When it comes to Indian wildlife, the one name that automatically comes to most minds is ‘tiger’.
I consider myself a very passionate, though amateur, wildlife photographer and have thousands of images to show for it. They’ve been shot over the past couple of decades from virtually the length and breath of this beautiful country. And yet, apart from a solitary family trip to Ranthambore somewhere in the mid nineties, I have steered clear of the forests in which the royal cats roam.
I was fortunate to have experienced the raw beauty of those jungles way back in the sixties when I’d accompany my Dad on his shikaar trips. Twice a year he would leave his GP practice in the very capable hands of my mother and make the long drive to remote locations in Central India.
Each trip was meticulously planned. It had to be. We’d be virtually cut off from civilisation and close encounters with wild animals, often at touching distance, was more the norm than the exception.
In comparison, the stock present day images of a bored tiger picking his way through a crowded glut of tourist vehicles buzzing with people was not really my cup of tea.
My wife too is fond of wildlife. The big difference being whereas I am not at all fussy about where I stay, Vanessa is much more particular when it comes to ‘creature comforts’.
And so, in January 2022 when we decided to do a family trip to a wildlife sanctuary, needless to say I left the arrangements to her. To give the devil her due I must say – and I’m sure you will agree if you do manage to go through this entire blog – she did a phenomenal job!
The National Park we decided to visit was the Tadoba Andhari National Park and Tiger Sanctuary.
Situated in the Chandrapur district of Maharastra, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is the State’s largest National Park. It comprises of the 116.55 sq. km. Tadoba National Park that was started in 1955 and the adjoining 508 sq km Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary created in 1986. The two were merged in 1995 giving birth to the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve.
The forest here comprise mainly of teak and wild bamboo.
The most convenient way to get to Tadoba is by air to Nagpur and then completing the remaining 150Km distance to the Tiger Reserve by car. We flew in on the 5th of January 2022. A three-hour drive later we arrived at our resort, the Tadoba Jungle Camp.
Vanessa hit the jackpot with this one!
Tadoba Jungle Camp is one of the best jungle resorts I have stayed in. Situated on 10 acres of land at the very edge of the forest the 14 large, split level, air-conditioned rooms are built on a unique elevated machaan-esque platform that also houses the dining area and a huge terrace. This place ticks all the right boxes. Great rooms, super food and an exceptionally good staff that go out of their way to ensure that your stay is pleasant.
The main attraction here were the safaris (which I will come to later). Between the safaris however I spent a lot of time exploring the areas in and around the resort. In fact I think I had, arguably, as rewarding an experience during these sessions than I did with the ‘main shows’!
Despite being a bit late in the season, butterflies were plentiful.
These include grey pansy, blue tiger, common wanderer, danaid eggfly, plain tiger, striped tiger, common sailer, common crow, common mormon, blue mormon, common emigrant, and a number of blues that I have yet to identify. Both the baronet shot below and the female danaid egg fly above were taken inside the resort.
The resort grounds also had a number of birds including red-wattled lapwing, common tailorbird, scaly-breasted munia, yellow-throated sparrow, Asian pied starling, jungle crow, ashy prinia, laughing dove, spotted dove, common myna, grey wagtail, pied wagtail, rose-ringed parakeet, Indian robin, purple sunbird, purple-rumped sunbird and green bee-eater.
The camp is built at the edge of the forest. The elevated positioning of our rooms offered a spectacular view. It included the forest edge and fields that stretched for about 2km before giving way to the large Irai Reservoir which is an extension of Tadoba lake.
I did take the camera a couple of times across the fields and was rewarded by several bird sightings including paddyfield pipits, Eurasian hoopoe, red-wattled lapwing, Indian roller, Siberian stonechats, shikra, cattle egrets, bay-backed shrike, black drongo, white-breasted kingfisher, flameback woodpecker (I only caught a fleeting glimpse so am not sure which one), common myna, little ringed plover, Indian roller and rufous-tailed larks.
