Thursday, November 08, 2001

Nature camp at Tadoba Wildlife Sanctuary (May 25-31, 2001)

The nature camp at Tadoba wildlife Sanctuary was a memorable and thrilling one. Experiencing wildlife at such close quarters has its own enchantment, which words cannot describe. The Tadoba Sanctuary, although not as well known as the Kanha and the Ranathambore Sanctuaries, has many attractions, which other sanctuaries do not offer. We could walk in the forest on foot, which is not allowed in other places. In other wild life reserves, tourists are not allowed to step out of the jeep, which takes you in the jungle. Early in the morning at 5:30, we would leave for our strolls in the jungle to different areas: waghzari, katezari, ambathira, vasantbandhara and pandharpauni. The jungle mainly consists of dry deciduous and moist deciduous trees, so most of the trees were bare and the forest obtained a yellowish brown hue. The thick bamboo patches made it hard for the eye to penetrate the tree cover beyond a certain limit thus affording wonderful camouflage to the animals.

I was initially worried that the temperatures in that region being 45o and above would make life difficult during the trip. As expected it was very hot on the first day, especially in the afternoon and lying down in the rest house room was punishment. The noisy fan over our heads sent out hot air and the bed emitted enough heat for us to shun it and opt for the bare ground. With the asbestos roof, the rooms were no less than a hot oven. Thankfully the night brought a few light showers of rain and the rest of the days became tolerable with the temperatures dipping a bit.

Our usual schedule would be a forest stroll from 5:30 to 10:30 am, and breakfast on returning from the walk. 10:30 to 3:00 was rest time, since the blazing sun makes walking torturous. Moreover jeep rides are not permitted between 11:00 and 3:00. Nevertheless we soon learnt to convert this so-called rest time into fruitful activities by the lakeside. After tea at 4:00 we would leave for a jeep ride through the forest and return at 6:30 pm.

The Tadoba Sanctuary boasts of a beautiful lake, which lies at the heart of the Sanctuary and is a perennial source of water for the animals. We would spend our afternoons under the peaceful shade of the Jammun trees by the lakeside (Jammulaakhayan!! as we called it J). On one of these days we had the entertaining company of Langurs and watching their acrobats was fun. We even had the privilege of observing a pair in a courting mood J. Then came a crested serpent eagle hovering over our heads and I expected it to perch on a branch of a nearby tree, but to my surprise and delight it descended near the shore and decided to quench its thirst and we had a rare sight of an eagle drinking from the lake with us sitting not more than ten feet away. The lake is home to many crocodiles and hence however much the water seemed inviting we could not risk stepping into it. The opposite shore of the lake displayed many water birds (ibises, cranes, egrets and herons), eagles and chital who came to the waterfront to quench their thirst, graze and fish for food. We spend many hours in the afternoon watching them through the binoc’s.

The first of our tiger sightings was done sitting by the lakeside. We watched the tiger through our binoc’s on the opposite shore. He had come to the lake to cool himself down. He sat in the water for a while, got up and went away. All of us on this end of the lake were thrilled on having seen the animal for which we had traveled so far to Nagpur in the merciless summer heat. Although the initial excitement lasted a while, we were not satisfied, and wanted a closer look, for a longer time. And we looked forward to the coming days with hope. The lakeside excursions were definitely profitable. That night we could observe a crocodile that had come to check the eggs that it had laid on the shore. We got a good view in the torchlight. Though 2-3 torches were focused on her, she did not budge from that place. As it was too dark for a photo, we decided to come back to the place the next morning. The next morning found no crocodile, but by now we had developed the habit of surveying the opposite shore for any movement, and indeed we were blessed with a view of a sloth bear, trudging alongside the lake. It went all the way from one end to the other, stopped in the middle on its hind legs and continued on its way into the jungle.

