, but it did not appear. According to Talat, this is her first litter of cubs. It is always a good sign to see cubs around as this shows that the tigers are breeding and thus increasing the tiger population.

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At one point of time, something caught the attention of one of the cubs and it got out of the water. It moved in a stealthily manner up a slope and went on a crouching position. The cub was stalking something. I composed my camera in a way which allow whatever that was approaching to be captured in the frame. A few seconds later, a wild boar appeared and the cub lunged forward, sending the unsuspecting wild boar into a frenzy retreat.

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The mother soon made her way out of the water and headed back to the thickets where she first came from. The cubs soon followed thereafter. They soon walked onto the edge of the road and crossed to the other side of the forest. As we were running late, we had to abandon the tigers and make our way back to the entrance.

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We went back to the waterhole to check on the family during the afternoon drive. We sighted the mother again not long after, making her way down to the water to relax. Shortly afterwards, the mother made her way back into the thickets.

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Trying to think out of the box, we decided to drive to another side of the road hoping to see her and she did appear but it was way too far to take any shots. We decided to head back to the waterhole hoping that the cubs were there. On our way, a Golden Jackal (Canis aureus) popped right in front of our vehicle and crossed the road.

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The day ended with 2 male Spotted Deers engaging in a fight for mating rights. The victor then made its way into the herd, leaving the loser battered with a broken antler.

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Tala’s disappointment.

The last 2 morning’s game drive we decided to head to Tala. Tala was supposed to be the best place for tiger sightings and is the richest in terms of biodiversity, not to mention it is also the most scenic zone, hence it is known as the premium zone. But recently Tala had been short of tiger sightings and all the attention had turned to Magdhi’s family of tigers. We met british wildlife photographer James Warwick back at Magdhi the day before, who told us that he had only one tiger sighting in 10 game drives in Tala. He had been in the park photographing for 3 weeks. Despite the disappointing news on Tala, we decided to take the chance and head to Tala in hopes of photographing the tiger in its beautiful settings.

The last 2 game drives yielded zero tiger sightings. We saw fresh tiger and sloth bear pugmarks, waited for a potential tiger sighting from alarm calls, but did not see any tigers. However, we had many shots of other wildlife such as Spotted Owlet (Athene brama), birds of prey, vultures, an improved shot of the Golden Jackal, a record shot of a Ruddy Mongoose (Herpestes smithii), and a sighting of an Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus).

 

DSC_2366aSpotted Owlets (Athene brama)

 

DSC_2381aMalabar Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros coronatus)

 

DSC_2487aGolden Jackal

 

DSC_2528aSpotted Deer female

 

DSC_2533aRuddy Mongoose

 

DSC_2559aHanuman Langur family

 

DSC_2664aSpotted Deer stags

 

DSC_2708aIndian Peafowl and Sambar Deers

 

DSC_2801aEgyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)

 

DSC_2827aIndian Vultures (Gyps indicus)

 

DSC_2880aSpotted Deer stags. Left: non-breeding season right: breeding season

 

DSC_2897aIndian Vulture

 

DSC_2915aIndian Vultures

 

DSC_2937aIndian Vulture

 

DSC_2984aCrested Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela)

 

DSC_3033aBarking Deer (Muntiacus muntjak)

 

DSC_0617aTiger pugmarks

 

DSC_0620aSloth Bear pugmarks

 

DSC_0604aThe safari Gypsy. Just look at the dust.

 

The only tiger sighting we had after that awesome moment with the Patiya family was a lone male cub at the same waterhole in Magdhi during the afternoon game drive. This was the third cub that was missing during the previous sighting. It was a relief to see him alive and well. As our last afternoon game drive came to an end, we had view of a lone male tiger from a distance on our way out of Magdhi.

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Sunset over Bandhavgarh National Park

 

Reflection

Tigers have been one of my lifelong passion and I am thankful for my parent’s upbringing that I have a chance to be able to fulfill a childhood dream of seeing and photographing wild tigers in their natural habitat. Overall it has been a fantastic trip. The tiger sightings were awesome as we get to witness moments that were rarely seen in such a short time span, with a few close encounters where we were in a good chase distance for the tiger. Although the tigers generally do not attack the vehicles, we must remember that these are wild tigers and they have to be treated with the utmost respect, for their sheer size and power could easily kill anyone if it decides to, as with the case in Ranthambore National Park, where a ferocious tiger code named T24, had lost its fear of humans and started chasing vehicles and killing local villagers. With the recent death of a forest guard in May, it marks the fourth human fatality from T24, and has sinced been relocated into captivity.

