Tiger Solstice

The popularity of Bengal Tiger in Central Indian landscape has reached at pinnacles so as the human-tiger conflict. Now, like the apparent standing still of the Sun at its Solstice there is an uncomfortable pause between these two dimension of man – tiger relationship.

T124 aka Riddhi

Ranthambore Tiger Reserve was India’s most earning wildlife park in the financial year 2016-17. According to the forest department statistics, Ranthambore Tiger Reserve has been ranked first in achieving revenue of Rs 23.06 Crore (USD 3.1 million). Member of Rajasthan State Wildlife Board and wildlife enthusiast Valmik Thapar said in one news report of Times of India’s online edition, “Ranthambore is a shining example of what wildlife tourism can do to a small district like Sawai Madhopur. The district earns over 350 crores (USD 47 million) each year from wildlife tourism with direct impact on local economy, on tens of thousands of people right down to the vegetable seller. There are 2,000 hotel rooms and 1,200 tourist vehicles in the district. The reserve’s revenue is estimated to touch Rs 30 crores (USD 4 million) in 2017-2018.”

However, in this apparent commercial success of the “unofficialiiy undisputed king of all tiger reserves in the country”, somewhere the conservation took back seat.

In my five day exploration in this tiger reseve in the month of November 2021, I witnessed both side of this so-called success story.

On 18th November by 2 PM we reached at hotel Ranthambore Regency located couple of kilometres away from the Jogimahal gate of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. We reached there one day before our three full day safaris had started, which was organized by Toehold Travel and Photography, under the mentorship of Harsha Narasimhamurthy. Since we had one afternoon to spend before the actual photohraphy bootcamp starts, therefore me along with other two participants (Rajesh and Ananda) decided to go for a regular safari in tourism zone 4 of the reserve.

When we started from Jaipur for Sawai Madhopur, it was already overcast. By the time we enterd the park it started drizzling and at the end of safari at around 5:30 PM, heavy downpour lashed the forest of Ranthambore. That was a bit unusual climate considering that particular season in Ranthambore. There was weather forecast for overcast sky to intermittent heavy shower for next two days.

Huge sambar stag at Ranthambore

In that dimly lit rain washed forest we saw few nilgai, spotted deer, Northern plain langur and few huge sambars. The sambar stags in this forest are really enormous, much larger than the sambar I saw till date in other parts of Indian forest. Among birds there were plenty of rufus treepie, Indian pea fowl, and babbler. We saw four scops owl were sitting together sticking to each other on a tree branch under canopy cover to protect themselves from rain drops. Few black headed ibis and pond herons were found quite active near a lake while large rain drops were creating ripples on the water. A crested serpant eagle was perched on a low branch creating eye level shooting opportunity from the safari gypsy. But the light was not just adequate for photography. The safari ended with some rumour of tiger sighting near a narrow ditch; therefore we went there and waited for half an hour. After that at 5 PM we decided to leave the park, as we were uncomfortably drenched and even under rain cover we were struggling to protect our cameras.

When we came back to hotel we were bit anxious about the success of this bootcamp considering the weather forecast for next two days.

Ruins of Rajput fort, lake and biodiversity symbolize Ranthambore

Although there was forecast for heavy rainfall, but the next day morning was pleasant with overcast sky. The avian activities were more as we saw few wooly necked storks, yellow footed green pegion and grey francolin perching on branches or pecking on grounds in different parts of forest. The tiger searching was anyway the main agenda; therefore nobody had time to stop for other species. Our guide Sunil told us that Forest Department should take T124 aka Riddhi, the celebrity tigress of Ranthambore, out of tourism zone 2, 3 and 4. In his view that would encourage the other female tiger Arrowhead to come back with her cubs and provide more photo opportunity to tourists. In turn that would attract more tourists to the park. As if there was dearth of tourists in Ranthambore.

Who is Riddhi and why she is so famous in Ranthambore?

