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  • Writer's pictureMahesh V

Striped Encounters

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

"I want to see Tigers in the wild on my birthday" asserted Shakti... We've always wanted to do this. A few years back we almost planned a trip to Ranthambore but as it happens with all trip planning, we ended up changing our destination. So when she asked this time around, especially as a birthday gift, we had to make it happen!


The Search

We started searching for destinations. India has about 52 tiger reserves in total housing 3000+ tigers. None of the reserves guarantee a sighting as it is not within anyone's control. But when you plan a safari holiday, you would definitely hope to spot at least one. With our limited knowledge of the reserves in India and the limited number of days we had at our disposal, we were.... confused. And then it struck us, one of the members in the resident complex we live in, Mr Subbiah Nalla Muthu, is a renowned Wildlife documentary videographer and there can be no one who can help us more in pointing us in the right direction. "Without a doubt, you should visit Tadoba!!" was their unanimous opinion... and boy oh boy!! That fit right into our plan... A series of calls and loads of text messages later, our itinerary was ready.


Some background...

Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) is one of the oldest reserves in Maharastra. It is spread across 625 sq kms of forest area. The largest conservation effort of its kind, Project Tiger was started in 1973 in the backdrop of the severed depletion of wildlife populations. To halt this degradation, Indian Government promulgamted the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. Central Indian states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh spearheaded in Tiger recovery and contributed to the largest rise in Tiger population. TATR joined the network in 1995 when it got notified as a reserve. Tadoba landscape which includes the surrounding sanctuaries, today contributes to more than 70% of Maharashtra tiger numbers.


The Planning

One of the most critical aspect while planning a trip to a tiger receiver is to ensure you book adequate number of safaris. More safaris increase the chances of spotting a tiger. Every reserve has a limit to the safaris in a day and also on the number of vehicles it allows in a safari, so that means these tickets get sold out pretty fast. TATR bookings open 120 days in advance. TATR is spread into 3 zones

  • Tadoba Zone/Range (via Kolara & Navegaon gates)

  • Moharli Zone/Range (via Moharli & Khutwanda Gates)

  • Kolsa Zone/Range (via Zari & Pangadi gates)

As of today, there are 6 core zones (Moharli, Khutwanda, Zari, Pangadi, Kolara and Navegaon) and 17 buffer zones (Junona, Adegaon, Devada, Agarzari, Mamla, Pangadi, Aswal Chuha, Zari, Keslaghat, Zari Peth, Kolara Chauradeo, Alizanza, Madnapur, Shirkheda, Belara, Ramdegi and Nimdela Gates)



What are core and buffer zones?

Core and buffer are the two zones created by the Forest Department to bifurcate the forest land between areas where only animals can thrive and areas where humans are allowed for day-to-day activities.

Naturally, the animals have no idea of this and have their own territories marked. The zones demarkation is more for ensuring livelihood of nearby villages and avoid human-animal conflict. Every zone has a tiger that has made its mark and it is popular for that tiger, but practically, the animal can be spotted anywhere.


We were recommended to consider the Moharli zone by our experienced friend and we ended up booking 5 safaris in total - 2 in buffer zone (Devada and Agarzari) and 3 in core zone (Moharli).


Recommendation

  • Plan the holiday in advance

  • Try to plan your holidays based on the availability of tickets. It is pointless to go there and have a day without any safaris

  • Keep an even distribution of safaris between Core and Buffer zone

  • Book multiple safaris to increase your chances of spotting a tiger

  • Give preference to jeep safari as that offers more flexibility. If unavailable, try changing the dates where jeep safari is available. In case you are unable to book a jeep, the next option is a canter - which is basically a 20 seater open bus.

The Experiences

Day 1 | Morning | Devada Gate

The morning safari started at 6:30 AM. We packed out breakfast and got going. Your first safari will always be the most exciting. There's huge anticipation and you hope to sight the first member of the Royal family. There's a silent prayer deep within your soul to ensure a successful sighting. As I mentioned before, sighting is pure luck. No one can guarantee a sighting. Nature treats everyone equally - you can be a VVIP or not, nature will give you only if it decides to give.


