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The big cat diary

The urge to spot the tiger seizes C Gangadharan Menon, and he heads to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. There, he not only feasts his eyes on the fierce beast, but is delighted to find that the park is a paradise for other animals, too

Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve
Best from: Nagpur
You need: 3 days

There’s only one principle that I have followed in my 35 years of travelling into the wild: Never visit the same place twice. There’s so much to see in India that you can’t see it all in one lifetime. (Is that the reason why we Indians believe in rebirth, I romantically wonder.) Of course, I did make an exception once. That was the Silent Valley in Kerala.

I feel it’s time to make a second exception, for a tiger reserve called Tadoba. (Usually, big cats don’t feature in my bucket list; even a flying lizard is enough to send me into raptures. But this time, the urge to spot the big cats suddenly overpowers me, and I decide to go there in the oppressive heat of 43°C.) On hindsight, it was a pretty good decision. Because it turns out to be the richest wildlife spectacle that I have witnessed in our amazing land.

Spread over 600 sq km, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is a supreme example of eco-tourism where locals and the forest department do a wonderful job of protecting wildlife, and controlling close to a hundred congenitally vocal tourists every day.

Day One: Soon after entering the core area near Khatoda Gate, we chance upon a sloth bear (below).

The glimpse is momentary as he is deep inside, foraging for termites in a distant mound. The only other time I had seen a sloth bear was also at Tadoba, 15 years ago.

Later, we drive to a lake named Telia, which for some unknown reason, has strange rainbow-coloured shores. Here we wait for a tiger spotted by another jeep three minutes ago. But no such luck.

Day Two: Since most of the villages have been relocated outside the park long ago, there is not a single instance of cattle grazing. Plentiful food, coupled with abundant water in all the water bodies, have made Tadoba a paradise for wildlife.

I see bisons (below), barking deer, chousingha, chital, sambar and nilgais, all in heartwarming numbers. At Telia, on a small mound there are four peafowl and a peacock, sunbathing. Bandu, our personal guide-cum-driver, suddenly spots a slight movement in the grass.

It is a leopard lying in ambush. The sharp alarm call of a spoil-sport langur is enough to scatter the peafowl in all directions. The leopard slips away into the grasslands with, well, a sheepish grin. Our wait at the nearby lake is cut short by swarms of flies that land on the sweaty, exposed parts of our body. Bandu decides to set off to Telia again, guided by some sixth sense. On the way, he refuses to stop when we spot minor delights like birds and butterflies. Like a predator hunting its prey, his eyes are fixed on a single target. And when we reach the lake, right enough, there is a tigress cooling her heels in the water.Pics/C Gangadharan Menon

Day Three: On the way to Panchdhara, we come across a large group of wild dogs (below) that soon split into two groups to prepare for an ambush.

A pack of wild dogs is so ferocious and merciless that it sends a chill even down a tiger’s spine. Mahua trees are in full bloom. When the mahua flowers and fruits fall down and fester, the langurs gather in large numbers to eat them. The fermented concoction gives them a high, and then they doze off in the shade till the effect slowly wears off.

It’s another matter that those who have had one fruit for the road get up with a hangover! Our second tryst with a tigeress is in the evening, near an evacuated village called Jamni. She emerges out of nowhere and gets on the road in front of us. It casually crosses the two jeeps in front of us and comes straight towards our jeep. And after giving a piercing look at the frightened eyes of my jeep, she passes by nonchalantly.

Day Four. The last day of the trip is the best. It’s on that day that I drive through the Tunnel of the Cicadas (below). Just as we emerge from the tunnel, on the left is Wagdoh, the alpha male tiger in this neck of the woods.

Acknowledged to be the largest tiger in the country, he is a sight to behold. He is deep inside the bamboo grove, and gives us glimpses of his majesty through the fleeting bamboo curtains. And then he disappeares suddenly. The next halt is the lake of Pandhar Pauni. When we reach there, we see another tigress (above) lying on the grass on the lakeshore, getting ready for a kill. Barely 50 feet away from her is a female sambar deer, about to walk down into the watering hole.

The alert deer suddenly notices a faint movement in the grass as the tigress prepares for the big leap.
All of a sudden, the sambar bolts with a sharp call that makes even the wild boar and spotted deer disappear in a flash. This tigress is fondly called Maya by the guides. And there’s a rumour floating around Tadoba that Maya is pregnant. Bandu gives that as the definitive reason why she doesn’t give the sambar a hot pursuit. The news of pregnancy warms my cockles. Because, any new birth, of any species in the forest, is the surest sign of a forest in the green of health.

Plan now
How to reach: Tadoba is about 175 kms from Nagpur by road.
When to go: Though certain areas of the park is closed due to monsoon, a 20-km stretch between Moharli and Tadoba is kept open.
Where to stay: MTDC Resort at Moharli. Visit www.maharashtratourism.gov.in for booking your accommodation. For safari bookings that have to be done 60 days in advance, visit www.mahaecotourism.gov.in

Did you know?
Tadoba National Park and Andhari Wildlife Santuary together form the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve. The park gets its name from Taru, the local deity

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