A Tryst with the Tigers of Tadoba
They say, in the jungle you might not see a tiger, but the tiger is always watching you. So it is formidable luck to enter a Tiger Reserve and view 9 of the resident 11 striped felines in a single day!
The Brilliant Sun of 4th December, 2017:
It was 8:37 am in Nagpur’s TadobaAndhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) as our gypsy rumbled on in the dry deciduous forest. The golden hours to spot the big, striped cats had disappeared. The mist had thinned down to a bare minimum and so had my hopes. An unusual silence brooded, breached occasionally by the chirping of some far away Indian Hoopoe or Magpie. There were no deer calls. The langurs seemed listless. Peace prevailed, until another gypsy came our way and halted us.
“Kuch mila kya?” our ranger asked the other.
“Haan, Matkasur dikha” he replied, beaming proudly. Then he added, “abhi bhi wahin kahin hosakta hai”. The brief exchange was enough to rekindle tiny sparks of hopes in me, but the regret of having missed the biggest male in the Moharli zone, felt like a burn.
We carried on, – my two older cousins, my parents and I, along with the rangers; seven pairs of wide-open eyes scrutinising the virgin beauty of the forest, praying to spot those black magnificent stripes on the orange coat, against the emerald-sienna blend.
Another quarter hour lazily slipped by. The gipsy took a sharp turn following the rustic route and suddenly came to a screechy halt. Fifteen feet away, three fantastic beasts, a mother and her two sub-adult cubs comfortably basked in the sun, unhindered by our presence.
Our guide told us that they had killed a large chital (Indian spotted deer) stag the previous day. They must have had a hearty breakfast and now relaxed in the sunlight to replenish the energy they had consumed during the hunt.
They rested unmoving for over thirteen minutes, then mamma – whom the rangers identified as Tara and lovingly called ChhotiTara(roughly translated as ‘small starlet’) had had enough. She decided to march back deep into the cover of the forest. The cubs followed suit uncomplainingly and soon, the trio disappeared. By then, we had bagged several pictures and priceless memories. Some beautiful dryad had waved her wand and luck seemed to have begun favouring us.
The remaining half hour trickled away quickly and it was time to exit. But I could only think of returning rapidly to the jungle and explore it further. I was hungry, but no longer only for the big cats. My growling stomach sought my attention.
The sun had now crossed its zenith and we yielded to the call of the forest. We were on the quest to track Maya – the pristine princess of Tadoba, a tigress in her prime, known to have combated adult male tigers and successfully fended her abode.
The Moharli zone (around 180km), that we were patrolling, is home to 11 tigers – two adult males – Matkasur and Bajrang, Maya, Choti Tara and her cubs and Sonam, another tigress with a litter of four cubs. We had spotted three tigers in the morning. We were on the lookout for the fourth.
The ranger was guiding us to a fen often haunted by Maya. We were driving faster than the forest limits permitted because we knew we were not the only ones chasing the queen.
The nasty twists and turns of the narrow lane made our stomachs churn until we reached the pond only to find ourselves a little too late. There were already two scores of gypsies and zealous tourists fervently waiting for Her Majesty to appear to her court.
We were five rows back and had to stand on our seats to get a glimpse of the pond. Despite the seemingly undisciplined crowd, a strict silence was observed, breached only by the infrequent little chortles of excited children.
A usually ludicrous langur clung on tightly to a nearby Bamboo tree without moving a limb, stiff scared – a happy sign that Maya was on her way. Immobility reigned.
And then the long awaited moment came. Maya marched straight to the pond, dipped her puissant paws, licked the dull water a few times and ultimately dived in to cool off.
Everyone shifted restlessly in their seats to get a satisfying glimpse of the tigress. Parents raised their children and sat them down on their shoulders. The visitors who were in the last couple of rows, pleaded with the others in front of them to sit down and allow them to get their fair share of viewing Maya. But, the ones in front seemed to have turned deaf and did not budge one bit. It was only partly their fault. Maya, the enchantress had captured them under her spell. Nonetheless, the queen displayed a sense of justice.
She decided to show herself fully to the backbenchers, so, she arose, and strolled towards the forest road. And the quickest ones to reverse were the backbenchers who got into the best positions to view the warrior princess patrolling her territory. Thus, Maya allowed everyone to see her glorious beauty and finally, after a quarter of an hour which had seemed just a few seconds, the tigress was no longer in sight. She had penetrated the thickets and had disappeared into the wild.
An hour still remained. We had plenty of options – we could have waited for Maya to come out onto the road again, but the chances were very slim, – magicians do not repeat the same act twice. We could have tried tracking Matkasur. But, because we knew that Sonam had a litter of four cubs, she would most probably be where the rangers had spotted her the previous day. Mother tigers tend to lodge close to a water body and in a zone where prey is abundant and most importantly, where the cubs remain sound while the mother hunts. Also, while raising a litter no less than six months old, tigresses only travel if and when they feel threatened or when prey is scarce.
Thus, we decided to drive to Teliya – Sonam’s zone.
We reached in half an hour and our choice proved to be a smart one. Amongst the dry high grasses, we spotted four pairs of white and black ears. The cubs were wrestling about playfully. But, where was the mother? On examining the area further, we realised that Sonam was heading towards a herd of Chital deer at the far end of the grasses. She was progressing slowly and stealthily, cautious of not revealing her cover. One quick glare, back at her cubs and a muffled roar, and they fell silent immediately. Sonam was on the hunt! It was her responsibility to fill five empty stomachs.
But, the engine of our gypsy was turned on, breaching the silence and we wondered why. Time played a spoil sport, a thief who stole a memorable experience from us, but he had provided us with much to remember, so we were not too mad. We had spotted 9 out of the 11 tigers that dwelled in the Moharli zone in one, single day!
A successful sun strolled off the blue stage, imprinting its signature in orange hieroglyphic flames. Then, the hush of twilight enveloped the forest. We returned to our resort to celebrate the night.