There were a few things that I would like to photograph but sadly did not, such as a big male tiger, a tiger with a kill, tiger hunting, tigers fighting, a picture perfect shot of a tiger in beautiful light and environment and many other wildlife such as the sloth bear and leopard. But this made it all the more to come back again in the future.

Our photographic guide Talat was great in getting us into good positions as he understands the needs of a photographer, and also the arrangements he had made from picking us and dropping us at the airport, and getting us a great environmentally friendly accommodation to stay. Also not to mention was our superb driver Uttam, who is an experienced tracker and always reacted fast to get us into good positions. I would like to also thank the several local wildlife guides who accompanied us on the safari and help us spot the wildlife.

The state of Jabalpur is a suburban place and many of the locals are poor and live in small tiny slums without proper facilities. During one of our drive in the national park, we stopped for a breakfast break at a rest area where there were stalls setup by the villagers. I had food that was packed by the resort. It was simple food of hard-boiled egg, sandwich, chips, chapati and packet drink. As I had excess food, my guide asked if I still want my food. I understood his message and went to distribute the food to the local villagers at the stalls. Many came forward so I gave everything I had left. It then occurred to me that simple food like these were actually good food to them. I felt great humbleness at the sight of them eating the food I gave. This made me appreciate everything that I had back home in Singapore.

The trip may have come to an end, but this is just the first of the multiple tiger safaris that I am hoping to come back for. The next tiger adventure awaits …

Wildlife sighted:

1.Bengal Tiger

2.Spotted Deer

3.Sambar Deer

4.Barking Deer

5.Golden Jackal

6.Asian Palm Civet

7.Ruddy Mongoose

8.Indian Bison

9.Wild Boar

10.Hanuman Langur

11.Rhesus Macaque

12.Sloth Bear

13.Monitor Lizard

14.Purple Heron

15.Indian Pond Heron

16.Indian Roller

17.Indian Peafowl

18.Lesser Adjutant Stork

19.Woolly-necked Stork

20.Red Jungle Fowl

21.Spotted Owlet

22.Green Bee Eater

23.Crested Serpent Eagle

24.Changeable Hawk Eagle

25.Shikra

26.Indian Pitta

27.Common Grey Hornbill

28.Malabar Pied Hornbill

29.Painted Stork

30.Indian Vulture

31.Egyptian Vulture

32.Red-wattled Lapwing

33.White-throated Kingfisher

34.Asian Paradise Flycatcher white morph

35.Indian Tree Pie

36.Large Grey Babbler

37.Magpie Robin

38.Black-naped Monarch

39.Greater Racket Tailed Drongo

40.Red-vented Bulbul

41.Common Iora

 

Saving the tiger

Threats

The tiger is an endangered species. About 100 years ago, tiger numbers were as high as 100,000. It has since plummeted with no more than 3500 individuals in the wild today, with India having the highest population with about 60% of the total tiger population found on the subcontinent. Out of the 9 subspecies of tigers, 3 had gone extinct, and the South China Tiger is deemed to be extinct in the wild as well. Threats to the tiger are mainly poaching and habitat loss. Tigers are poached for their body parts that are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Literally every part of the tiger’s body is deemed to have medicinal values, even the genitals. However, these claims have not been proven scientifically and tiger parts have no medicinal value whatsoever. They are also being poached for their fur which could sell as much as USD35, 000 per piece on the black market.

Habitat loss is another major threat to the tiger. Tigers were once widespread across Asia, spanning west from Turkey, to the eastern coast of Russia, and south to Bali. Tigers have since lost more than 90% of their original range, surviving in pockets of fragmented forest in reserves and national parks which most are not big enough to hold a genetically diverse population of 250 breeding tigers. Habitat loss to agriculture and human encroachment are fast wiping out the tigers. Countries such as Indonesia, which is burning its forest at an alarming rate, is driving the genetically distinct Sumatran Tigers to extinction.

Why save the tiger?

Tigers are the top predator in the food chain. They help maintain the ecosystem and prevent over-grazing by keeping prey species population in check. The presence of a tiger indicates a healthy and well balanced ecosystem.

Tigers are an umbrella species. By saving the tiger, we save the forest, its inhabitants and humans. Forest store rainwater and protects the soil. As a result, it protects rivers and recharges groundwater. Places with fewer trees will easily lead to flooding, destroying homes and killing people. Flooding also wash away the fertile soils, leaving behind a piece of wasteland. Humans are part of the web of life, where all living things are interrelated to one another. Altering any component of the web will affect others as well. What humans do to the environment and its inhabitants; they do to themselves.