In Ranthambore, almost every tiger has a special reputation and legend that precedes their lineages. To know about Riddhi, we need to know about another legendery tigress, known as “Lady of the Lake”. She was named as Machli (T16). She will always be remembered as perhaps the most famous tigress in Ranthambore, who loved to pose for the tourists and photographers. Her soaring popularity among tourists and wildlife enthusiasts saw her featured in a movie, “The World’s Most Famous Tiger”, which even won a National Award. She even found a mention in the book, “Three Ways to Disappear”, by Katy Yocom. Unfortunately, tigress Machli, the most photographed tigress in the world, died on 18th August 2016. Sundari (T17), the daughter of Machli, was another famous tigress of Ranthambore National Park. However, she passed away in October 2011. Sundari’s sibling Krishna’s daughter, T73 aka Arrowhead, gave birth to three cubs in 2019. Born in 2012, she was known for her shy nature and was mostly spotted in an area of the park known as Kachida Valley.

T124 aka Riddhi, the great granddaughter of Machli, is the recent talk of the forest for her fearless and adventurous spirit. She is one of those three cubs of Arrowhead. Apparently based on Sunil’s comment on relocation of Riddhi from zone 2, 3 and 4 basically indicated the territorial dominance of Riddhi over her mother Arrowhead.

Possessing an adventurous spirit since childhood, tigress Riddhi had the sheer audacity to clash with her mother tigress Arrowhead over territory. She is no less than her great grandmother Machli in boldness. Tigress Arrowhead gave birth to two tiger cubs named Riddhi and Siddhi. They remained with their mother for some time but this mother -daughter happy family scene was short-lived. Both of them possess immense courage but Riddhi’s power and her adventurous spirit is one of a kind. She made her territory in her mother’s territory. She wanders like a queen and can toss tourists with her bold looks at Padam Lake, Raj-Bag, Malik Lake and Mandoob area from zone 3 and 4.  This territory is the heart of Ranthambore where Machli ruled for years followed by her daughter Sundari and then her daughter Krishna. Krishna’s daughter Arrowhead continued the legacy of dominance until she was dethorned by her daughter Riddhi.

Surrounded by mesmerizing waterfalls and ponds, this area is the best tiger habitat area where now Riddhi, the daughter of Arrowhead rules the hearts of tourists and wildlife enthusiasts.

These were the stories of Ranthambore tigress I heard from local guides, gypsy drivers and some of the particpants of our bootcamp who were veteran tourists of this tiger reserve and visiting this park for a decade. The stories were spread from mouth to mouth and some of them were captured in wildlife bloggers’ sites. These stories undoubtedly establish the love of tourists for the tigers, but this is also a biased love for those who were “bold” enough to come close to tourist vehicles and “pose” for photographs. The wildlife photographers are of course the key contributors in spreading this “love” for few selected tigers and tigress of this park. The people who make their living out of this park – gypsy drivers, nature guides, hoteliers, Forest Department staffs, tour operators and even wildlife photography mentors – they all want every tiger-lover thronging to Ranthambore National Park leaves this park with a happy tiger story to take home.

Therefore, the entertainment package of tiger-tourism in this park not just includes sighting of the majestic beasts it also comes with “Game of Thrones” style tiger story.

These stories of Bengal Tigers undoubtedly brought them at par with the human emperors whose glorious stories we read in History books. As a result that had provided the delight of imagining them in human incarnation. But at the same time, this entertainment package somehow disparaged the almighty and apex predator image of Bengal Tigers created by Sy Montgomery and Jim Corbett respectively, in their stories.

On that day of 19th November we had our customery sighting of T124, in India’s richest tiger reserve, at around 9:00 AM near Padam talab or Padam Lake. Apparently she was moving from zone 4 to zone 3 to do fresh scent marking so that male tigers can find her for mating. Due to rain in previous day all her scent marking got washed away. So, she needs to do this task once again, and if there is no rain in next few days, then chances of seeing her in movement would be more. Because, she had lot to cover within her territory with her scent marking.

