Sabyasachi Patra

Bandhavgarh Diary 2009

Bandhavgarh Diary 2009

28th March
The alarm in my mobile started ringing and I knew it was time to wake up. I had boarded the Utkal Express the previous day from Delhi and it was expected to reach Umaria by 5.30 am. I kept on dozing and then the attendant came and woke me. It was around 5.20 am and the train was a few minutes away from Umaria. Within minutes, I had got down the train. I asked my driver for some additional information about the recent happenings in Bandhavgarh.

One of the tiger cubs I had photographed in the previous year, had now grown up into a big male tiger and was accused of killing a man collecting mahua outside the Park in the buffer zone. This tiger had also killed a female in 2008 April, when she had illegally entered into the park along with three men. On that occasion, the group of three men and a woman were on foot and had started running when they saw the tiger. The male cub, inquisitive as it was, gave a chase and caught the woman. However, It ate a little bit of flesh from the leg of the woman before the forest department came and retrieved the body. The forest department had wanted to send the cub to the zoo but was restrained due to the protests from the guides and drivers visiting the park. Infuriated by the protests the authorities had stopped us from passing through chakradhara. It appears that the park authorities had never forgiven this tiger and were waiting to lay their hands on it. And when the information about the mahua collector getting killed was received, they immediately blamed this male tiger and captured it. No body thought for a moment that the man was killed about thirty kilometers from this male tiger’s territory. It is sad to see such a majestic creature languishing in the Bhopal Zoo.

A tigress, popularly known as bhitari bah tigress was shifted to Panna National Park. The park authorities neither took permission from National Tiger Conservation Authority nor involved independent tiger experts in this process. I had seen this tigress last year (she was one of the offspring of the Chakradhara tigress) and she was resenting the presence of people as the tourists and tiger show elephants had given her great stress.

Sabyasachi 20090328 5776I reached the resort and immediately went to the forest. There were reports of a new male tiger and a female in the Jumunia area. This male tiger, used to frequent the Mahaman dam area. This tiger is an offspring of the dominant male B2, and at the age of about 5 years, has turned into a handsome male. This tiger – the Mahaman Tiger – fought a number of pitched battles with B2 and Rajbehera male for dominance. B2 at the age of about 13 years and the Rajbehera Male about 8 years, have finally ceded territory to the Mahaman Tiger. The female was reported to have mated with all the three tigers. I think there would have been false mating. With the dominance of Mahaman Tiger now firmly established, I found the tigress with the Mahaman tiger. I rode an elephant to take a record shot of the Mahaman Tiger when it was sleeping near the tigress.

The evening round of Safari was spent in checking all the possible points. In the morning we had got the information that B2 was seen in the Ghodadaman area in the morning. Expecting him to be sleeping in the caves, I reached the place. About 20 odd gypsys were already lined up. My driver parked the vehicle at the left. Within five minutes or so, I could see B2 trying to climb out of the cave. It climbed out of the gorge straight infront of my jeep. Unfortunately, the distance was less and all I could get was the image of the head of B2 in my 400mm lens. It was a record shot again. I was relived that I saw B2 again. However, I still have to wait for my first decent shot in Bandhavgarh this year.

29th March 2009
I got up at around 4.30 am in the morning hoping for a good day. However, by the time I reached the gate, there were lots of jeeps lined up. I told my driver that from the next drive onwards, I will reach early.

Sabyasachi 20090330 5980I had got the B route. I could see the pugmarks of B2 the old male tiger on the way. It had gone to a waterhole, which has been closed to tourists now. A number of tiger sightings in the previous years, had happened on this waterhole. However, we had no way but to move ahead. I heard alarm calls after Andhiari Jhiriya. However, couldn’t see the tiger. I moved ahead to reach the centre point for the mandatory entry into the forest department records. While returning from Centre point I found a kestrel on the ground. It flew before I could click a decent image. However, on the way saw a kestrel on a low branch. There was a distracting branch over the head of the kestrel, however the images were closeups. After photographing for a few minutes, a gypsy came and wanted to move ahead. Predictably, the kestrel flew away. I got to see another kestrel on the road and got a few environmental shots. An Indian roller was getting insects for its mate and offering her. I stopped to click a few shots, but couldn’t get one when it was offering an insect to its mate. So I knew, these images were not to my liking, but moved ahead.