You are accompanied by a driver and Guide/Naturalist for the safari. They understand the forest to the T. Using calls of the animals and birds they track the tiger. Many of them are also confident of specific spots and routes that the tigers. They have the experience to back them up... Believe it or not, the best part of the safari is to track the animal. The thrill it gives purely to drive around in anticipation of sighting the beast is unimaginable...


And when you do sight, you'd be damn awestruck!!! And we struck gold, in the 1st safari! We came across the couple Taaru and Madhu, lying under some trees, just woken up from their slumber and sharing some morning cuddles...!!!


We spent around 45 mins, just watching them, unable to believe our luck. Taaru awoke first and then proceeded to wake up Madhu. She enjoyed his caresses for a while and even reciprocated. But soon, she had had enough and gave him a not so gentle slap, that ended the cuddles. We watched with bated breath to see how he would react, but after a few minutes, she just sauntered away and he took another path into the bush and that ended our morning safari!



Day 1 | Evening | Moharli Gate

That evening, we proceeded with our next safari. This time Mr. Deepak Pate accompanied us. Deepak sir is an experienced naturalist and also works in Irai Safari Resort where we were camped. His knowledge and expertise on tigers and Tadoba itself was immense. We knew having him will give us a better understanding of animal behaviour and rules of the jungle. Our daughter was immersed in his conversations.


This time we were driving in the core zone. Each path/turn in the zone belonged to a tiger. As Mr Deepak mentioned, a male tiger claims a territory of around 45kms radius, while a female tiger claims around 15kms. This means that in each male tiger's zone, there can be a maximum of 3 female tigers. The male and female fight for their territory and once they win it, they typically own it till challenged by another. Tadoba is flourishing also since it has a larger population of females than male tigers. We traversed through the territories belonging to Roma, Sharmili, Bijali and the Queen of Tadoba - Maya - all healthy female tigers with their cubs.

Mottled Wood Owl

I had told Mr Deepak that apart from Tigers, I am also interested in spotting birds and especially owls. To me owl spotting is as immersive as spotting a tiger. He then mentioned the tiger is actually the last animal in the list at Tadoba, based on rarity of sightings. A trip to Tadoba is successful when you spot the following: Leopard, a sloth bear, Dhole/Wild Dog and finally the Tiger.

Tigers are pretty easy to spot as TATR has one of the highest density of tiger population. The thrill is in spotting the rest. Our checklist was updated....


When Nature Decided to Gift

As we were traversing through the jungle, from a distance we saw some jeeps camped. We followed them and there - we sighted the queen of the jungle - Maya. Maya is considered the queen of Tadoba. Maya is responsible not just for increasing the tiger population but also increasing the economy of TATR. She's the most popular tigress after Machli from Ranthambore.


Maya emerged from the bush and started marking her territory. It was a thrilling sight, seeing this larger than life tigress, walking around and suddenly jump up on a tree and scratch across it, to ensure no other tigress dares to encroach. You can see the back of her ears with the clear eye markings as well.


The heart wanted more, but Maya (and Nature) had other plans. She wandered away into the jungle giving us a small glance of who she is. It was nearing closing hours of the park, as we were driving back, when Mr Deepak stopped the jeep to spot a Brown fish owl. I glanced at this sleeping beauty in awe.... when a jeep rushed past us shouting "Blackie spotted, Blackie spotted...." Our jeep driver, pushed the accelerator hard.... like some crazy action sequence we see in the movies, zig-zagging on those dusty roads, we rushed to a spot and halted with a screech.... and there, we saw Blackie!!


Who is Blackie?

