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

Part Two : …….Still in the Shadow of the Tiger

After “Hiking in Highlands” in forest of Western Ghats (comprising Nagarhole, Bandipur and Periyar), the “Tigers’ Terrain – exploration in forest of Central India – comprising Satpura, Pench and Kanha” was explorers’ much calculated and thought about exploration, specifically designed for spotting Bengal Tigers in wild. The exploration started with lots of speculations as well as expectations at 3:30 PM from Kariya zone of Satpura Tiger Reserve, on 8th May, 2016.

As expectation was high, level of superstitions in explorers’ mind was also never less than that. Therefore, superstitious Arnab asked forest guide at Madhai gate of Satpura Tiger Reserve, “Are Dholes (Indian Wild Dogs) easily spotted in the forest?” – The superstition was – a negative answer to this question, might increase possibility of big cat sighting. Although it has hardly worked. Indian wild dog is anyway endangered and sighting is generally rare, unlike their African counterpart.

Anyway, a negative answer, increased hope as well as heart bit. After two and half hours of exploration, and spotting usual herds of Sambar, Nilgais, Nothern plain Langoor, and Rhesus Macaque when explorers started their journey towards exit of forest, driver Deepak had to stop his gypsy. Guide Harilal whispered “Leopards”.

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Photo Courtesy : Dwaipayan Ghosh

On the left hand side of the movement of gypsy, in thick bushes something was moving. After few seconds a round head with black spots on yellow fur was noticed, and then another and then another. Three heads of three leopards – nicely camouflaged in the bushes. They wanted to cross the road but stopped after seeing three gypsies, the shy animals were hesitant to reveal themselves.

After a minute or so, one came out and cautiously crossed the road. It was a cub. Then other two followed the previous one. All three of them were cubs. Where was the mother then, had she left her cubs alone? That was unusual.

Harilal, said that the mother was not sighted for last couple of days, and she was extremely shy.

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In the first exploration of the series itself, big cat was sighted. A happy bunch of explorers returned base camp with imagination of a great and fruitful series ahead.

In that same day, other significant observations were Indian lizard monitor, soft shelled turtle, Rufus tree pie, nests and nestlings of woolly necked stork, crested hawk eagle and crested serpent eagle.

The second and last exploration of Satpura were significant because of spotting sloth bear – two cubs, and one adult male and female – playing in bushes – that was an ideal start of the day for the explorers. Other significant observations were burking deer, marsh crocodile, long tale shrike, pied kingfisher, oriental honey buzzard, purple sun bird, ashy crowned sparrow lark and Scops owl. While exiting the forest, an adult male sloth bear was found climbing tree, searching for honey.

Explorers reached at Pench with huge expectation; there was series of news of tiger sighting. Especially Pench’s famous tigress “Collarwali” and her four cubs were apparently getting sighted almost every day. However, after reaching there, atmosphere of Pench was found a bit gloomy. The death of tigress “Baghin nala” and her three cubs was a huge reason of heartbreak among locals, especially among forest guides, safari drivers and resorts owners. They know, there are tigers in forest and that’s why they have job to do. No tigers means, no work for them.

If we go back to past, on 28th March of 2016, various tourists entering through the Touria Gate of the Pench Tiger Reserve noticed the darling Tigress and a mother of 4 young cubs lying at a distance from the road. She was in her territory and guests were thrilled to click a sleeping tigress from such a close distance. The excitement turned to shock when during the exit hours few drivers of the tourist vehicles realized that she was lying in the exact position as before and was highly unusual. The kids who always accompanied her were not around and a stranger was captured on a phone-cam on FOOT (it is illegal for outsiders to get off their vehicles once inside the core area, and loitering is prohibited) clicking the tigress from a dangerously close distance. The authorities were immediately informed by the concerned witnesses as they feared (rightly so) that the tigress was dead. Soon it was confirmed that the dead tigress was indeed T-17 a.k.a The Baghin-Nala Female, daughter of legendary ‘Badi Mada’ who was the subject of the BBC Documentary titled Spy in the Jungle, and sister of the illustrious T-15 commonly known as ‘Collarwali’. It was past tourist hours and the park gates were shut. In the hours that followed, decaying bodies of 2 of the cubs were also discovered. On 29th of March 2016 various dead bodies of Spotted Deer and other birds were discovered thus confirming poisoning of one of the water sources inside the park. The assumption of poisoning was bolstered when one of the water bodies that existed close to where the tigress had died was immediately filled and an identical water body was dug up at a little distance.