On the third morning at Tadoba, our guide Sameer took us for our morning walk to Vasantbandhara via Chitalshed. We were greeted by fresh tiger pugmarks heading in the very direction we had taken! Fresh tiger droppings!! More pugmarks!! This was around the waterhole on our left indicating that the tiger had quenched his thirst from the very waterhole at which we presently stood. Here we could even make out the impressions of the hind paws and his tail by the waterside. These signs indicated that the tiger was prowling that area not long before we reached there (perhaps an hour and a half ago he was there) and may well be around right now!!!! The thought that the tiger could be hiding behind the bamboo shoots, well camouflaged, eyeing you, watching your every movement is enough to send shivers down your spine and your heart pounding. It almost seemed that he was THERE lurking round the corner and at any moment you may come face to face with the majestic animal. For a kilometer or two we had been tracking the tiger’s whereabouts when we came to a concrete patch of a road build over a small canal; the pugmarks ceased to be visible any more and we lost track of the much sought after animal L L. Nevertheless we continued to walk and reached the “bandhara”. It is a canal surrounded by thick forest. We waited there a while, just feeling the forest around us. One of the thick tree trunks had a lot of claw marks. The branches of this tree had honeycombs hanging from it. The bears in the process of reaching these beehives leave marks on the trunks and its branches. We saw a lot of such scratched trees.

After spending the afternoon under the Jammun trees by the lakeside, we reached the canteen for tea and snacks. We were waiting for tea, when suddenly it seemed that there was much activity. Our guide Sameer jumped on a bike, stick in hand, behind Rahul (who is a researcher, currently staying at Tadoba). They were off to no one knew where. The news was around that a python had been sighted. After taking our usual evening jeep round, we returned and then set out again with one of the guides to take a look at the huge reptile. The jeep parked among the bushes, we continued on foot on the mattress of dry, golden brown leaves spread on the ground. We soon reached a tree underneath which was a mound of dry leaves. The guide cleared this pile of leaves and uncovered the tail, body and lastly the head of the Rock python. While he was doing this, the python did not move an inch. Even as it lay at our feet, with all of us surrounding the reptile, it seemed less bothered. The reason was apparent. It had had its lunch and was resting. The middle portion of the long body was visibly expanded, and jutting out. It had had a young deer on its menu (so we came to know later from the researcher Rahul). It was clear that the python would be there for a while till it had fully digested its meal. Since it does not move during this time, it is vulnerable and needs to protect itself. So it had taken refuge under the dry leaves, the colour of its skin gelling very well with the surroundings. The camouflage was so exact that an unmindful passerby would well have stepped over it and come to grief. Unfortunately its hideout had been discovered by a group of nature enthusiasts from Chandrapur. The reptile must have been upset by the presence of so many eager and uninvited visitors that followed. But we were happy to get some excellent photos of this exquisite reptile J J!!!

On the second last day; i.e. the last night that we were at Tadoba, we stayed on a machan from 6:00 in the evening to 6:00 the next morning. This was an experience worth taking. From the outset I was excited about saying on the “machan” or the watchtower through the night and quite hopeful that we would have a feast of animal sightings. The machan is an elevated structure usually made of bamboo and wood, either constructed separately near a waterhole or rested on a tree between two wide branches which hold it in place. Most of the machans are located near waterholes which are frequented by thirsty animals and birds. Since you are at an elevated level near treetops, it gives a tremendous advantage of watching wildlife from close quarters without disturbing it. This machan at Katezari was a well-constructed one, with proper stairs and a landing space. The upper storey and landing together could accommodate all the 11 of us for the night.
We reached the machan in two batches. The jeep reached the four of us Alka (our organizer and group leader), Mangesh (her volunteer), Uttam and myself at 6:00 and the driver returned with the vehicle to fetch the rest. We were welcomed by a noisy chatter of numerous birds and our eyes eagerly searched for them. Golden oriels, green pigeons, peacocks, a crested serpent eagle and a brain fever bird, which we had been hearing, all these days but had not seen, were among many others making their presence felt. A Chausingha hesitantly approached the waterhole, looked about and walked away without drinking. A wild boar came out of the bushes; stared at us peering through the binoc’s with amazement and retreated into the bushes. Peacocks came and went at their will. The crested serpent eagle sat so long on the branch of a near by tree, that we watched its every feature with utmost fulfillment. There seemed to be so much activity on all four directions that we did not know where to look and what to focus on.

While we were enjoying thus, it was already past one hour, yet the others had not reached the machan. We wondered what had happened; whether the driver had lost his way while returning or perhaps better still they had sighted some wild life while coming this way. After a while the sound of the jeep’s motor could be heard and the crested serpent eagle announced its arrival. The eagle that had been sitting on the opposite tree all this while spread its long wide wings and took to the sky without a sound. The driver came upstairs excited; he had seen a sloth bear while returning to fetch the other group. The sloth bear had crossed the jeepable road and the driver had to brake to wait and watch. This was perhaps his first time to see a bear from so close a distance. He was so fascinated that he was at a loss of words to describe the scene. He also wanted to stay on the machan but since the jeep cannot be parked in the jungle during the night, he had to return (this kind of enthusiasm often rubs off on others and in this case our driver also learnt a few things from being with us for a few daysJ).