At daybreak and sunset, from the vantage of our rooms, small groups of spotted deer and wild boar could be spotted emerging from the forest and heading for the fields. We’d suddenly see them hurrying away probably being chased by a farmer (although to be honest we’d fervently wish that it was a tiger or leopard that was on their tails). Late one evening we even spotted a sloth bear foraging for food.
The other route I enjoyed taking was along the road outside the resort.
There have been tiger sightings in the fields outside the resort and the hotel staff repeatedly reminded us that there were wild animals around and to exercise caution when wandering outside the resort grounds. They were quite insistent that under no circumstances were we to stay out after sunset.
The promise of birds and butterflies outside the camp was too tempting to resist and I did take off on several walks along the road. Once outside the gates there is a small stretch of forested area that had plenty of butterflies. This continued further as a long straight road that ran through fenced fields.
What was immediately striking was the lack of people. Except for the odd farmer in his field and the occasional passing vehicle the road was deserted. Though ideal from a birding perspective I must admit it was a bit nerve-racking. The Indian roller, rufous-tailed lark and zitting cisticola were seen here. I even got a ‘lifer’ sighting and record shot of a sikeer malkoha!
There are a number of other activities on offer including guided jungle treks, cycling trips, kayaking and boat trips on Irai Reservoir.
On our very first day since we did not have a safari planned we decided to do the boat safari on Irai Reservoir. The boat is a comfortable, flat-bottomed 8-10 seater. When we arrived we were the only ones on the lake. A large group came in just as we were leaving, (which explains the crowd in the image above).
The boat safari is about an hour long and takes you around a part of the lake at a leisurely pace and one gets to see a fair number of birds.
The duck on the water body were predominantly red-crested pochard, lesser whistling duck and spotbills. Grey herons, purple herons, grey-headed swamphens and open-billed storks were also seen.
There is plenty to do at Tadoba but the main attraction are the safaris. These are booked online via a separate portal that is fairly user friendly.
Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is divided into 4 zones. These are Moharli, Kolara, Pangadi / Zari and Navegaon. Each Zone offers morning and evening safaris via a number of gates. There is also a night safari that is conducted from the Junona buffer zone. Depending on the location of one’s hotel one chooses the respective safaris.
These slots fill up fast so bookings need to be done well in advance. Tadoba Jungle Camp falls in Zone 1, that had the following gates:
- Moharli Gate
- Khutwanda Gate
- Junona Gate
- Adegaon Gate
- Devada Gate
- Agarzari Gate
We opted for safaris In Moharli, Junona, Agarzari and Devada.
Our very first safari was a morning session at Moharli Gate. Wake up was at 5am and the vehicle was waiting for us at 6am.
It was a 10 minute drive to the gate where we picked up a guide who first insisted that we put all our mobile phones in a steel box that was locked and placed under the seat. Aparently this was because several tourists attempted to take dangerous selfie videos with the tiger.
Disapointingly, the safari was not very productive. Spotted deer, sambhar and a few birds like crested hawk eagle, grey jungle fowl and yellow-footed green pigeons was all we had to show for it. Definitely no sign of tiger or any of the big five (tiger, leopard, sloth bear, gaur and wild dog).
At various points in the forest one can see these curious sets of pillars. Almost identical and about 9-10 feet tall, they are evenly spaced, perfectly in line and apparently leading nowhere. These were erected by the Gond Kings who ruled this area way back in the seventeenth and eighteenth century before they were eventually overcome by the Marathas.
The pillars, we were informed, were ancient travel guides connecting one area in the jungle (possibly a temple) to another. Each had a ring on the top through which a rope was passed at the end of which was a bell. Tugging the rope rang the bell which in turn alerted the temple on approaching royalty or during battle.
That evening we had booked a night safari to the buffer zone from Junona Gate. We were picked up at 6.45pm and followed the same ritual at the gate having picked up a guide. It was nice to note that this time we had a lady guide by the name of Divya.
Both Divya and the driver (I forget his name) were excellent and despite the fact that there was not much to see they did their utmost to make that particular safari lively and interesting. The highlights of the trip were the jungle nightjar above and a small Indian civet below.