We were doing full day safari in Ranthambore on 19th, 20th and 21st November 2021. Typically our day in park used to start at 6:30 AM and end at 5:30 PM. In between we used to take couple of hours break – one for breakfast at around 10:00 AM and then for lunch at around 1:00 PM. This amount of time spending in forest like Ranthambore creates immense opportunity of tiger sighting. The afternoon of 19th November was even gloomier than morning and there was also intermittent drizzling. In the remaining hours of our days’ safari we saw a busy ruddy mongoose running here and there. The notable bird sepecies were a pair of alexandrine parakeet, few flame back woodpeckers, common hoopoe, greater thick-knee, open billed storks and lot of greater cormorant perching on trees popping out of water bodies and on different branches of tall canopy.

Mixed deciduous forest of Ranthambore resembles Kanha

The vegetation of the forest of Ranthambore is bit different from that of Sariska. In Sariska I saw more arid dry deciduous type of vegetation. But here in Ranthambore it was more like mix of moist and dry deciduous forest with open grassy meadow which reminded me of Kanha. The park has an area of 1,334 km2. It is bounded to the north by the Banas River and to the south by the Chambal River. It is named after the historic Ranthambore Fort, which lies within the park.

As per weather forecast the 20th morning was supposed to be cloud covered with some sun light. But the day started with heavy downpour. The raining was so heavy that our rain coats failed to protect us. The plastic sheets we palced on gypsy seats to keep them dry, started collecting rainwater and that made our pants and undergarments completely wet. It became very difficult to sit and roam around in forest in such condition. Although in that rainwashed day we were lucky again to see T124 near Raj-Bag. We saw her chasing a wild boar. The other local guide of our bootcamp team, Hansraj assumed that she might have finished eating a kill, as there were crows waiting on tree branches to finish the remaining of that kill.

The rumour of her translocation to Sariska was very strong in those days. Most of the safari guides, drivers and even photographers were talking about it and expressing their concerns about that. Absence of T124 in the forest of Ranthambore would mean impact on tiger sighting and photo opportunity for everybody. Its not that we don’t get to see other tigers or tigress in that park. But most of them are shy and dislike human presence.

As per the blog called Ranthamborenationalpark.com, the fierce tigress Riddhi is said to have killed a tiger cub T102 in the Tamba Khan area of Ranthambore National Park as some forest officials have seen her chasing down T102. Due to these incidents and the conflict of Riddhi and Siddhi over the territory, the tigress Riddhi will be shifted to Sariska Tiger Reserve. The cat population is rising at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve due to which there is a lack of space and a fear of territorial fights. To reduce this pressure Riddhi will be moved out of Ranthambore for her new journey.

Although many believe that Hotel and Resort lobby of Sariska is influencing Government to take such decision in order to add a tourism attraction in their park. In the early summer of 2021, when I was in Sariska, I heard safari guides complaining about not having enough wildlife photographers in their park and not generating enough income in absence of them.

Therefore what was a delight for Sariska could be dismay for Ranthambore. But, it was not that every guides of Ranthambore were disappointed with this possible translocation. Sunil thought, relocation of T124 will create opportunity for her mother T17 aka Arrowhead to regain her territory. If that happens then tourists will get to see a female tigress with cubs, as there was also rumour that T17 has again given birth of few cubs.

The heavy rain in Ranthambore forced us to retire and get back into hotel for changing clothes and drying our body part. We decided to resume again after lunch at aroud 1:30 PM. There was news received by Harsha through his trusted sources that on that day morning T12 aka Maya (The Tadoba equivalent of T124 in terms of celebrity status) killed a lady forest guard named Swati Dhumane. Dhumane was on foot with three labourers for the All India Tiger Estimation (AITE) 2022 exercise when the incident took place. They were doing transect survey in a patch of forest near waterhole number 97. T12 was resting in a bush and didn’t notice their movement. Therefore she was surprised and attacked in her defence. As per the news report it was first-of-its-kind incident, but Harsha told us that was her 5th human attack in recent past.