Tigers live in forest, and forests are natural carbon sinks. Carbon dioxide is one of the compounds responsible for global warming and climate change. By protecting tigers, we protect the forest and in turn the forest helps absorb carbon from the atmosphere, which helps reduce climate change.

As a major attraction, tigers help provide local communities with jobs from tourist who come to see a tiger in the wild. Jobs created include drivers, guides, resort staffs, park rangers etc. The influx of tourist will help boost the economy of the local villages.

Not to forget, the tiger is a beautiful and iconic animal. It was voted the world’s favorite animal according to Animal Planet. In thousands of years of evolution, it took less than a century for man to threaten the tigers to extinction. Can you imagine a world without tigers, running wild and free? What gives us the right to wipe a species out? Just because we can, does not mean we should. As the most intelligent and dominant species on Earth, we should be the guardian looking after every creature, not destroy it.

What have been done to save tigers?

Organizations such as Wildlife Conservation Society, Panthera and WWF have been actively involved in tiger conservation for many years. Steps were taken to identify sites that are critical tiger habitats and conserving them, using modern technologies like camera traps to monitor and identify tigers, and enhancing law enforcements such as training of forest rangers to combat poaching, as well as educating the mass public about the importance and benefits of saving tigers.

In 2010, a Tiger Summit was held in St Petersburg, Russia, which involved world leaders to address the concerns of tiger conservation with a mission of doubling the world’s wild tiger population by 2022. 29 July was declared International Tiger Day to raise public awareness and support on the issues of tiger conservation.

The traditional way of counting of tigers in India had always been identifying them from their pugmarks, which has long been deemed unreliable by tiger researchers. The use of modern technologies such as camera traps are currently the most reliable method to help identify and count tigers through their stripe patterns, which is unique to each individual tiger. The use of more reliable methods in counting tigers during the 2007-2008 tiger census in India has shown that tiger numbers in India are actually half of what it is thought to be. Moreover, tigers have also been wiped out in 2 national parks, Sariska and Panna. This caused the Indian government to set up 8 new tiger reserves, pledging USD153 million to fund the Project Tiger initiative and set up a Tiger Protection Force to fight poaching. 200,000 villagers were also relocated with the funding from the government to minimize conflict between humans and tigers. Sariska have also been repopulated with surplus tigers from other reserves such as Ranthambore to start a new batch of tiger population.

Tiger fur coats were once openly on sale in the Tibet, where they are worn as part of the traditional Tibetan costume, despite an international ban in trading of tiger parts. It was not until when the Dalai Lama intervened and told the Tibetans that wearing animal skins are against the belief of Buddhism, and called an end to the trading of animal fur coats in Tibet. With the extraordinary influence the Dalai Lama has on Tibetans, they heeded his advice and burned the fur coats of not just tigers, but other animals such as leopards, otters and foxes. Silk brocades are used as a replacement to tiger skins for their traditional costumes.

In South Africa, a foundation called Save China’s Tiger was set up in 2001, with the aim of rewilding the critically endangered South China Tiger, which is believed to be extinct in the wild and only survive in captivity in small numbers. A selected group of captive South China Tigers were chosen and transported to South Africa to begin the rewilding process, with the hope of reintroducing the rewilded tigers back to the wilderness of China one day. Africa was chosen as the place for the project due to their expertise in animal management. To date, the project has successfully bred and rewilded the tigers and they are able to hunt and breed naturally in the semi wild environment. Potential tiger sites have also been shortlisted in China to be converted into tiger reserves. Once everything is in place, we can hope to have the first South China Tiger to roam China’s forest in more than 3 decades.

Education plays a big part in saving the tigers, especially to the younger generation in the local villages. Although there were children from more developed states who come for educational programs, reportedly not much effort was done to educate the local village children about the importance and benefits of saving the tiger. As the ones who will be the direct protectors of the tiger and its habitat, more education programs should be focused on the local villagers.

For our safari trip, both Talat and the resort we stayed hired locals for the jobs. Tiger tourism is a major source of income for the locals in India, thus by hiring the locals and providing them with stable income we help save and protect the tigers as the locals will have to depend on the tiger for their livelihood. Dependence on the tiger for a living will also prevent them from becoming poachers, which wildlife criminals will look for due to their expertise in the forest.