We returned back at 10pm. Although it was way past the dining timings of the resort we were very impressed to see that dinner was all laid out and ready and a few of the staff stayed to help serve us.
A word about the drivers and guides.
The safaris, we were given to understand, are jointly organised by locals and the government. The cars are standard open Maruti Gypsy vehicles. They pick the guests up from their resort for which an extra fee, payable directly to the driver, is applicable. On reaching the gate a guide is assigned who is responsible for spotting animals.
In our four safaris there was a huge disparity in the services offered by both driver and guide. We found guides like Divya (and the driver) were enthusiastic and eager not only to search for animals but also offer titbits of information and keep the session interesting irrespective of the animals sighted. For the better part of the safari she would stand and both she and the driver were constantly on the lookout for animals.
Others we felt were not so committed. We were here for the entire jungle experience and were keen to see all the wildlife, even the lowly junglefowl, not only the big 5. To that end there were times when the guide seemed least bothered about looking around and instead sat continuously in his seat, relying solely on the messages he received from other safaris to locate game.
Unfortunately the cars are distributed purely on a rotational basis and there is no option to choose a particular driver/guide combination.
By now we had completed two out of our four safaris and not had even a sniff, let alone a sighting, of any of the big five.
To be honest, that really did not bother us too much. There were a host of enjoyable activities that the Resort, and Tadoba, had to offer. This included swimming, cycling, kayaking and taking long treks along the road and through the fields.
The two remaining safaris on day 3 and day 4 were both evening sessions. The first of those was in the buffer zone and started at the Agarzari Gate. We had a nice guide (forget his name) and we got really lucky with Ranjit our driver. This guy was a Hardik Pandya clone both in appearance and attitude. (If you want to know who Hardik Pandya is, ask someone who follows Indian cricket!)
We had barely entered the zone when we came across the boar below digging for roots at the side of the road. He was barely a few feet away but was so intent on digging that for a good few minutes was oblivious of our proximity. It seemed like ages before he finally lifted his head out of the mud reluctantly trotted away.
This particular session had begun fairly well and we kept our fingers crossed that it did not end in a whimper!
There was news of a ‘kill’ in this zone. A few days ago a sambhar was found dead in the middle of one of the internal crossroads very close to a swamp. The wounds on the neck suggested that it was brought down by one of the big cats. Earlier that morning passing safaris noticed that the carcass had been dragged overnight away from the road and into the forest. It now lay partially concealed by trees and shrubbery but still visible about 5 metres off the road.
We drove directly to the spot. The carcass was barely visible but so close that I could not fit the entire deer in the camera frame.
We waited here for quite a while hoping to see the animal that had dragged the carcass the previous night. Unfortunately it was not to be and, about half an hour later, very reluctantly, we decided to move on.
For the next couple of hours we drove aimlessly around the forest. Despite having a great driver and alert guide there was not much on offer.
The black-winged kite sitting at the very top of a huge bare tree that was obviously well past its prime was the sole highlight. I love the aesthetics of the image and for those in the know, I wouldn’t blame them for thinking that it was taken by Rhea my daughter who is the truly creative one in our family. The images below were taken by her…
Like I said, we drove around aimlessly for the next couple of hours with little else to show for it.
Then, around 3.45pm the vehicle stopped and both guide and driver whispered the one word we longing to hear over the past 3 days… “TIGER!”
At first all we could see in the direction they were pointing was tall grass and shrubs. Moments later, about 30 yards away a slow moving set of orange and black stripes gradually materialised into view. Standing in the jeep I could just about see the back of the tigress and needed to climb onto the seat to take the image below.
If ever one needs to picturize the definition of the word ‘majestic’ this was most definitely one of the ways to do it!
At first we were the sole vehicle around but it wasn’t long before others came tearing in from all directions sending clouds of red dust billowing behind them. This was the tigress named Madhu and she had 3 sub-adult cubs. At the time the tall grass made it impossible for me to see but the guide had spotted two of the three cubs with her.
What was initially puzzling to our guides was that she was way outside her territory. Then realisation dawned… the slow, purposeful direction of her movement meant only one thing, she was moving towards the sambhar kill!