Based on the news report of 21st November 2021 in online edition of Times of India, Tadoba field director Jitendera Ramgaonkar has suspended the enumeration exercise as well as the movement of tourists in gypsys in that area. According to Ramgaonkar, Dhumane and team had started walking around 7 AM. After 4 km, they noticed Maya sitting on the road about 200 metres ahead of them. The team waited for around 30 minutes and when the tigress didn’t budge they decided to take a detour through the forest. The tigress then attacked Dhumane and dragged her into the forest. Maya’s sudden aggressive behaviour has surprised those who have followed her life. Incidentally T12 aka Maya is my first sighted Bengal Tiger in wild.

There was question rose by many that why the forest department staffs was unarmed while walking in tiger zone? Maybe over humanization of tigers and tigress of Indian forests making us to believe that they can be treated like pets of human households.

But the reality is they are the apex predators of subcontinental forests.

Rain finally disappeared by the afternoon of 20th November from the sky of Ranthambore and diffused Sun light was caressing the lush green forest. The water puddles started drying up and there was news from zone 1, that a sambar was killed by a tigress. At around 2:30 PM, we reached there with a hope that the tigress would come back to her kill as it would not be possible for her to drag the kill further up. The tigress apparently had cubs, so if we were lucky we could see her with cubs devouring on sambar meat.

The foul smell of dead and rotten carcass struck our nostrils. I saw few tourists covered their nose and mouth with handkarchief. But there was no sign of tigress. From the beginning of our boot camp our team was divided into two groups for two gypsies. One such goup was led by local guide Hansraj, and on that day I was part of his group. Hansraj didn’t want to waste time there and thought about going further to search for the tigress. After 50 meters we found fresh pugmarks of female tiger, therefore we kept following the track. But after a kilometre or so the track got disappeared into dense undergrowth and we decided to turn back. When we were half way through to the point where the carcas was lying, we met Harsha’s gypsy. They were coming for us to inform that out of nowhere a male tiger (T101) was appeard there and dragged the kill further up inside dense foliage. T101 is known for his dislikes towards safari gypsies.

The photographers in that gypsy got decent shots of T101. But we were not there at right time. We came back hurridly to get a glipmse of his face from far through greyish green bushes of Ranthambore. But there was no photo opportunity.

This is how tiger sighting happens in wild; you need to be at right place at right time. That was not the first such instance in my exploration experience. Wildlife enthusiasts understand that, but typical tourists do not and that gives lot of stress to the gypsy drivers and guides. In turn that gives lot of stress to tigers as well.

We left that zone and headed towards zone 3, the territory of T124. On the way we got some nice shots of scops owl and brown fish owl. Then when we reached at Raj-Bag, she was already on move.

There were huge eruption of noise in joy and excitement by the hundreds of tourists gathered on the bank of Raj-bag. There were around 10 canters and probably 20 gypsies. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in early winter of Ranthambore. People with their kids and family were enjoying “the great Indian tiger-show” in the richest tiger reserve of the subcontinent. T124 was slowly walking along the bank; a marsh crocodile was busking and once that spotted her movement jumped into water for its dear life, with huge splash of water. That soared the decibel further high. Her great grandmother was famous for crocodile killing. It was a cricket stadium atmosphere and Riddhi was scoring boundaries and overbounderies with her every move to entertain the crowd.

T124 snarls at safari vehicle

She started getting closer to us. Expert guide Hansraj with help of driver Mahender parked the gypsy in such a way that we got best possible angle and light to shoot her. She came to a position where she got surrounded by tourist vehicles. That situation particularly annoyed her and she snarled at one near by gypsy, with full display of her magnificent fang.

Crowd roard further, as if she hooked another sixer. Photographers were delighted as they got their “lifer” image of angry tigress’s expression. Wildlife enthusiasts and typical tourists were winning there.

Only Riddhi was losing as her stress was getting overlooked by everybody. But by now she knows how to live with human pests in her kingdom. She is the great granddaughter of Machli afterall. She found her way between tourist vehicles and took a narrow forest path. It was not possible for the big 20 seater safari canters to enter in such narrow path. Gypsies carrying typical tourists also stopped following her, as the passengers lost their interest and considered it as end of show.