We quickly filled in the others [Rajaneesh, Rajiv, Ashwin, Vasanti, Beena, Sameer and Sanjay (guides)] with what we had already seen. Everyone quickly settled down, laying their bedding and taking their respective positions on the watchtower. The walls of this tower were lined with bamboo and peeping slits were made especially for observation so that when one sat down on the floor of the machan, the slits were located at your eye level making it convenient to observe without the animal noticing you. As a rule one has to sit still without moving since the animals and birds easily detect the slightest of movements and then would not approach you. So one needs to sit still without making any sound. But it usually so happens that when nothing worth mentioning is seen for a long time, everyone starts getting restless. At such times the slightest of movement gets accentuated and makes a loud noise in the silence, causing embarrassment to the person responsible for it and sending a ripple of laughter among the others. Just when one is not supposed to laugh, the smallest and the most irrelevant things will make you laugh irresistibly!!

So we sat for a while, all eyes and ears, wanting to detect any slight movement here, a small sound there. After a while most of us got tired of sitting down and peering through the slits and we stood up leaning against the walls. Two of us (Mangesh and Beena) literally resorted to lying on their bedding with an instruction to others to wake them up if there was anything eventful J. The others stood facing the direction in which the waterhole was situated.

Slowly as darkness fell our visibility reduced. Now every object that we had earlier rejected as a wood stump, or a mound of mud began to seem like a living creature. As we stood there idly gazing around us, there came a wild dog and three others followed him!! We excitedly called the others and everyone ran to that end of the machan. We stood there besides each other as if looking over a balcony and watched the scene play in front of us. This was perhaps the same pack that we had seen a day earlier. One of the wild dogs proceeded to the waterhole while the others stood with their back to him facing three directions seemingly keeping a watch. The one who had reached the water drank his fill making quite a sound “lap, lap, lap “ as he lapped up the water. After he finished, the others had their turn. Even after quenching their thirst, they were in no hurry to leave. Two of them sat down and lay by the waterside, stretching a bit. The other two were still on their feet standing. After a while one of them noticed a mongoose and started chasing it and the others followed suit. We were all silent, absorbed in watching the wild dogs for almost about 15-20 minutes. It was the start of more exciting things to come J!!

Now it was darker than before and our guides who were sitting with some of us on the landing would throw a beam of torchlight around the place or in the direction of a sound to check whether there was any sighting. At 8:30 we decided to have dinner; we had packed our meal from the canteen. Within no time we had our fill of batatachi bhaji, pickle and chapattis, and resumed our task. Now that we could not see anything, it started getting monotonous. Nevertheless we could hear the brain fever bird and the relentless ‘chakuu’, chakuu’, chakuu’ of the nightjar. Our organizer, Alka suggested that we sleep from 10:00 pm to 3:00 am. Since it is unlikely to sight anything in the night; generally the most optimum time for sightings are the late evenings and early mornings. We willingly accepted her suggestion. Surprisingly it was quite warm even at night in the jungle, although I expected it to be pleasant, it was only after much tossing and turning that I went to sleep.

But not long before we had gone to sleep, a loud sound could be heard in the close vicinity. A lot of rustling and bustling going on accompanied by a cat like mewing. The sound was loud enough to make everyone jump to their feet. We peered into the darkness but could not make out anything. Later we came to know that they were two civet cats fighting with each other and in the process one had fallen off the tree. Not having seen much we went back to our beds to get up in the wee hours of the morning at 3:30- 4:00 a.m. Back to our observation points, we sat, hopeful that something more would happen. About 4:30- 5:00 came two sloth bears from our left. They scampered across the dirt road into the tree cover at the right. One of them probably a male was heavy and large while the other was smaller in size. This sight lasted for a second or two but all of us saw it. Thus concluded our stay on the machan with two major sightings – wild dogs and sloth bears.