Buzzing, tourist-packed vehicles be damned, the next couple of hours were right up there amongst the most exciting of all my wildlife experiences. We tracked the royal beast as she moved through the forest towards the dead sambhar 3-4 kilometers away, almost disdainful of the several vehicles that had now joined the fray.
The tigress moved towards the dead animal in a straight line through the forest. We thanked our lucky stars that we had two really expert and enthusiastic guides on this particular safari. They mentally plotted her path, accurately predicting the points at which she would emerge from the forest to cross the road and positioned our vehicle accordingly.
Each time we’d get a fresh glimpse of the magnificent beast. Each sighting better that the one before. On the second crossing we got to see the cubs as well!
She would emerge from one jungle patch and slowly and purposefully disappear into the forest on the other side of the road. Her cubs following cautiously behind.
Ranjit, the driver, would speed to the spot where, by his calculations, the tigress would come out of the jungle. Right enough we’d see her and her cubs emerge and slowly cross the road before disappearing into the next patch of forest. Then he’d gun the engine repeat the entire cycle all over again.
We made several interceptions before finally arriving at the swamp near which the carcass lay. By now there were at least 6 vehicles in the chase. It did not appear to bother the tigress although the cubs did seem a bit nervous.
It was all very exciting stuff. There was even a 200-300 metre stretch during which Ranjit drove full pelt in reverse so as not to lose our point of vantage to another vehicle!
The sketch shows the final approach of the tigress’ towards the ‘kill’ and positioning of our vehicle
The tigress finally entered some tall elephant grass at the edge of the swamp. It was here that she paused a while and seemed to take stock of her surroundings.
Our guide informed us that months earlier, she had a nasty encounter with another tigress who was also with cubs. Both animals were unharmed but it did explain her cautiousness. When she was satisfied that all was clear she came out of the grass and waded through a short stretch of belly deep water before making her final approach to the kill.
She had left the cubs behind in the grass. One of them made a tentative move to follow her. He approached the intersection and paused briefly before turning and beating a hasty retreat!
It was 1 hour and 15 minutes after we first sighted her that Madhu made her final approach to the kill. Her strides were still slow, measured and confident. In all that time, not for a single second did her demeanour waver from behaving in a manner befitting her pedigree – that of a Royal Bengal Tiger.
The final glare. Her belly and paws wet from wading through the swamp
She cast one final glare in our direction before moving into the bushes that concealed the sambhar. Through the shrubbery we could just about see her licking and inspecting the kill. For a few moments she even fed, effortlessly crunching through the bones, (we were so close that we could hear every snap and crackle). Once satisfied that all was well she went back to the tall grass where the cubs were waiting. The time stamp on the last image I took was 5.32pm, almost 2 hours since we first spotted her.
It was a magical sequence of events and one that we were not likely to forget in a hurry!
The next day was our last full day.
That morning, still exhilarated by the previous day’s experience, we trekked through the fields outside the resort to the Irai Reservoir, a distance 2 km according to Rohan’s pedometer. It was only when we encountered tall elephant grass at the water’s edge that we prudently decided to turn back.
I saw several paddyfield pipits, green bee-eaters, rufous-tailed lark and even a shikra on the trek. There were simple elevated machaans in several of the fields. Having previously seen the herds of spotted deer, wild boar and sloth bear in the area we were well aware of their purpose.
On the campus the two resident guineafowl became our close companions. A simple ‘come on, then’ was all they needed to come running alongside. The hotel staff informed us that there were initially four of them. About 6 months ago a tiger was spotted in the fields and it was around that time that two disappeared. No reason was given but the inference was pretty clear!
Our final safari was also in the buffer zone. This time from the Devada Gate.
The driver and guide on this one were really the worst we had. I was very keen on taking images of the shy but beautiful male grey jungle fowl. Unfortunately the guide simply sat through the entire session. It was left to us to do the spotting which we did on several occasions but when we instructed the driver to halt, he did it so reluctantly that, more often than not, it was too late. I did get an average image of a female below.