But photopgarpers are different breed. Their greed for best images never ends. On top of that they are alwasys accompanied by the best and wisest guides and drivers of the park (against exorbiently high extra payment). Therefore, two gypsies of Toehold anticipated from where she could appear again and positioned them accordingly. Within half an hour T124 was just head on with us and kept coming towards us. Although as photographers we were delighted with this sudden head on appearance. But honestly speaking I got mild chill through my spine. This sudden appearance reminded me of my Sundarban experience in the winter of 2019. The recent news report of Maya’s human killing in Tadoba also flashed for a fraction of second in my mind. But, then again the photographer’s instinct became dominant and I got indulged in capturing some best “head-on” shots of Bengal Tigers of Indian subcontinent.

After walking straight to us for sometime, she got distracted by a herd of spotted deer and took a detour to enter further inside of the dense foliage.

T124 finding her way through safari vehicles

I read an article written by Neha Jain on 28th October 2019 edition of online journal Mongabay. In that article Neha Jain has said, “Ever wondered how tigers feel in response to hordes of vehicles ferrying tourists eager for the thrill of a perfect close-up encounter? Now, a study examining stress hormones in tiger scat collected from two popular central Indian tiger reserves has revealed that these iconic carnivores suffer from high levels of physiological stress due to wildlife tourism and a large number of vehicles entering the parks. Prolonged stress can adversely affect both survival and reproduction.”

As per that article, senior author Govindhaswamy Umapathy who is a principal scientist and project leader at the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species (LaCONES) at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad. “If it continues it will have a definite impact on the population in the long-term.”

Neha mentioned in her article, “Interestingly, a previous study by the authors, published in 2015, showed that tigers introduced in Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan failed to reproduce, probably due to stress elicited by human disturbances.”

A matter of concern for Riddhi, as very soon she could be on her way to Sariska to be greeted by the cheers of her crazy fans waiting there. In fact during the day’s safari Hansraj told us that probably for the last time we were seeing her in Ranthambore. The translocation team were already in move and hadn’t been raining in last few days she would have been tranquilized by now for relocating to Sariska.

The next day in Ranthambore it was all about following T124. Her first sighting was at 6:45 AM before we even enterd into main safari zone. She was spotted on the road, came down from an uphill hillock crossed the cemented road in front of our gypsy and then descended further down to disappear in dense forest.

Then again we saw her roaming from zone 4 to 3 and scent marking on trees and bushes. Now as wildlife photographer at that point I was joyous and gratified to witness Harsha’s mentoring skill and ability to anticipate appropriate position for the subject.

Scent marking

When T124 was walking and marking her area, he consulted his guide Sunil and guessed where she would come. He took a chance and made us leave her half a kilometre behind. We all reached and waited at a place where she would be supposedly arriving. We reached at that anticipated place of her arrival before she did and that gave us some time margin to check for the light that would fall on her. That additional time also gave us to imagine a “low key frame” and posiotioned the gypsy to create right angle, even before other gypsies arrived. By doing that we got the best possible position for shooting her in best possible light. As aniticipated she arrived at that place, and all we had to do was to press shutters as we were ready with the exposure compensation dialled to negative.

That was how we could capture an important behaviour of tiger which is key for their survival as far as natural history in concern. That behaviour was scent marking. Tigers inform each other of their whereabouts through complex scent markings that contain pheromones. Scientific studies say that marking is most intensive when tigers were establishing territories, and animals on adjacent territories appeared to mark in response to each other. Females marks intensively just prior to oestrus; this behaviour gets reduced during oestrus. Males marked more frequently when females were in oestrus than during other stages of the females’ cycle.

In last few days we saw intensive marking by T124 in her territory which could be indicative of her pre oestrus status. The local guides of Ranthmabore told us that T124 was once seen mating with a male tiger T120, but she might not have conceived. According to them the only way to suspend her relocation could be her pregnancy. They were all keeping their fingers crossed.

Later in the morning we went to tourism zone 6 to search for another female tiger who was apparently nursing her cubs there. But, besides lot of chinkaras and sambar there were not much to talk about. That was our first chinkara sighting in Ranthmabore.