Blackie/Blacky - The Black Leopard

Apart from being the land of Royal Bengal Tigers, Tadoba also has a large share of Leopards. The leopard population is nearly half of the tiger population... approximately 120 of them. Among them are 3 black leopards who are actually melanistic leopards. Sighting them is pretty rare given that there's less than 3% chance in this dense reserve. But to our luck, there it was, basking in all its glory. He watched the two jeeps skid to a stop and proceeded to then cross the path in front of us, cautiously.. We watched as he slunk into the bush on the other side, all the time watching our every move, before the jungle camouflaged him completely.


Bucket list update

Sloth Bear -

Dhole/Wild Dog -

Leopard - YES

Tiger - YES


We returned mesmerised. We realised the rush of sighting animals apart from the tiger. What a thrill!! Our first two safaris were quite unique - the morning had a touch of emotions, love and cuddles and the evening one had elusiveness... quite a fascinating end to the day.


Day 2 | Morning | Agarzari Gate

Day 2 morning, we drove to another buffer gate - Agarzari which was home to Shambhu, the gorgeous male tiger. Shambhu was spotted the previous day in Devada and we did go in search for him, however he seemed to have crossed to the other side of Agarzari. These 2 gates are right opposite each other, hence tigers moving across is not uncommon - also given that they've a huge radius which they call their own.


Mr Deepak accompanied us for this one as well. He's quite tactical in his approach. He said, spotting a tiger is one part of the experience, but how to spot, the story that every spotting brings, is where the meat of the safari lies. True to his word, we drove to an open landscape which was known as the Erai reservoir. This reservoir is visited by most animals in the mornings and we took a chance to spot Shambhu here, since early mornings are the time to hunt. As we drove into this vastness, we noticed a movement a little away from where we were in the grass.. And lo behold! We saw the orange back of a tiger. We could not be sure who it was until we saw the face and the stripe marks. We waited for a glimpse and there it was a few minutes later - It was indeed Shambhu - The fierce Male stamping his authority.


Knowing the path of the tiger, the guide and Mr Deepak decided to drive to another spot, further away. We didn't know what was happening but knowing less than nothing of the ways of the wild, we just sat and watched, knowing we were in the best hands or rather jeep. We were eager and wanted to see more of Shambhu. The driver then reached a spot of no return. Like literally that was the end of the path. Behind us was a marsh where jeeps can't go. We stayed put there and could make out glimpses of the majestic beast slowly making its way towards us.


A tiger is a wild animal, an apex predator and its behaviour can be unpredictable. In theory, there have been no attacks on a jeep at Tadoba, but as Mr Deepak mentioned - they are Shambhu, Maya, Roma.. etc later.. first they are tigers... So we know there have been no attacks, but cannot be sure what can trigger a tiger at any time. Shambhu walked closer and closer to our jeep. The 15*c chillness of the morning couldn't be felt any more. As Shambhu approached us, the temperatures went up. I stopped taking pictures as even a tiny "click" sound of the camera can trigger the tiger. Shakti pulled our daughter away from the edge of the jeep. This jeep is an open jeep. There is no protection around. By some instinct, collectively, all 6 souls in our jeep kept absolutely quiet. The jeep had reached the end of the path. There was no where to go and the driver switched off the engine. We all held our breaths. Shambhu stopped. Then he resumed his walk right at us. Stopped for 10 seconds, this time right next to our jeep. He was a 6ft long tiger, about 2-4ft in height. His body reached the foot board of the jeep. How did I measure all this. HE WAS RIGHT NEXT TO US. He looked right at us, our heart skipped many beats, we stayed still, no movements, no sounds... Those 10 seconds felt like an hour. We looked right at him and could have reached a hand out and touched him. Thankfully he did not want to reach out to us. He then crossed the jeep and we all breather again.... We saw the back of Shambhu and we thanked our stars!! Yes, tigers may not attack jeeps as to them, it looks like one huge big animal and they stay away from it - but they just don't attack to kill, they attack to defend as well... We probably seemed harmless OR we were destined to be forgiven... but man oh man!! WHAT AN EXPERIENCE. Like Mr Deepak mentioned, it's the story that comes along with each sighting that adds to the experience.