Driving through the jungle I saw the driver sneak a look at his mobile phone. When queried, he said that a sloth bear had been sighted at a location close by. I suggested that we turn around and go to the spot.
It was a couple of kilometres away and as we approached there were a couple of parked vehicles facing us indicating that some animal had been spotted. The front vehicle began flashing his lights at us obviously indicating for us to slow down which Vanessa immediately conveyed to the driver. Disregarding both the flashing headlights and Vanessa’s warning he rushed on regardless.
It so happened that the bear was about to cross the road between the cars and us. The rashness of our vehicle scared the bear into running back into the jungle ruining the sighting not only for us but also for those other two cars that were waiting patiently before us. They had every reason to be irritated and drove off in disgust.
We stayed a while and were unjustifiably rewarded. The bear moved parallel to the road and finally crossed it about 50 metres ahead giving us the sighting below.
Shortly thereafter our driver received another message. This time it was a tiger that was sighted a short distance away from the spot we turned around to come for the bear. We rushed back only to see at least 8-10 vehicles peering into the jungle. Deep in the forest a tiger lay down in the tall grass. One could barely see it and, spoilt by the previous day’s sighting, we opted to move on.
We had still about an hour to go to complete our safari. The lack of interest of the guide and driver was beginning to get to us and feeling we had had enough requested the driver to take us home.
Driving back, just off the main road there was a large lone boar digging for roots. I yelled for the driver to stop and, unsurprisingly, he reluctantly came to a halt a good 30-40 metres after passing the animal. Which actually turned out to be a good thing as it was a perfect frame for the 500mm lens!
We had no safari planned for our last day. Looking back, despite the disappointing experiences with a few of the guides and drivers, all things considered, it was a good trip.
I went out for one final morning jaunt along the road.
It was here that I got the bay-backed shrike and sikeer malkoha sighting. I was stopped by a biker who introduced himself as a forest officer. He cautioned me that there was movement of tiger further down the road and strongly recommended that I proceed with extreme caution. I went on for another 100 metres and then turned back.
To catch our 9pm flight from Nagpur we booked a car at 3pm. For our last lunch chef Alam produced Sauji Chicken, a local chicken delicacy that had a thick, spicy gravy and was really out of this world. He topped that with home made gulab jamuns and kheer. Delicious!!
On our drive in we had put all our large luggage on the carrier on top of the car. The driver of our vehicle suggested that we avoid the carrier on our way back as there was a lot of rain around. This meant that I was forced to carry my camera bag on my lap.
Which was just as well!
About a couple of kilometres away from the resort we were stopped by a couple on a scooter. There was a small pond on the left of the road and they pointed excitedly to the far corner of the water body. There was a huge tiger sitting there staring at us! Needless to say I got the camera out and one of my final images of the trip is shown below!
I guess the big question is… did this trip help change my mind about steering clear of wildlife tours for the so-call ‘big five’ in India?
All things considered, disinterested guides and buzzing tourists vehicles notwithstanding, it was definitely not an unpleasant experience!
The 2 hours with Madhu the tigress… or observing a wild boar dig up roots at extreme close range… or even admiring a sambhar with a massive rack of horns gracefully stretch his neck to gently pluck leaves off a high branch. All of these made for lasting memories not to mention incredible photo opportunities.
Having said that, although one may argue that there is no way that a tiger, sloth bear or even a jungle fowl can be instructed to behave in a predictable manner, one can’t help get the feeling that the entire experience is, to a significant extent, stage managed. One always feels disassociated, rather than in sync with, the surrounding ecosystem.
In comparison, my birding trips to the Andamans and Nicobar, the North East or even Desert National Park in Rajasthan where we were in a similar vehicle, the entire experience had a completely different feel to it.
So, the bottom line: Would I consider coming back here or doing a similar trip in another tiger sanctuary.
Yes, I do think I would.
The incredible hospitality of Tadoba Jungle Camp, the ‘unique’ adrenaline rush experienced on the safaris and the long treks on the road and in the fields were all very memorable and I look forward to my next trip…
The Jungle Camp in Pench perhaps?!