I reached the Suari bah area. I was dismayed to see a kind of small thatch hut structure about 10 feet from the water. It is supposed to be a watch tower for people. I have watched a tigress with its cubs in this area for the last few years. No tigress would tolerate such intrusive human presence. It is unfortunate, that the Bandhavgarh National Park authorities are now thinking more interms of tourism, then from the point of view of wildlife. With a heavy heart I returned.

I started the afternoon round by checking the Rajbehera area and then waited in Andhiari Jhiria. After half an hour or so, could find a cub sleeping beneath a bush at a distance. Hardly anything was visible except for the ear and a portion of the tail. At that time, got information that a tigress was found sleeping on the hill top in the ghoda daman area. Since there were a number of tourist vehicles nearby, I thought it would be better to move to ghoda daman area and photograph without the noise of tourists. Without wasting any time, I proceeded to that area. On the way, found a 15 month old cub in a clump of bamboo trees. It was not conducive for photography, due to low light levels due to thick canopy and due to the dense undergrowth. When I reached the Ghoda daman area, found the tiger sleeping at a distance. It was in range for my 400 mm f2.8 with 2x converter attached. The tiger kept on twisting and turning and the light levels kept on fading. Soon it was time to move out of the park, leaving behind the tiger. Later I was told that the male tiger had come out of the bush in the Andhiari jhiria area. Lot of times I leave a certain tiger sighting due to the crowd and move in search of tiger elsewhere. This goes against the conventional wisdom “a bird in hand is better than two in bush” however, I never regret.

30th March 2009

Got up in the morning a bit late and rushed for the forest gates. We had got the A route. It is the shortest route to the centre point. There was hardly any activity on the way. We soon moved away from the centre point towards Rajbehera. While returning from Rajbehera found a Shikra on a tree. I was asking my driver to move just a bit as there was a bright leaf infront of the face when another jeep came from the opposite direction and they didn’t even have the courtesy to wait. It was natural that the Shikra flew away. Later on got some shots of shikra but from a distance and then moved towards Sidhababa. I knew the new male tiger from Mahaman Dam and the Sidhababa female were moving together. The Mahaman male has now established its dominance after defeating B2 and Rajbehera male. I was expecting that they would now be mating as the tigress is also convinced about the status of the new dominant male.

Sabyasachi 20090330 6016-2I climbed on to the elephant to check if these two tigers are in a mating mood. When I reached there, the mahaman male was sleeping near a swampy area. The tigress was resting on a small hillock. Suddenly the female got up and I immediately felt that action is likely to happen. She moved towards the male and I knew for sure that they would mate. Within seconds the tigress reached near the male and the male immediately got up. The sudden growl during the mating even frightened the elephant as they were too close to us. What a sight! A huge male tiger mating with a tigress a few feet away in the wilderness. The mating ritual lasted for about 30 seconds and then the tigress growled and turned her head. The male was holding the tigress by the scruff of her neck. Instinctively the tiger disengaged and took evasive action as the tigress turned around and swiped at the tiger. The tigress then turned and rolled over her back. A sure shot sign of the tigress wanting to be pregnant. When a tigress is not sure about the status of the male, she does false mating. At that time she won’t roll on her back.

Tiger leads a secrete life unlike lions. Very few times tiger mating has been observed in the wild. So watching the tiger mating in the wild made me forget the pains of not even clicking a single shot in the afternoon safari.

31st of March 2009

I didn’t even click in the morning safari. Ofcourse, I didn’t complain as the high of watching tigers mating won’t wear off so soon.

In the evening round, came across the male tiger in Mirchahani. There were some tourist gypsys in my line of sight, and my driver despite all the training that I have given him did something uncharacteristic. Overall the images were ok, nothing great. Ofcourse, if you have been photographing and studying tiger for a long time, then these would definitely appear as mundane.

