To spot a big cat in a forest, you need great luck and sharp eyesight. Sachin Kalbag chronicles his experience at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra’s largest national park, which spans 625 sq km and has one of the highest tiger densities in the country.
Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra
Best time to visit: March-May and October-December
You need: 2-3 days
Sonam marks her territory by spraying urine near the Telia lake area of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR). The TATR is one of the 39 tiger reserves in the country since Project Tiger was launched by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in 1973. Project Tiger has been a reasonably good success story in the sense that though 39 tiger reserves have been set up in 17 states, the tiger population actually was lower in 2010 than it was in 1973. A national awareness campaign involving both government and private bodies has brought tiger conservation back into the limelight
The green-coloured, open-top Maruti Gypsy meanders aimlessly from one road to another inside the Andhari region of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR). As part of the Wildlife Week, the authorities have graciously allowed more safari vehicles and given access to explore the roads before the park officially opens all roads on October 16 for the season.
TATR is Maharashtra’s largest national park at 625 sq km in area, and has one of the highest tiger densities in the country. Officially, there are around 45 tigers in the park, according to the 2010 tiger census, but guides and tour operators say there may be more; closer to 60 is their estimate as more males have entered the reserve in the last four years. The most recent male, says Atul Dhamankar, a tiger conservator, guide and author of four books on tigers, entered in May 2014 is said to be the mate of one of the young females, Sonam (see pictures).
Leopard camouflage is so good that they are almost invisible to the human eye in the jungle. It takes two things to spot one in the wild: great luck and sharp eyesight. Unfortunately, in India, there is another reason for the leopard being categorised as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), just one step below the ‘Endangered’ category. According to some newspaper reports that had data sourced from government agencies, close to 2,850 leopards were killed in the country by poachers between 1994 and 2010. The Wildlife Protection Society of India puts the figure at 3,189 for the same period. Pics/Sachin Kalbag
So, here we are back to meandering around the park, just four cars as it is a weekday, when suddenly a phone call is made to one of the drivers. The driver makes a code gesture to the rest of the safari drivers and guides. “Chala, chala, chala,” (“Let’s go, let’s go”), the guides shout in Marathi. Dhamankar tells us to hold tight. This is an open vehicle and he does not want any accidents. The safari speed limit set by the authorities is 30 kmph.
Sonam is one of the many females at the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. In a rare gesture last year, her mother Madhuri, gave up her territory to her favourite daughter, and retreated to the buffer zone of the national park. TATR is one of the spectacular successes of Project Tiger, and today the region has anywhere between 50 and 60 tigers. Even though India has arrested the decline of the Bengal Tiger population, it is categorised as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). At present, there are anywhere between 1,706 and 1,909 tigers in India, according to the Washington-based Global Tiger Initiative
But our driver speeds at close to 60 kmph. A forest official has spotted Sonam near the Telia lake, and there is no time to be wasted. Even a few seconds lost could mean the tiger is back into the dense bamboo growth and thus camouflaged. Tiger and leopard sighting in the wild is a matter of pure chance. So when fortune knocks, you never keep the door closed.
This leopard was spotted in a lazy mood, perhaps soon after a kill. Although the leopards inside the TATR are fairly safe from poachers, in many other parts of the country, including Mumbai, the human-leopard conflict is taking a toll on both the habitat as well as the population of this elusive big cat. As human encroachment of green cover rises, there is every chance that this conflict will only increase
We reach Telia in about four bumpy minutes, covered in red dust, and holding onto our cameras like we would hold onto our babies.
This new male tiger entered the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve sometime in May, according to conservationist, author and guide Atul Dhamankar. He is reported to be Sonam’s mate as both share almost the same territory. Dhamankar says he has not been named yet. He will be tracked by the forest officials and conservators, his habits recorded and only then will he be named. Male tigers are discarded by their mothers at the age of two mainly to prevent in-breeding as well as to protect her cubs from the next breeding attempt. Female tigers too have to find their own territories after the age of two
And there she is, the magnificent Sonam. She had had her fill of water and is taking a stroll around the banks of the lake. She marks her territory and nonchalantly walks away from the 20-odd human beings who had gathered to see her. This is her land. She knows it. We know it.
A female Giant Wood Spider can spin a most spectacular web. In a protected jungle such as the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, large webs are quite common. A female Giant Wood Spider or Golden Silk-Orb Weaver Spider can grow up to 20 cm in overall length (including the feet) while the male is a puny 1-2 cm in overall length. They are a fairly common variety of spider, and can be found in Japan, China, South-east Asia, Sri Lanka, India and Papua New Guinea
Earlier in the day, we manage to spot a leopard on a tree, most probably lazing around after a massive kill. Leopards have total disregard for humans, even when there are dozens viewing them. I am suffering from painful stomach cramps after eating spicy local food, but the mere sight of a leopard makes me forget the pain. The magic of the jungle, I am glad to report, is intact.
The diversity of habitat and abundance of water bodies make Tadoba one of the finest birding destinations in Maharashtra. Here alarge egret takes off.
The flamebacks or goldenbacks are large woodpeckers and derive their names from their golden or crimson backs.
A little egret enjoys the solitude.
A plum-headed Parakeet
Green Imperial Pigeon
A spotted dove
A black-faced langur poses for the camera
Gaur or The Indian Bison enjoys a leisurely meal
A beautiful sunset to end a tiring day
How to reach Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve
By Air: Take a flight to Nagpur, and then travel by road. TATR is in Chandrapur district, and is around 150 km from Nagpur Airport. It is best that you contact travel agents in Nagpur to hire a vehicle. Since it is hot in October, and the road dusty, an airconditioned vehicle is ideal for travel
By Train: Get down at Chandrapur Railway Station and then travel by road. Although Chandrapur is just 50 km from Tadoba, the road is pathetic, and it will take close to 90 minutes to reach
01 The cuisine is spicy, and sometimes unbearably so. For those not used to spicy food, it is best that you tell your hotel staff in advance. Most hotel staff are courteous, even if not highly trained in the hospitality industry
02 Only one mobile network works reliably at TATR: Reliance. If you need your mobile and data connectivity, take a backup Reliance SIM card. I tried all other networks. None of them worked
03 It is warm in TATR in this season. Keep yourself hydrated at all times
04 It is best that you drink mineral water, or at the very least, ask for filtered water
05 Keep a good quality sunscreen handy. Sunburns can be annoying
06 Keep a first-aid kit handy: Medical plasters for cuts and bruises, pills/tabs/syrups for major and minor stomach infections, painkillers, are a must
07 Do not talk loudly once inside the jungle. Any human noise scares away the animals
08 Although people go to TATR to sight leopards and tigers, there are more than 200 species of birds in the park. There are crocodiles, sambar deer, neelgai, gaur, langur, spotted deer, barking deer and many other animals you’d want to not miss. Keep an eye out for all
Did you know?
The name Tadoba is the name of the God Tadoba or Taru, worshipped by the tribal people who live in the dense forests of the Tadoba and Andhari region, while the Andhari River that meanders through the forest, gives the region its name