“Bandhavgarh won’t disappoint you Sahib. But you need to show me a tiger in Corbett in return” said my guide cum driver Narayan (aka Angu) as I was getting ready for my first safari in a forest outside the cozy comforts of Corbett for the first time in 3 years. My last non-Corbett forest expedition was Kanha in 2006. I went to Bandhavgarh with extremely high expectations as my good friends and fellow photographers always spoke highly about the forest. Facts like the Tala zone of Bandhavgarh has the highest density of tigers in one particular forest zone were always fascinating but made me wonder if Bandhavgarh without the acclaimed tiger shows of the forests of Madhya Pradesh would live up to expectations from a sighting perspective.
My safari had started on a good note as according to one of my numerous forest superstitions I consider rollers as a lucky charm and this time I sighted and shot an eye level shot of an Indian Roller that perched itself on the board that said ‘Welcome to Bandhavgarh National Park’. As we started our afternoon drive, Angu made me familiar with the territories of the legendary Bandhavgarh tigers – Rajbehra male (Bokha), Jhujhura female, Kalua and the Chradhara male. Have always admired the beauty of the majestic Bandhavgarh tigers in the photographs taken by my counterparts and was wondering if luck would favor me during this trip.
As we were crossing the grasslands, my eyes noted a small movement at the top of a dry tree and to my delight a charming Malabar Pied Hornbill emerged from behind the dry branches out in the open. The Great Indian Hornbill that we normally see in hills of Kumaon is one of my favorite birds but the sighting of an equally beautiful Malabar was a treat to the eyes.
As I could see the sun touching the horizon in the far corners of the Chakradhara grasslands, I knew that my evening drive was nearing an end and Angu was able to read my mind. Meanwhile, a passing gypsy informed us that a leopard was sighted near Chakradhara a few hours ago. “Sahib don’t be disappointed. We need to offer a prayer before our morning safari and I am sure the tiger god will shower blessings on you,” he remarked scanning the grasslands using my binoculars. I am a strong believer in supernatural powers in the forest and I asked Angu to bring along a coconut and incense sticks for the morning puja.
At the break of dawn I offered my prayers at a small temple underneath a beautiful banyan tree and set out for my early morning safari. Soon we came to know about a tiger show happening near the Chakradhara grasslands and rushed towards the point. The majestic Bamera male was sighted resting in the dense undergrowth and as my elephant was approaching the beautiful male I had mixed emotions as for me because of the exposures I have got in Corbett, a tiger sighting is not satisfactory until I track it myself and my patience pays off. The full grown Bamera male looked gorgeous and it goes without saying that I was so pleased to see that the reigns of royal Bandhavgarh are in the hands of such healthy male tigers.
Having spent around 10 minutes with the Bamera male, I sat in my hotel room thinking and wishing to track him on my own during my evening safari. To my luck as I was entering the park in the evening, Angu got the information that the Bamera male was sighted in the grasslands of Chakradhara and as soon as the gates opened we rushed towards the grassland and waited there for around 40 minutes. At 3 in the noon and the sun shining brightly, it was unlikely for a tiger to come out in the open patches of the grassland. I asked Angu if we can check out the Jhurjhura belt and return by 4. He readily agreed and as we were on our way to the Jhurjhura waterhole, Angu saw some movement in the bushes. Suddenly two cheetals gave frantic alarm calls and rushed out of the bushes and I could see a tigress crossing the path near the undergrowth. “That’s the new Jhurjhara female! The first litter of the Jhurjhura female… she got separated from her mother few months back,” informed Angu.
God was finally giving me what I wanted and the prayers were working… I was pleased with the evening proceedings so far. We reached the grasslands at 4:15 in search of the Bamera male and I was happy to see my tracking would now be supported by a heard of cheetal grazing in the area. At 4:45 pm, the majestic male walked out in the open amidst the belling of the Sambhar deer and he patrolled his territory in grand style. He walked, marked his territory and strolled in front of my eyes for the next 20 minutes. By around 5:10 pm a fleet of vehicles lined up to view the wild spectacle. A full grown male tiger walking unperturbed openly in a grassland – that’s what Bandhavgarh is known for!
I had got most of the shots which I had visualized and I had decided to take it easy on Day 3. For a wildlife photographer visiting Bandhavgarh, sighting of the legendary B2 is always a dream. There are some tigers that are edged in history books as legends. B2 – the dominant male of Bandhavgarh who has been ruling his territory for over a decade now – is a warrior and has survived an issue that plagues the future of the Indian tiger i.e. human animal conflict. With a significant part of his territory in the buffer zone of the park, B2 has had a history of launching attacks on livestock and he frequently patrols areas adjoining nearby villages.
The saal forest that was giving me cover that early morning has been witness to some tragic deaths in B2’s family because of human animal conflict. As Angu and I were discussing the issue, the forest reverberated with cheetal alarm calls. The langur monkey who was my guide pointed toward the saal forest and gave more alarm calls. In the middle of the hustle and bustle I could see the stripes and as we rushed towards the grassland where we were expecting the tiger to walk out, the mahout shouted from the elephant’s back “B2 is walking out!”
Luck was favoring me and I decided to make the most of it. I asked Angu to go ahead of the grassland area as I expected B2 to cross the road adjoining the grassland. A chain of vehicle followed as the giant was patrolling his home turf slowly approaching the road. In a truly royal and tiger-like fashion B2 walked on the road looked at my vehicle and snarled. He stopped at a tree just adjacent to the road, raised his tail and marked his territory and walked off the thickly wooded saal forest.
I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. A face to face encounter with the legend of Bandhavgarh, a lovely evening with the Bamera male and the Jhurjhura tigress and ofcourse around 50 species of birds that I shot – am sure Bandhavgarh has a lot of hidden treasures which I am yet to explore.
(Contributed by Shivang Mehta & Kahini Ghosh Mehta, both wildlife photographers who run the Nature Wanderers camp in Corbett. They also organize wildlife and environment related events across national parks)
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