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With this background story, explorers started their 3rd (1st in Pench) safari at 5:45 AM of 10th May, 2016. The usual question of Dhole sighting was asked, however with great surprise and little disappointment, the answer was positive from guide Sunil. In four and half hours of safari, the significant observations were spotted deer, wild boar, and golden jackal female and of course pack of Indian wild dog – playing and drinking water near a shallow water body. Important bird species were black hooded oriole, bush lark, Indian grey horn bill, white-eyed buzzard and critically endangered white rumped vulture, and long billed vulture.

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The second safari at Pench (and 4th of the series) started at 4:00 PM, and driver Shera and guide Vinod were quite confident about spotting “Collarwali”. Vinod was a trained guide with certification from prestigious Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal. With lot of enthusiasm, exploration of the day started and an immediate set back, marked by heavy down pour, lasted for an hour between 4:30 to 5:30 PM. All hopes got washed away; rain cooled down the forest and minimized possibility of big cats coming out of dense forest to quench thirst. However, intermittent warning calls of langoors, sambar and spotted deer were heard throughout whole safari from different corners of the forest, confirming movement of big cats within dense forest. Although some of the calls were suspected false calls by male spotted deer. Male spotted deer sometimes make false call to make female spotted deer scared, so that they come closer to them out of fear and to seek protection. Male spotted deer take that as an advantage for mating. Quite an opportunist lover.

However, serious and strong warning calls were heard at around 5:45 PM, there were combined calls of peacock, jackal, burking deer and red jungle fowl. Everybody was sure, that calls were for nothing but Bengal Tigers and movement was not beyond 200 meters from the explorers’ location. Vinod said, “You may not like to trust spotted deer, but sambar and jackal never gives false call.”

Despite of strong call, nothing came out of dense forest; an hour of waiting didn’t yield anything, but a black napped hare, fruit bats and juvenile crested serpent eagle, which just finished eating of its kill – an adult peafowl. 1st day’s safari at Pench ended there.

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Last safari of Pench and 5th of the series was significant for hearing intense warning call of langoors at 7:00 AM and spotting pug marks of big cat. However, the pug marks didn’t look fresh and both driver Shera and explorer Dwaipayan suspected those as Leopard’s pug mark. There was rumor in the forest, that a male tiger was spotted somewhere near route number one. But explorers could not find any evidences of that.

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The last segment of the series started at Kanha at 5:45 AM of next day (12th May, 2016). Third explorer Rajan could not join the team, because of some technical glitch. Guide Shamim first heard a mild warning call of sambar near crossing point of Kanha and Kisli zone of the tiger reserve. The zone was known as hide-out of famous tiger “Munna”. Around 6:20 AM, severe warning calls of Northern Plain Langoor and spotted deer were heard in that area. Dwaipayan admitted, that was the strongest warning call, he had ever heard in any exploration in forest. Several spotted deer were found running away towards opposite direction from where the call was coming. However, waiting of an hour or so wasn’t enough to get Munna out of his hide-out. There was news form other side of the forest that, another male and female tigers were spotted near Kanha zone.

Explorers reached there and at around 5-6 km away from Kisli zone, they found fresh pug mark and mark of siting on soil of an adult male tiger.

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Around, 10:30 AM they started retreating from forest, Driver Raju was telling stories of Munna, wo was most respected tiger of Kanha and more famous for being only male tiger who didn’t kill his cubs, in recent history of Kanha.

The significant observations, for the day was Swamp deer, King Vulture, Sircar Malkoha, Jungle Owlet etc.

The other three safaris in Kanha were very quiet. Forest was lush and cool, with sight of happily grazing herbivores and colorful birds.

In last safari, while returning, explorers spotted fresh tiger’s scat confirming recent movement of the big cat……but for the explorers…..still in the shadow of tiger!!

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