In the Shadow of the Tiger : The Quest for Bengal Tiger

My 3 years association with Exploring Nature, so far, as a biodiversity explorer has given me some fabulous opportunity to chase Bengal Tigers in the forest of India. So far as a team we have explored 7 most significant Tiger Reserves of India.

Today, I will start telling the stories of quest for Bengal Tigers, whatever we have experienced as of now. However, our quest still continues.

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Part One: In the Shadow of the Tiger

The quest for tiger started at 6:30 in the morning of 2nd December, 2015 at Bandipur National Park. There was already news in Bandipur that one Gaur (Indian bison) was killed by a male tiger in Bandipur on previous night and that news pulled in many wildlife photographers and biodiversity experts from Bangalore and MP to Bandipur.

At around 6:45 AM explorers entered into safari zone of the park. Apart from driver cum guide Boma, there were four more companions in the jip – two wild life photographers from Bangalore – they came to spot the bison killer tiger and one Gujarati couple.

While entering forest, lot of spotted deer and bonnet macaque were spotted at the forest office and en route. Explorers also spotted white bellied drongo, yelloe billed babbler, paddy field pipit, common hoopoe, wag tail, jungle and pea fowl/hen etc.

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Photo Courtesy : Dwaipayan Ghosh

The first warning call was heard from the south east direction of the forest at 7:15 AM. It was a south west langur. Couple of jip started tracing the call slowly and after driving 2-3 km both the jip stopped. Big cat —- the most elusive creature of forest —- a pair of leopard. Leopards always make their existence highly imperceptible.

The mating pair was sitting on the open land at the left hand side of their direction of movement. The langur was exactly on the top of a teakwood tree next to the female leopard and kept giving call. They were moving on after having mated probably a very short while ago, as anticipated by Boma. At first, the pair was baffled and they sunk into the bushy scrubs quickly. A few minutes later the male leopard came out and lied down boldly in the open followed by the female. The lady was shy and definitely not sure about being in the open. She straightaway went into the thicket nearby and settled down.

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Photo Courtesy : Dwaipayan Ghosh

After 2-3 minutes, the pair stood up and walked slowly into the bush. The explorers could hear the growling sound coming from the bush. What the explorers witnessed was a partial courtship behavior in leopards which is hardly seen live. Given that leopards are very discreet about their presence, they are highly so during the mating period. Explorers could hardly believe in their luck that they got to see a very rare moment in the nature. After that explorers waited there for 10-15 minutes but the pair did not come out.

Explorers now started looking for any trace of the tiger, which had killed a bison in previous night. One of the photographers from Bangalore said that the tiger was spotted in last evening near a water body. The jip reached there and the carcass of the bison was found hidden inside a dense bush. The lower part of the carcass was half eaten. Probably the intermittent light and heavy shower of last night kept the tiger away from it and it was certain that the tiger would come back again to finish eating.

Explorers waited there for some time and made few rounds of Jip movement around that area, but nothing significant related to tiger movement were spotted. While moving in that area, a sloth bear made sudden appearance. It was crossing his path from one side of forest to other side. One of the photographers from Bangalore, who was sitting in front seat – next to driver, spotted it and alerted others. All four wild life photographers with their hi-tech cameras – got surprised with this sudden appearance of another elusive animal of the forest. None of them were ready enough to capture this rare sight creature of wild and gradually the sloth bear disappeared in dense forest of Bandipur National park.

The exploration continued till 9:00 AM, the significant sighting was few bird species – long tail shrike, streak throated woodpecker, malabar parakeet, brown fish owl, brahminy sterling, spot bill duck etc. No sight of any big animals.

In the evening, the exploration was started little later than scheduled time. Three jips and two buses entered the forest at 4:00 PM. Later it was realized by the explorers, that the intention behind late start was staying bake late in forest so that the bison killer tiger could be spotted. All the photographers in different jips and their companion forest guides and drivers were desperate for the sight of tiger. For 2 hours all jips and forests kept circling that 15 square kilometer area around the bush where the carcass was hidden. Instead of safari it turned out as being on guard for that carcass. The intermitted rain throughout the day made the sighting of tiger less likely.

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At 5:00 PM towards North-West direction from the carcass, approximately 3 km away a male leopard was spotted lying down on branch of teakwood tree. Another rare sight in the nature. Once it noticed the presence of jip, the shy animal jumped down from the tree and got disappeared in deep forest. Apart from few spotted deer, south west langur, bonnet macaque, herds of Indian bison, few racket tail drongo, oriental magpie, flame back woodpecker and a pair of green pigeon nothing significant were spotted.

Around 5:15 PM, strong warning call was heard repeatedly from the North West direction from the carcass. It was by a Burking deer and the call was coming from the direction where the male leopard moved 15 minutes back. It could be because of the leopard, but nevertheless it increased the excitement and hope for sighting tiger among the bunches of non-deserving, worthless Homo Sapiens sapiens. Eventually no trace of tiger movement was spotted.

While coming out of the forest at around 6:00 PM, one sloth bear were spotted in darkness. It could be the same one, which was spotted in morning. But it was too dark to capture the creature ethically.

Next day, 3rd December, explorers started their safari at 6:30 AM by a forest bus. The forest was unusually quiet than previous day, rain stopped and sun was out. All the wise and disappointed so called wild life and biodiversity experts appeared returned to their home after several unsuccessful attempts of tiger sighting. Apart from usual bird species explorers spotted a pair of happy stripe necked mongoose.

On 5th December at 9:00 AM morning the explorers reached at the check post of Periyar Tiger Reserve to start one of the most adventurous and challenging biodiversity hiking of this country —— The Periyar Tiger Trail, with a hope that their bad luck for sighting tiger would end there.

