“A tiger sees you a thousand times for every time you see the tiger,” goes a jungle saying. Those who have wandered in the jungles of India seeking a glimpse of the tiger know that however excited we may be about the efforts we put in to seek an audience with the king of the forest, the tigers treat our visits with nonchalance. Why else would they yawn so much when they see us? A tiger sighting doesn’t come easy, and not even statistics and probability theory can guarantee a tiger sighting. But at Telia, our luck took a different turn.
We visited Bhadra Tiger Reserve early this year, excited about our chance of sighting a big cat since the days prior to our visits had seen a spike in sightings by the safari goers. We did four safaris and on the last safari we did not even see the ubiquitous resident of tiger reserves – the Spotted Deer (Axis axis).
As we were trying to hide our disappointment, a friendly gentleman who was our companion on some of the safaris in Bhadra declared, “I am going to Tadoba in April.” I wondered aloud what makes it more likely to spot a tiger at Tadoba, when we hadn’t seen one in our eight safaris in a span of two years. His response was so persuasive that in twenty four hours I had my Nagpur itinerary ready.
We picked the Ugadi week for our visit to Tadoba. We landed in Nagpur on Gudi Padwa, which happens to be the Marathi New Year. As we proceeded by road from Nagpur to Tadoba, we could see the trees that had shed their leaves in fall were yet to gain them back, but the roadsides were painted a flaming orange by the Flame of the Forest (Butea monosperma) that had started to bloom. The cotton plantations wore a denuded look with spots of while still clinging to the deep brown remnants of the harvested crop. The medians on the highway had a wash of white with the downy cotton fibers blown away by the winds. A question to our chauffeur about orange plantations got him to show us a small orange farm by the road. He mentioned the orange season was over; however, there was a sweet variety that might still be available.
We moved into the Vidharba hinterland when we turned off the highway before Warora. The arid environs belied the presence of the nutrient-rich black soil for which this region is renowned. We passed hamlets, cotton farms and occasional paddy farms. The dust picked up, propelled by the noon convection currents. It was getting hot. The few pools of water gave respite to the buffaloes from the heat. The vision of a tiger coming down to a waterhole seemed more probable as the parched surrounding begged for a rain drop. I looked up the azure sky which had no intention of heeding the plea.
We crossed the village of Sitarampet in the buffer zone of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve and reached our destination by the Irai lake. In the evening the lake and its banks played host to Asian Pied Starlings (Gracupica contra), Purple Swamp Hen (Porphyrio poliocephalus), Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans), Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis), Brahminy Starlings (Sturnia pagodarum), Red Avadavat (Amandava amandava), Red-wattled Lapwings (Vanellus indicus) and Rosy Starlings (Pastor roseus). Damselflies took up their last drinks of the day as the sun went down over the Irai. Frogs and crickets started their performances of contralto and soprano.
We were ushered into our dwelling by three chaperones by 6:15 PM. Our guides later revealed that the reason we had half a squad accompanying us for our evening walk with a cinderella clock was due to the presence of a tiger that had been spotted lurking in the buffer zone.
Encounter at Telia Lake
Telia Lake in the Moharli Range of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger reserve is home to the resident female tigress Sonam. Sonam, along with her sisters from the same litter – Mona, Geeta and Lara – had been featured in the Discovery Channel documentary “Tiger Sisters of Telia”. We were told that Sonam was sired by the erstwhile dominant male of the range, Waghdoh, who has been banished from his turf by the new dominant male Bajrang. Madhuri, the mother, has has been sent away from the Telia lake area by Sonam. As Sonam was used to safari jeeps with human visitors, a sighting was considered very likely, so our safari started from the Telia lake. Our jeep was among the first eight to get into the tourist zone of the core area and we rushed to Telia Lake.
We were told the lake got its name from the emulsion-like taste of the water. Interestingly the fauna seemed to relish this taste as we saw, Spotted Deer, Sambar (Cervus unicolor), Oriental Honey buzzards (Pernis ptilorhynchus), Asian Openbill, Darters (Anhinga melanogaster), Indian Cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis), Lesser Whistling Ducks (Dendrocygna javanica), Cattle Egrets, Intermediate Egrets (Ardea intermedia), Indian Rollers (Coracias benghalensis), Black Drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus), White-bellied Drongo (Dicrurus caerulescens), Black Naped Monarch (Hypothymis azurea), White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis), Sirkeer Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus leschenaultii), Grey-headed Fish Eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus) and Black Ibis (Pseudibis papillosa), thriving here during our many safaris.
We were shown the area in the grass near an Apta (Bauhinia racemosa) tree where Sonam would be found sunning herself late mornings and early afternoons. We moved on, for our guide felt the signs did not indicate the presence of a predator. We returned late morning to Telia as we had heard of a sighting of Sonam, which happened fifteen minutes after we had departed and the jeeps that got in late were treated to that sighting.
We found pug marks, we heard spotted deer calls and sambar calls, yet we found no tigers in Telia on our second and third safaris as well. We also saw an unidentified herp more than a meter long and very swift in climbing up a well-foliaged tree. On our fourth safari, our guide was determined to show us Sonam at Telia, so we waited excruciatingly long, hearing occasional alarm calls on the other side of the lake. The calls got close. We were told that the tiger was headed in our direction. And then the calls stopped. We waited longer as we trusted the experience of our guide and our safari jeep driver.
A Green Bee Eater (Merops orientalis) came and sat on a bush at eye level. These birds always provide wonderful portraits. I started to get pictures. Meanwhile our guide started to humour us with trivia and riddles about the forest. Our driver asked for the binoculars and in a nonchalant tone, mentioned that the tiger was right where we had been looking for him to make an appearance fifteen minutes before.
This almost seemed like a prank. But I knew our driver took his work too seriously to play with our emotions after we had waited patiently for forty-five minutes. He gave directions on where to look for the tiger in the grass, but with fading light it was an uphill task. Suddenly, the tiger yawned. The stripes that had so clearly blended with the grassland were not betrayed by the large canines and incisors that evoked awe. We were separated by less than two hundred meters from a tiger who had been watching us for the last fifteen minutes at least. This was a shy tiger who did not emerge from the grasslands and we were told that it was unlikely to be Sonam, and perhaps was one of her cubs. It didn’t matter because the experience was so overwhelming, for we experienced the tiger’s renowned stealth from close quarters. And while our foray to Tadoba yielded rich tiger sightings, this experience will always be close to my heart. The sun started to dip and we returned, yet that sighting of just the ear spots of the king of camouflage behind the dry standing grass continued to evoke goose bumps.
Photographs and Text : Andy