Day 2 | Evening | Moharli Gate

We returned to Moharli gate again this time. Even though you visit the same gate, the experiences can be different. You may spot the same tiger or a different tiger - that depends on your luck but visiting a gate multiple times can result in newer experiences which is what happened with us this time around.


In our last visit to Moharli zone, we had sighted Maya and drooled over Blackie. As we were driving around in search of the next ruler of Tadoba, we spotted the Dholes...


Bucket List update

Sloth Bear -

Dhole/Wild Dog - YES

Leopard - YES

Tiger - YES, YES and YES


About Dholes

Dholes or Wild Dogs

Dhole or Wild Dog

As Prajakta Hushangabadkar, wildlife biologist at TATR, puts it, Tadoba is home to Tiger, Leopards and Wild Dogs. A wild dog OR Dhole may not have a powerful jaw like a tiger or a leopard but it is famous for being a fierce hunter. They don't bark. Instead, they whistle for long distance communications to get their pack together. In Tadoba, their packs have varying number of members upto 20 members. Less than 2500 of them are left in the wild as they face a high risk of diseases such as canine distemper and parvovirus transmission. Which is why these are also a rare animal to sight, rated higher above tigers.


After watching the dholes, we drove around, exploring the forest and looking for a sighting. On the way, we spotted different residents of the forest, till we entered the Tadoba National Park area where multiple jeeps were parked in a pathway, overlooking a field. Multiple jeeps, meant only one thing. A tiger was around. But which one? We spotted a mother with her 2 cubs. Maya has one cub, Roma has 2 cubs as well but this was not her area. A glance at the face and stripes confirmed, that it was Bijali.


She was far away. It was 3:30 PM. We camped for sometime but Bijali did not seem to be moving. Slowly her cubs woke up from their nap and started moving around. After about 30 minutes of snoozes, they became more playful, jumping and rolling next to her, not allowing her to sleep. She moved a bit, only to find another spot of shade and lay down again. The cubs were restless. Word came around that another tigress - Choti Tara and her cubs, were spotted in the N-97 area of Tadoba. Slowly, all the other jeeps began moving away and it was just us in that spot.


We had an experienced guide Ms Kajal and Mr Deepak with us. Ms Kajal told us that Bijali had been spotted that morning with a kill - a small fawn, but that was a small meal for her and her cubs. She was confident that the tigress would cross the field to look for more food or for water. So, if we were willing to wait, we could get a closer look at the cubs. Or, travel to N-97 area where Choti Tara and her cubs were sleeping. We decided to wait.


We reached the place by 3:30. Thanks to the cubs incessant playful behaviour, Bijali's slumber ended, but she did not move. Every 20 minutes or so she walked closer to the path and our excitement mounted, only for her to lie down again. All the while, watching the path, us and her environs. The cubs found a deer horn and played with it a while. They played a game of surprising and sneak attacks on each other and of course all over mum. We were mesmerised and 2 hours passed! Finally at 5 40, Bijali got up and started walking with a purposeful stride. We knew this was the moment we had waited for.


This time, its wasn't anything like Shambhu. We were not trapped, she was walking perpendicular to us. We were parked on a tar road (one big difference between Core zone and Buffer zone is also that the Buffer zones are more rustic and feel like a real jungle. The roads are winding, muddy and through the trees... whereas the Core zones have laid out path and tarred). There was enough space for Bijali to cross us and go to the other side.. and that is exactly what she did. She walked past us. Unlike Blackie who was more cautious, Bijali walked like she owned the place. We were furiously clicking pics and waited for the cubs to follow.