Afternoon our guides received news of another fully grown male tiger T120 sleeping in zone 2. We went there and found him sleeping under the cool shade of trees and shrubs. As full day safari tourists we had privilege to enter the park 15 minutes before the regular tourism hour starts. Once it started, horde of tourists arrived there in canters and gypsies in that narrow forest path to see T120. They completely choked and blocked the path and created enough clattering to wake the animal up.

He woke up and directly looked at us, which gave us fabulous opportunity to shoot tiger portrait. T120 is undoubtedly a beautiful male tiger. Probably he had intention to move as he was yawning and licking his paws. But the presence of so many tourists made him reluactant to do so. Precisely it was nearly impossible for him to escape through the clutter of canters and gypsies. Therefore he kept lying there till the last hour of safari time. At last at around 5:15 PM he came out through a different route full of throny bushes from the otherside of where he was lying. Cats generally prefer to walk through plain forest path because of the padding they have on their paws. But the assemblance of visitors forced him to walk on thorny forest path. Anticpating his movement towards the thorny path of forest, the smart gypsy drivers also moved their vehicles towards that direction. Therefore, when he came out on clear path, again he had to be amidst chattering crowds. All the tigers of Ranthambore by instinct probably learnt how to dribble through safari vehicles. T120 also did so and went on to disappear to distant dense forest of zone 2. Our guides assumed that probably he was in a mission to find T124 and heading towards zone 3.

T120 passing by a herd of spotted deer

When we were exiting the forest for the day, we heard far away bellowing of spotted deers’ alarm call. We saw through the haze formed by last light of the day, that T120 passed by a herd of spotted deer, without even paying much attention to them. While the panic-stricken deer were looking at his disintegration in the foliage of Central Indian tiger landscape.

Our bootcamp ended, and the evening was all about celebration of “successful tiger photography tourism” around the camp fire lit by our hotel staff. We were discussing about how close tigers can come to the visitors in this park, thus creating great photo opportunity. The discussion brought back the memories of an article I read, written by Priya Ranganathan in 2019. The aricle was pubished in online journal The News Minute, where Priya said, “No longer is wildlife tourism simply a chance to observe animals in their natural state. A recent report from Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve reveals the dark side of tiger tourism in India, where a tour guide pelted stones at a sleeping tiger in Ranthambhore’s Safari Zone 6 so that his guest could get the “perfect action shot”. In that article Priya also highlighted the fact “Tigers are treated as a commodity on safaris, where guests tip drivers depending on the number of successful sightings and call in favours to get seats on jeeps booked for zones with known tiger sightings or high tiger densities.”

The Great Indian Tiger Show

I don’t think mere relocation of tigers from one park to another can reduce pressure on the animals, unless there is some large scale endeavour to make the tourists “wildlife safari literate”.

Although our boot camp was ended, but we had the whole day to spend on 22nd November, as our Bangalore bound flight from Jaipur would depart at 6:30 PM. Therefore, Rajesh, Ananda and I did another additional regular safari in zone 1, in the territory of T101.

After couple of hours of scouting through the forest, we got tip from another safari gypsy on the whereabouts of T101. We had to be extremely cautious to locate him, as he is not known for being “tourist friendly”. At around 8:30 AM, fellow photographer Rajesh spotted him hidden in undergrowth with his large face visibile through grasses. We got few minutes to shoot him before he stood up and disappeard deep inside, clearly displaying his displeasue for human-sighting.

We got images of him where his face was obstructed by foliage, in photographic terms these foliage are called “clutter” as they “spoil the image”.

Jim Corbett said in his legedery novel “Man-Eaters of Kumaon”, “Those who have never seen a leopard under favourable conditions in his natural surroundings can have no conception of the grace of movement, and beauty of colouring, of this the most gracefuL and the most beautiful of all animales in our Indian jungles.”

“I am the apex predator, not a model in fashion show”- T101

The same concept is applicable for any animals in their natural habitat. I have always failed to understand why we wildlife photographers perpetually have to go for clean images, which are at times “unnatural”? Why we have to perceive the wild life as “model of fashion photography”?

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