Finally the last day, and time to leave Tadoba. We were quite satisfied with the large numbers and the variety of bird and animal life that we witnessed here in Tadoba. We had seen all that there was to see. All that we wished for as we jokingly said was to see the tiger from 15 feet!!! J Being that close would be a climax to what we had experienced until now. Perhaps God had decided to fulfill our wishes for we awaited the ultimate highpoint of the trip. After returning from the machan, all of us were busy packing up since we would be leaving after lunch. Every one was relaxed as we trudged in the canteen for breakfast. After our stomachs full, we had enough time before we started our journey back, so we decided to take a last jeep round. The guide, Sameer, said that a tiger had been sighted at the ‘tar road’ so we set out to check that area. I forgot to mention that the tiger density at Tadoba is amazing and everyday at least one group reports a tiger sighting. Until now we had missed this animal twice by seconds/minutes. Once on a jeep round we had passed by the lake and at that very place itself a group had spotted a tiger. We came to know this after we reached the rest house. On another occasion our jeep passed by and one of the boys from Chandrapur who was on foot saw the tiger seconds after our jeep took a turn round a bend. Such experiences can be frustrating but perhaps they are necessary for you need to have patience while observing wildlife. None of us had the tiger on our minds while we took this last of our jeep rounds in Tadoba; but nature shows its miracles at the most unexpected of moments!!

As we reached the middle of the tar road, we saw a jeep that had halted and its inhabitants peering out. Thinking that there was some sighting, we also waited. The other jeep soon left. There was a small waterhole on our left. We did not see anything even after staring hard at the yellow bamboo growth. So we continued to move ahead; no sooner had our jeep moved than Sameer, shouted “TIGER, TIGER”. Back went the jeep to the spot we had just left,
and all eyes were on the overgrowth on our left to sight the striped animal. And there we spotted it, yes, it was very much there!!! It stood not very far, just behind the bamboos by the roadside. It was eyeing us wanting to gauge our motives and predict our movements, waiting for us to pass by. It paced up and down a bit then walked the length of our vehicle and waited behind us on the side of the road. It was obvious that it wanted to go back in the jungle on the right. Click! Click! went the cameras to shoot the majestic animal. Eyes to the binoc’s and craning our necks, although awkwardly positioned, we did not want to miss any of its movements. Because the tiger wanted to cross, we decided to retreat a bit. As the jeep moved away, the tiger came out in the open, on the road, still gazing intently at us, its every movement full of grace and elegance.

We were so engrossed in watching this tiger that we did not notice when another one made its appearance and a third one followed. Our joy and surprise knew no bounds. This was certainly not what we had dreamt of. Our jeep went back and forth, reverse and forward to allow the tigers enough space to crossover and to afford us the closest view possible. As the tiger moved, so we moved in the jeep, each of us wanting to get the most of this wonderful experience. We craned our necks tossed and turned about oblivious of our uncomfortable positions in the process. As if we had not had enough, Beena noticed a fourth one who had silently and unnoticed come and sat down in the bushes beside us. She was a female, bearing a fierce look, the mother of the three tigers we had just admired. As she made her headway to the road she did not forget to give us a threatening look, opening her mouth and showing her canines. With due respect we let her go by. The tiger is not a social animal and prefers to live by itself in its marked territory. These three tigers were almost full grown about 2 years of age and the mother would leave them anytime to fend on their own. But until she did that she was very protective of her offspring.

Four tigers in half an hour’s time!!!! JJJJ What could one say; this was a shower of blessings, Chappar Phad Ke. No sooner did we head back than we let out a loud Hurrah! Yippee! Not one, not two, but four tigers in such a short span of time at the same place and a total of five tigers in four days, this was simply unheard of!! Unfortunately Alka had not got her camera along with her (which had a zoom lens) and she regretted this very much. So we thought we could go back to the rest house and return with the camera. Although we had decided to keep mum about our sighting till we got the intended snaps, such news does not take time to reach everyone’s ears and the next time that we went back to the place, there were three other jeeps. One of the groups literally had come for a video shooting and one of them was leaning out of a window to get a better view. Not only this they were making quite a din. In spite of this we did spot the tiger but it soon retreated further inside the jungle without allowing us the photos for which we had returned. Nevertheless all talk was about the tiger and the tiger thereafter. At lunchtime we discussed our experience with others there and everyone was of the opinion that we were certainly lucky to have witnessed three full grown cubs and their mother J.

Later in the day we left Tadoba with fond memories of the wonderful and varied wildlife that we got to experience. After reaching Nagpur we celebrated our tiger sighting by treating ourselves to ice creams and mithai.



Post a Comment

<< Home