With so many tigresses in Bandhavgarh nursing cubs, our May 2017 Photography Tour was charged with lofty expectations. And the Tour fully lived up to them.
A sheet of dark clouds formed a false ceiling as we entered Magadhi for the maiden safari the first morning.
The first point of interest was Kannauji saucer, where Kankati was said to have made a sambar kill. All was at rest so we progressed until langur calls detained us before Tadoba but to no avail.
We reached Bagh Naka without further incident, where we came upon the oncoming tracks of a male tiger, traversing towards behind the camp, prompting speculation that Bamera Junior (T37) had marauded thereabouts.
Carrying on through Sehra we reached the Bhool Bhulaiya junction to learn that a vehicle on full-day safari had found Dotty (T17), who had disappeared into the jungle behind one of the closed roads. It began to drizzle as we waited by a bend trying hard to contain our anticipation from spilling over.
A little while later the weather cleared out so completely that the clouds seemed shadows of a distant dream. We waited for a long time for her to reappear and possibly cross over to her favourite caves, now that it had warmed up considerably, but it was only the calls of spotted deer that haunted and teased us from tantalising proximity.
Elsewhere, other vehicles had checked Badbada and even Dabhadol and found no tiger. Unobliged by Dotty, we left, breakfasted, and proceeded to Tadoba where T37 had appeared, and was cooling off his lower sector in the moss-green water of Arariya! He had appeared from up the fire line and taken refuge from the rising mercury there. Soon we ran out of time and left him as he was still half-immersed in his family pool. It was simply fantastic to see him again, and the tour had begun on a ‘tigger-happy’ note!
We returned in the afternoon to find a tigerless waterhole gleaming back at us. It wasn’t all empty though, as crows, drongos and other birds took full advantage of the tiger’s absence to help themselves to a drink.
Waiting fruitlessly for some time, we proceeded to Salendha to explore ‘Dotted’ possibilities, but a car returning from Pateeha prompted us to turn back to familiar waters. Returning to Tadoba we found T37 to have returned too! He had again made his way down the fire line and was engaged ardently in heat dissipation.
The report was that he had killed a cow some distance away. Delighting us for a while with his sombre looks, he lifted off and walked back up the fire line, possibly towards the kill.
Meanwhile, vehicles returning from farther fields brought no news of other tigers so we waited it out, alternating our time between Tadoba and Kannauji. Kankati had probably tapped into a new waterhole that we learned had been made near Jhorjhora Tiraha, so she didn’t turn up, and nor did our big boy return to displace the watering crows and the calling common hawk-cuckoos. Once or twice a jungle fowl in a state of alarm served false hope before we commenced our journey back for Bhadrashila. At Mahaman we came across at first a relaxed jackal and immediately thereafter a sloth bear busy finding grub, before exiting the gate close to darkness at 7:00 pm.
Next morning we entered Tala, seeking Sidhbaba’s blessings along the way as we traversed our route.
At Bathan we met Neelam the mahout and casually enquired about the whereabouts of the subjects of our sincerest pursuit, and he omnisciently declared “Damnar!” Reaching there we found Neelam’s assertion to be of the utmost accuracy.
Three tigers lay on the soft, damp sand, right next to the tortuous stream.
So big did they look that we thought them to be the Rajbehra cubs, and even set out for Andhiyari to seek Spotty’s (T41’s) own! When we returned to Damnar the tigers were absent from view, having climbed up the embankment next to the nallah, but descended soon enough and closer this time to help us reestablish their identity. What’s more, Spotty herself appeared on the scene and sat in regal elegance. Two of the cubs came to her, nuzzled and sat down beside. Some time later she rose and walked to the road, crossed it, and lay down on the opposite side of the stream in the loving shade of the presiding jamuns.
Meanwhile, the cubs remained on the Kutaha side of the stream, sitting and sleeping alternately in varying formations. After we took a breakfast break at Hardiha and returned they were still in attendance. Spotty changed her position a couple of times, throwing us a careless, somnolent look for keepsake a couple of times. One of the cubs watched us intently. The temperature rose, and the time lapsed enough eventually to escort us out.
The whole sighting lasted nearly three hours, and as we drove back, I couldn’t help but realise how pretty Spotty had grown to be! I had always held her looks in esteem and beheld her with especially affectionate eyes ever since I saw her first in 2013, but I had now begun positively doting on her starlet-good appearance and raised her to a pedestal held by the impregnable Chorbehra female and the inimitable Mirchahni female cub (M3) to make the trio of the prettiest tigresses I’d ever seen.