1st April 2009

April Fools day! What will we get? That was in my mind. Had even have a quick prayer in my lips. 😀

The morning was a major disappointment. We heard the alarm calls of langur monkeys. And knew that a predator is on the move. Suddenly the langurs became hysterical. So I thought that probably a leopard was around. Still I was unable to understand the kind of over reaction from the langurs. And the answer dawned on me, when I found the three cubs of jhurjhura tigress walking on a single file. We quickly backed the gypsy and waited. I did a big mistake as I lost track of the cubs and couldn’t estimate where they will cross the road. And what a costly mistake it was. The cubs emerged from the forest a few feet ahead. Normally, they were supposed to take a game trail, but since the forest was not so dense they just walked through the undergrowth. I was just getting the head and parts of the body of the cub and couldn’t get a decent shot. The male cub has a tumor in its belly and is more shy than his two sisters. He just ran and crossed the road. I was happy at having sighted him, but was sad that I couldn’t capture an image. While returning, came across a Changeable hawk eagle perched on a tree. It was trying to hunt a red jungle fowl. The jungle fowl was hiding in the undergrowth. It was nervous and continuously calling. I waited there for about half and hour and then had to leave the place as it was time for the forest gates to close.

What is in store in the afternoon? That was bugging me when we entered the forest. I wanted to track the jhurjhura tigress. So checked the Rajbehera dam and then moved to mirchahani area. I was indecisive at that time, and I regretted as I didn’t act as per my hunch. We came across the two mirchahani brothers trying to hunt in nearby areas. One of the two brothers killed a Cheetal fawn. Unfortunately, I could not sight it. It then started feeding on the fawn near a clump of grass. It was difficult to photograph as I was not getting a clear line of sight. Nevertheless, I clicked a few shots in some very tough conditions. The light deteriorated sharply and we returned.

2nd April 2009

Got up late in the morning and had to rush to the forest gate. There were a few gypsies already near the gate. Bandhavgarh is incredibly dusty and if your gypsy is not the first in line, then you will get a liberal dose of dust. I always find road building to be a major preoccupation of the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve authorities. You can find 40-50 labourers engaged in either filling mud and sand on the roads or creating speed breakers. The amount of disturbance in the forest is enormous.

It was a bad day interms of sighting. In the morning tried Banbehi. We were told that the dominant male B2 was sighted by a forest guard. Unfortunately, later on in the evening we came to know that B2 was found nowhere near banbehi. In the evening tried Rajbehera. There were alarm calls, but the tigress and cubs didn’t come out into open. I didn’t even bothered to remove my camera from the bag the entire day.

3rd April 2009
Today I got the A route again. We were the second gypsy, so got some fair amount of dust blown in our faces by the preceeding gypsy. I saw a forest Sabyasachi 20090403 6381department elephant tracking the Sidhababa tigress. We didn’t find a trace of the Mirchahani brothers and were about to turn left for the centre point, but then heard alarm calls and thought of checking the damnar nullah. And there he was, in the nullah drinking water from a small pool. The sound of the gypsy braking made the tiger jump and cross the nullah. I had already pulled out my camera. I had decided that I will use the 400mm at probably f2.8 or f3.5 depending on where the tiger emerged from the forest. I didn’t make any mistakes and correctly instructed the driver to position the gypsy. The tiger appeared and wanted to cross the road. It stopped in its tracks with the morning sun filtering through the canopy and falling on its face like a spot light. I was ready with my 400 f2.8 IS on the 1D Mark II. Wow! What an amazing feeling.

I then tracked this tiger for some time but then lost it, as it got into the deep jungle. Later on near siddhababa, I came across a langur that had lost its tooth due to a fight with another of its species. I was told that the Sidhababa tigress had gone to the cave on the hillock behind jumunia talaw, a small waterhole. I returned back knowing fully well that the tigress will come to the pool during the afternoon.