On our part, we can help save the tiger by:

  • Not buying any tiger products. When there is no demand, there is no supply.
  • Buy FSC certified or recycled tissue/toilet paper. Asian Pulp & Paper (APP) is one of the biggest paper companies in the world. They are responsible for the mass destruction of Indonesian rainforest. When buying paper product, look for the FSC certified logo
  • Donate to tiger conservation funds, such as WWF and Panthera. Your donation will help in the conservation of the tiger in every way.
  • Buy RSPO certified palm oil products that follows guidelines aim at minimizing impact to tigers and orang utans.
  • Go on a tiger safari, your expenses will help save the tiger in any possible way, no matter how small.
  • Spread the word to others on why we must save tigers and what they can do to help. Word of mouth is a powerful method in spreading messages.

Photographic tips on an Indian Safari

Photographing a safari in India can be very challenging. The time given for you to grab the camera and snap a shot is probably a few seconds before the animal turns away. Unlike Africa, which has open savannas with mostly even sunlight, India’s landscape consists of denser vegetation and thus lighting can vary from time to time. Below I will share some tips that I had picked up during the safari. (Special thanks to my fellow photographer Cheng Teng for sharing with me some of his tips from previous safaris)

– You need at least 2 bodies to cater to the different focal lengths. It is advisable not to change lenses out on field as the dust are really bad. After each safari, my gears are filled with orange dust and I had to clean them after each safari with wet tissue.

– A telephoto lens of minimum 400mm is required most of the time. But wildlife does get really close sometimes and you will need a shorter lens as well. We had a couple of occasions where the tiger came up really close that even a 200mm focal length is too much! During my trip, I used a Nikon 70mm-300mm and a Nikon 300m F4 with a 1.4x teleconverter mounted on APC bodies. The only regret I had was to leave my 18-200mm at the resort throughout the resort as I was afraid to change lenses on the field, thus I did not have any wide angle shots of the landscapes to bring home. Ideally, the best combo would be a shorter lens used for close encounters and landscapes, and a telephoto zoom such as the 80-400mm, 200-400mm, 150-500mm , or 150-600mm for the further shots. Prime lenses such as the 300mm, 400mm, 500mm, 600mm and 800mm are really good as well as they produce really sharp and optimum pictures, but they come at a hefty price that will put a big hole in your pocket.

– Use a sandbag/ricebag/beanbag for support. On the safari jeep in India, tripods and clamps are totally useless. There are no space to put your tripod, and you will be too slow to clamp your camera as you won’t know where the animals would appear from. In Bandhavgarh, we use rice bags and they are the fastest way to get into position, stabilize and take a shot.

– During the trip, I used auto ISO during the trip due to the frequent changing of light conditions as I have no time to change the ISO manually. In this setting, I can set a fast shutter speed to counter any movement from the rice bag and the f stop to ensure I have sharp images while the camera will auto select the best ISO for the shot. Initially I limited my ISO to 6400 as but the image quality at ISO6400 was not too pleasing for me and hence I set my ISO limit to 3200 subsequently. I set my metering to spot to ensure that I get the right exposure on the subject I am shooting.

– I learned to use the back focus button exclusively (I used both back and front focus buttons previously) while disabling the focus button from the shutter release button. I would set my focusing to continuous (AF-C) to track the movements from the animals and the tracking area to 21 points on both my Nikon D7100 and D7200. When I need to focus as a single shot (AF-S) for static subjects, I press the back focus button and release it once it is in focus and take the shot, since the shutter release button is disabled and does not interfere with focusing. If I need to focus as continuous (AF-C), I simply hold onto the back focus button to track the movement of the subject. This setting allows me to shoot as AF-S and AF-C without having to waste time switching from one to the other.

– Bring extra cards, batteries, hard disk. Nothing can be worse when you ran out of batteries and space to store photos. Backing up photos in at least 2 separate devices to ensure the photos are safe. I had painful lesson many years back of not duplicating my photos and one day the hard disk crashes with all my precious photos gone. I had to start all over again and it’s really not a good feeling.

– Pack the right clothing. India can be very cold in the central to northern parts of the country during winter time, where temperature can be close to zero. During summers, the temperature can be as high as 50 degrees Celsius. It is important to stay hydrated during the summers. Staying healthy and comfortable is important for an enjoyable safari trip.

Email: dennisongphotography@hotmail.com

 

© [Dennis Ong] [DennisOngPhotography], [2015]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear CREDIT is given to [Dennis Ong] [Dennis Ong Photography] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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