In the afternoon back we went to Damnar to find the cubs resting in the northern side of the stream and Spotty lingering in blissful somnolence at nearly the very spot at which we had left her. An hour elapsed as vehicles came and went. Unusually vocal common kingfishers bedecked the edges of the green mirror that reflected the vividness of the sals and the jamuns.
After a considerable wait, on the course of which the only visible cub had groomed itself and carried on to private quarters, Spotty stirred once the earth was off boil, and conditioned her skin with her loving licks. And when everything was to her satisfaction, she rose to her feet and met the Hardiha road.
Just then, a cyclist carrying firewood headed for camp came upon the scene. The presiding guides and drivers gestured to him with impassioned vigour to give Spotty a wide berth as she stepped onto the vehicle track with dignified authority, and walked straight in the direction of the cyclist, who now disappeared from view. Following a brief motionless scrutiny, she cut to the right towards the cubs, and as we passed the place where the bicycle was hurriedly parked, we found the cyclist up a tree, quite high on his respect for Spotty!
Elsewhere, one of our vehicles chanced upon a most unlikely tigress, the obsessively elusive Chakradhara (Sharmeelee, T44), along with one of her cubs, at Baruha Nallah, making it a second consecutive Toehold Bandhavgarh Tour on which she’s seen!
Next morning we went snaking through route D, but Barua Nallah and Banbehi were unoccupied visibly. At the Amah Nallah-Kinarwah junction we found the pugmarks of the female going yonder. We kept the vigil up until Chua but to no avail.
Carrying on we heard some calls at the Mirchahni fire line that failed to bear fruit. So we drove via Jhumri Talayya and at the Hardiha Road junction, found the pug and rump marks of the monarchs and soon learned that they had just crossed over to the Dabramwha patch. We waited around and got all four of them crossing towards Jhilki Nallah in a series of heart-thumping moments. The quartet then proceeded to Damnar, where two of the cubs crossed the water like cat-faced mermaids.
In the evening we forayed through Bhadrashila in the hope of encountering one of the three tigers that had been sighted in the morning. T37 had been seen melting into the forest around Kannauji, the Mahaman male had been seen going towards Baghdalaka, and Dotty had criss-crossed Bhool Bhulaiya and trotted off towards Sher Marg. We waited at Sukha Talab for a long time to see if the Mahaman male would condescend to taking his high drink there on his way out of the coolness of his cave, but he remained engaged elsewhere. At Bagh Naka we found a mother jackal sitting in a puddle, drinking from it, and then shaking herself off before crossing the road over to her young pups.
On Sunday morning we were welcomed by a surprise sighting of the Jobhi male! He sat on dry leaves in the foreground of the Bhadrashila waterhole briefly before limping off into the grass. Apparently he was being treated by the department for injuries, and we hoped that he’d get better.
The next stop was Arariya, where Kankati and her cubs, who had been away for at least three days, were being looked forward to with much anticipation, and as we reached, lo, there they were! Two of the cubs were playing in the bamboo forest, while Frau Kankati had apparently just gone out of sight, but certainly not out of mind. Sachin had found them on the road, making their way towards the waterhole before leaving small imprints of their massive presence on the soft sand now stamped by tyre tread. They made a brief appearance on the fire line in playful pursuit of each other before reverting to obscurity.
Carrying on, at Bagh Naka we found a male’s pugmarks pointed towards Bodha, and near Pateeha Camp a female’s (circumstantially Pateeha’s) pugmarks towards Badbada. Returning to Tadoba much later we found two of the cubs lying by the pool, with the third joining shortly. It tried to reverse into the water to sit in it, in faithful imitation of its parents, but with its entire body being about the same size as its father’s rump, it failed to achieve the requisite spatial traction and abandoned the effort. It settled instead into such deep sleep on the concrete edge of the saucer, that every few minutes it amusingly kept slipping towards the water, as we slipped out towards the exit.
In the afternoon we drove straight back there to find all three cubs sleeping in the shade-haven of a bamboo clump closer to the road. Before long one stirred to take a drink. It was soon joined by another. Thus hydrated, they got to the highly important task of playing a spot of ‘wrestle mania’, whose purpose is to chase your opponent who isn’t trying their best to run away, pin them to the ground with their complete cooperation, and mock-claw the living daylights out! And as with all of these games, this one too ended with the spectators being the winners!
More pictures from the Tour:
Tigers sighted and photographed (12):
T37 Bamera’s son (male)
T35 Kankati (female) with three cubs
T41 Spotty (female) with three cubs
T44 Chakradhara female with one cub
T18 Jobhi (male)