Sabyasachi 20090403 6478In the afternoon, when we reached the pool, there was already a few jeeps waiting. I decided to move ahead to take a chance with the jhurhura tigress. We checked the badhani area to find that the tigress and cubs were in a waterhole but off the road. After waiting for sometime, we came to know that the tigress had come to water and quickly made a dash to the jumunia talaw. She was still there. I was not too happy with the angle as we were virtually shooting down. Anyway, something is better than nothing.

In about 15-20 minutes the field director reached the spot and asked the crowd to disperse as he believes only seven jeeps should be in any particular place. The resulting noise created by the dispersing photographers and vehicles was not what a person seeks for in the forest.

4th April 2009

We had got the C route. Saw two crested serpent eagles on the ground about 15 feet away. Light was not good. We moved on to check the rajbehera dam but there were no signs of the tiger. We then moved on the mirchahani area. And what a sight! The two mirchahani brothers were out in the open.

Sabyasachi 20090404 6515One of them was far away even for my lens. The light level was low and the shutter speed was in the 1/50s. It was tough to get shots with critical sharpness, nevertheless got a few. The tiger closer to us got up and then walked into the forest.

Soon the other tiger started yawning. I was trying for a lower angle when he started yawning. I decided to push myself into clicking it even with the low shutter speed. I knew I will get atleast a Sabyasachi 20090404 6622couple of shots sharp. The yawning shot was created at 1/60 seconds, at f5.6, ISO 200 at 800mm ie. my 40mm f2.8 L IS plus a EF 2x II teleconverter.

The tiger then decided to cross the road. There were about 25-28 gypsys near the place and there was a mad scramble to position themselves to click when the tiger crosses the road. The tiger was behind a bush and there was no point in clicking such shots. I asked my driver to move ahead. When we reached Rajbehera found the tigress to be resting on a rock. That was far off and there was no point in photographing. She had drunk water and then was resting on the rock behind the dam.

Sabyasachi 20090404 6770After about an hour, she got up and saw a wild boar (Sus scrofa) in the grasslands on the other side near the dam. She immediately got up and started moving. We had to rush back via the climbers point and move near the dam. I could see a wild boar at a distance in the grasslands. It was an ample example of the phenomenal eye sight of the tiger. The light was harsh however got a few shots. The wild boar however, got wind of the tiger and ran away to safety. The tiger being a stealth and ambush predator, had to return back. She went back to the rock again. The cubs were now grown up and she was staying away from them for longer periods. The frequent drinking of water, skirting of scent etc is a sure shot sign that she is ready to mate again. We knew she will come to drink water in the afternoon and went back.

On the way in Sidhababa, the Sidhababa tigress was trying to hunt a deer but was unsuccessful. She then crossed the road and climbed the hill for the comfort of the cool cave. Light was pretty harsh by that time and though I took a few shots, the shadow on her eye was bad. I haven’t seen those images again.

There was lots of hope for the afternoon. I came much before time and endured the sunshine waiting outside the gate as I wanted to reach the rajbehera dam before others. I was happy and was sure that the tigress will come to water. Unfortunately, I had not accounted for the muddle headed plans of another photographer Katie Sullivan from US who was being driven around by tour operator Satyendra Tiwari (he later ran down a tiger cub in chakradhara a few days later). She booked an elephant (its an expensive proposition as one has to pay 45k rupees) and positioned the elephant in the game track used by the tiger to come to the rajbehera dam. No idea what shots she got. Unfortunately, the tigress could not come to water as her path was blocked. It was a frustrating time for us. Annoyed and angry we returned back.