Two explorers were accompanied by three Spanish hikers – Sichov, Fernando and Anna and one French hiker Juliet. Sichov and Anna came from Madrid whereas Fernando and Juliet have been living in Delhi for last one year. There were four forest guides with them – C. C. Thomas, S. Pandya, N. S. Kunjumon and C. Armugam – all of them were ex-poachers and had 30-40 years of experience in dealing with forest and wild life. They were also accompanied by a Forest Official cum Gun Man – Ajimon.

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The whole contingent started trekking at 10:00 AM from the PRT check post towards South West direction with cameras, survival kit and three days’ ration in 25-30 kg heavy ruck sack. Initial trekking was 4 km long till they reached the bamboo rafting point through Periyar Lake. In this trail, the key species spotted were male sambar, nilgiri langur, bonnet macaque, grey headed fish eagle; wag tail, common drongo etc. After 200 meters of bamboo rafting towards South West direction, they reached the most difficult stretch of the trekking.

Explorers started last 5 km of trekking towards South West direction through dense bush and teak wood forest. The forest was full of leeches and to get prevent leech attack all of them spread tobacco powder over their trekking shoes and leech guard socks. It was an over cast day with 30oC temperature. Intermittently they were noticing fresh pug marks on the muddy forest land. Guide Thomas identified those as pug marks of a big male tiger. Scratch mark of tigers on tree trunk was also observed.

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In this 5 km trail, explorers climbed 600 meters and three times had to cross water streams of 100-120 feet deep over makeshift bridge of tree trunk with cameras in hand and heavy ruck sack on back. At the end of this trail they reached at the edge of forest and bunk of Periyar Lake. From that point a one km of bamboo rafting would take them to the core area of the forest, where their tents were erected for next three days and two nights.

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Explorers reached at camping area at 1:00 PM and for next one hour got busy in cooking. There were three tents for six hikers. The guides decided to stay at cooking area. The meal for them was Cappa Kodi or Tapioca. Drinking water source was Periyar Lake and the bush at South East corner of the forest around 200 meters away from their tents was their toilet. The camping area were protected by 1 feet high bio fencing and 10-12 feet deep Elephant Protecting Trench (EPT).

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After cooking and eating, again bush walking started from 3:30 PM towards North East direction of the forest. Around 3:30 PM, warning call was heard by barking deer but no other movement of big cat was spotted. An old skeleton of Indian bison was found on open land, the animal was killed by tiger.

The night was windy, cold with heavy rain with fear of possible flown away of tents by strong wind. Forest guides created a small bon fire by dry woods collected from forest. Explorers put their wet shoes and socks near to that fire so that morning they could wear dry shoes. The dinner was done with lake fish bought from the local tribal at the cost of Rs. 200/- per kg.

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In the same night at around 9:00 PM, explorers were delighted by arrival of surprise guests at their camping area – a pair of porcupine – Raja and Rani. Guide Kunjumon told them, whenever they did camping in forest – Raja and Rani had always come to search for food.

Morning of next day, i.e., 6th December, Arnab got a scary start. When he went to forest for dumping, three strong warning calls by Sambar was heard at 6:15 AM from very close distance from the South East direction of forest. Definitely movement of big cat was spotted, however nothing significant happened after that and Arnab returned to his tent quickly after attending his nature’s call.

Morning safari of 6th December happened towards South West direction after crossing the Periyar Lake by bamboo raft. Explorers climbed almost up to 915 km, but the rain kept kept all the big animals away from them. An old skeleton of elephant was spotted which was killed by tiger. A rarest bird species great Indian Hornbill was found to be flew over them when they reached the highest point of their trail.

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In the afternoon of same day between 1:45 to 2:00 PM several strong calls of Sambar were heard from the North East direction of the forest from the camping area. From the camping area, two Sambars were also found running away from North East to North West direction within forest. In the evening explorers did bush walking in North East direction and chased several herds of Bison. Around 4:00 PM, they traced warning calls of nilgiri langur but could not find anything else which could lead to big cat movement. Another very rare bird species Serpent Eagle was spotted there.

The night was relatively quiet, comparing to previous night and the porcupine pairs made their usual visit to entertain explorers.

Next day morning at 10:00 AM, explorers with full contingent started retreating from the camping area to outside of forest. They followed the same route they took while getting into the camping area. First hour was sunny but then heavy rain started, which

made their trekking through bushes and muddy forest land even more difficult. There were always fear of falling with heavy ruck sack on back. Couple of makeshift bridges over water streams was found to be destroyed due to heavy rain or by animals. Therefore, explorers had to search for new means of crossing water streams. At one point of time they had to cross an 8 feet deep trench full of water by a half a meter wide and 2 meters long tree trunk. That was quite scary and dangerous. The moist and slippery trunk was not a good thing to try balancing act, with 25-30 kg ruck sack on back.

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Last one kilometer of trekking was toughest in this whole series – rain became heavier and mud on forest became thicker and sloppier. Explorers were struggling in finding place to put their feet and maintain balancing. There was a slant slope of 30 meters they had to climb, with every step they were sliding down few meters towards the 140 meters deep Periyar Lake at the edge of the slope. Moreover, throughout this stretch fresh pug marks were spotted towards South West direction, whereas explorers were moving towards North East direction.

However, with the help of guides, explorers managed to reach at the edge of the forest in one piece, from where they would do bamboo rafting to cross the 200 meter stretch of Periyar Lake.

Every time the Explorers felt they were so near to Bengal Tiger of this subcontinent……but all the time they realized they were too far…….

The quest will be on in ….”Tigers’ Terrain”.

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