But, the cubs were left on the other side of the road. They were too scared to cross. We moved our jeeps back to give them more space and comfort. But they didn't budge. Then we heard a noise that resembled a duck's quack, only to find that it was the cubs! They were calling for their mom or maybe thought they are roaring. We were watching the cubs to see what they would do, when suddenly we saw a tawny movement on the other side. Bijali reappeared... this time with half a fawn in her mouth. We realised it was probably the leftovers from the morning's kill. She once again, regally walked across the road and went over to the cubs. And then we realised, the cubs had not been scared. They were waiting, patiently for their mother to come back. Mr Deepak explained, if Bijali had given the call, the cubs would have crossed the road, without a glance at us knowing their mother is there to protect them. This is that tiger sighting experience, the story which comes along with each sighting. It was a moment worth preserving. The faith and trust the cubs had for their mother to come back, it was all so magical. Shakti had one of the best birthdays ever!!


The Playful Cubs

The Walk With The Kill


Day 3 | Morning | Moharli Gate

The last safari our our trip and we went back to the Morharli Core Zone again, as that was the only ticket available. This time we opted for a canter as all the jeeps were sold out. It was a different experience. Animal spotting can happen on any vehicle, but canters have a path/itinerary which they've to follow whereas jeeps are flexible. But when we were hungry for more and so the canter it was.


Maya visits us.... with a surprise

The canter drove into the core zone and entered Tadoba National Park, when the parked jeeps gave us a hint that a tiger is around. It was Maya, but this time she was much further away. The last time we saw her, she was much closer. But what we didn't see last time was a teeny-tiny baby Maya playing along. Maya was with her only cub from her latest litter.


Maya is considered a fearless tiger. She doesn't care whether it's a jeep or canter. She will walk right next to it. but so was the case with Shambhu and Bijali. I guess, years of living in the safari zones has got them accustomed to the sounds and smells of safaris. But Maya is not to be messed with. She has a reputation of killing a Forest Guard in 2021. We came to know about this much later though and had us thanking our stars that the tête-à-tête with Shambhu wasn't more than that.


We waited, just like how we waited for Bijali, for Maya to get up and come up close. Maya and her cub seemed to have found the perfect post meal spot to for an extended nap. We were told there was a lake on the other side and there was a chance she'd walk across the path, but that was not to be and we had to move on. We had however already spent quite some time there and could not travel to any other territories and had to make our way back. We said our goodbyes to Maya silently hoping she would stand up and walk toward us and we could stay for just some more time. But that didn't happen.



We were driving along towards the exit, a good 15 kms from where we were, and I was having a friendly chat with other riders in the bus, when suddenly our bus driver said the magic word "Tiger!" The guide for the canter, Vaishali, recognised from the markings that it was Roma. Roma was a female tiger, a litter-mate of Bijali's, whom we had seen the previous day. We knew she had cubs but there was no sight of them. We realised she was on the hunt and had hidden her cubs out of sight.


Roma was an absolutely majestic creature. She walked on the tar road in control, completely confident, owning her zone. As we watched, she marked her territory along the way, by rubbing her body against a tree and spraying urine on it. We saw it all - Maya marking her territory by scratching a tree, Dholes marking theirs by defecating and now Roma by spraying. We couldn't have asked for a better end to the trip. It seemed like just how we didn't want the trip to end, the beasts also wanted us to stay for more time and kept coming our way!!! Roma was completely unexpected and our hearts filled with contentment.


Bucket List update

Sloth Bear - Next time

Dhole/Wild Dog - YES

Leopard - YES

Tiger - YES, YES and YES, YES, yes yes, YES, yes, YES ....the tiny ones for the cubs :-)


The trip had an excellent mix of many things - the tigers, cubs, cuddling, playing, defining boundaries, bringing their kills, black leopard, dholes, not to forget a close shave. Nature is filled with surprises. During my Himalayan treks, our trek leader used to say, only the mountain decides who can climb on it. This is exactly the words the forests echo. Only the nature decides what to reveal and when. When amongst nature, although it may seem like you are, know that you are not in control. Mother Nature is....


Signing off with some more pictures


 

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