5th April 2009

We had got the A route again and it being the smaller route, we reached the centre point for our mandatory forest entries. I wanted to check the Rajbehera area as I was expecting the tigress to have made a kill in the night. I found a jackal on the way and then moved ahead to Rajbehera. There were lots of white backed vultures as well as the red headed vultures. I knew that the tigress might have made a kill. Probably the kill was small and the leftovers had been finished off by the vultures. I also saw a pair of Malabar Pied Hornbills. They flew and sat on a tree across us. I could not photograph, but nevertheless a good sight to watch. We moved on to the badhani area. There were alarm calls by langur. Immediately I asked my driver to turn back and found pugmarks of the tigress on the right. She had crossed the road. We moved ahead and tried to locate her. We then turned back again to check to see if we had missed the tigress somewhere. The langurs were calling so the tigress is in sight. And there she is. I could see her about 50-60 feet away beneath a tree near a bush. It was very difficult to sight her. It took a few minutes for my driver and guide to see her. Sabyasachi 20090405 6900What a relief. I felt that my eyes are still ok as I can spot a tigress hidden deep in such thick vegetation. I asked the driver to park the vehicle to watch. There was no point in photographing. I knew that the tigress was not likely to come out of the shade. However, I would prefer to watch a dozing or sleeping tigress rather than wander aimlessly in the jungle. Lots of tourist gypsys came and failed to locate the tigress. Some of the so called tiger experts reached the spot and it was fun to listen to their conversation. Satyendra Tiwari was one of those and he argued with my driver telling him that the tigress had gone in the opposite direction and he found some imaginary scent spray as well. My driver and guide were chuckling in delight and having fun at these so called tiger experts.

In the afternoon, I went to Banbehi area. There were alarm calls indicating the banbehi tigress and cubs coming down from the cave in the hill. We were scanning the entire hill and waiting for signs of tiger. There were sounds of birds chirping. I should have immediately asked my driver to move ahead. However, I had become absent minded for a brief while. And then it dawned upon me that the birds had given alarm calls. I then asked the driver to move ahead. Alas! There were fresh pugmarks on the road. The tigress and cubs seem to have given us a slip. We waited there and despite alarm calls by langurs, we couldn’t sight the tiger. Though I didn’t tell my driver or others, I knew that it was my fault. I should have immediately asked my driver to move ahead. What’s happening to me? Probably, the processor in my brain is not working well these days. 🙁

6th April 2009

Sabyasachi 20090406 6979I got up early in the morning with renewed hopes. Unfortunately, there was no sign of the mirchahani cubs or of the jhurjhura tigress and cubs. We were on the way out and came to know that the Sidhababa tigress was sighted near a cave. I went up on an elephant as I hadn’t seen that particular cave earlier. She was in that area to try and snatch a kill made by a leopard. It is no fun photographing a tiger against the light. And especially at such close range, I was using a 28-135 mm lens without a lens shade. I used my left hand to stop light from falling and shot one handed. Though I got a few sharp shots, it was not easy. She finally slept in the cave and we came back with the knowledge that she will definitely come back to the jumunia talaw (waterhole).

In the afternoon, we were a bit late and there were lots of gypsys in front of the waterhole. The field director reached and drove away people. The tigress descended from her cave but rested mid way due to the number of gypsys driving around. I could click a muntjac drinking water. The tigress made her appearance quiet late, but I was not interested in clicking as the light was pretty low.

7th April 2009

I got up with lots of expectations as it was the last day of our trip. I had got the A route and didn’t see anything nor did I hear any alarm call till I reached the centre point. Then decided to check the Rajbehera area. We were rewarded as the jhurjhura tigress had killed a cheetal stag (axis axis)

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and the family were feeding on it near the water. The male cub with tumor had left the place as it is shy and avoids human contact. The tigress and her two other cubs were there. They were grown up and one can only differentiate them after careful observation. They were snarling at each other, feeding and moving around. One of the cubs even tried to stalk a wild boar. They then came to the water. After about forty five minutes of continued photographing, they walked over the dam and left. The mother looked at the watch tower (looks like a hut) erected in the hillock right on its path and snarled. A muddle headed idea that can only be expected from the present Bandhavgarh National Park authorities.

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In the afternoon, we expected them to come to water. However, one bunch of photographers wanted to be smart and sat in the watch tower. Needless to say the tiger didn’t come to water. Katie Sullivan had again booked an elephant and they checked the hillock for signs of tiger and then left. I stayed behind as I knew the tiger will definitely come down from the hillock. Late in the evening two cubs came down to the nullah. Money alone can’t ensure that you can sight a tiger. 😀 There was little water in it and the light level was pretty low. However, I got a few sharp shots and then left. It was time to leave to catch the evening train.

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Sabyasachi Patra
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