Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bandavgarh - Fort of the Tiger, Canvas of the gods

The start

We were staying at Royal Tiger resort quite close to Tala gate and their Innova had come to pick us up at Katni railway station. Even within the cool confines of the car one could feel the burning heat outside and for a moment we were foolish enough to doubt this venture of ours in the month of May. If there were vestiges of doubt, it was quickly removed in our first safari. We drove directly to Rajbehra on entering the Tala gate after checking in. And sure enough the mother and 3 cubs which have become quite a common sighting this season were awaiting us. After close to an hour their mother came from behind the rocks and headed straight for a herd of chitals and Sambar grazing across the meadow. It was a once in a life time experience seeing the tigress stalking its prey. It was cut short by a dust storm that swept the meadow and we had to retreat back.

Meeting with royalty

One day we were returning from our evening safari and there were whispers in the air about someone seeing B2 in a water hole far from the road. B2 is the dominant tiger of Bandavgarh. Currently, B2 is being challenged by Bokha, the younger and much more fitter boy. When we reached the Chakradhara area where B2 was last sighted, we decided to wait on a hunch. We could see him in the screech of a peacock from far away bamboo thickets. We could see him in the alertness of a Sambar. We could see him in the calls of the frightened-to-death langurs and chital. And then the king came. It was kind of anti climax. He just came in front of us in open like a beacon serpenting through the brown grass. For a moment, I didnt know what to do. Thankfully, my hands went into autopilot increasing the ISO to counter the fading light, putting the bean bag on a lower beam to get eye level shot. Eyes fastened onto the view finder and 40 D firing at around 6 per second I could shoot 10-12 decent shots of the king. He did not once look at the gypsies. And this devil may care attitude towards everything else around him is what has helped him rule Bandavgarh for these many years. Sure enough, Bokha will lead him to his death. That is the rule of nature. The last fight had left him bruised and limping. But the old man had given Bokha enough injuries to keep the younger male rethink before the next attack. It was over in half a minute. But those 30 huge seconds are something which "I shall take to my grave" as Metallica would have put it!

We did see the king once more in during the week at a firebreaker at Chakradhara area itself. Better sighting, better light, more than a minute but the first one would remain in my memory more.

Sidhbaba Tigress

Tigresses in B'garh are named after their territories. This female is seen around the Sidhbaba temple area and hence the name. That day however, with Chakradhara female, one of the many queens of B2 not around, we caught up with her at Chakradhara meadow itself. Thankfully, we had gotten the E route allocated that morning safari and lo and behold she was waiting. She is arguably one of the most beautiful things Ive laid my eyes upon. Hope her imminent litter with B2 would turn out to be as magnificent as their mom. Tourists going after park reopening in October would hopefully have a feast. Pray things go fine and there is no more litter missing cases.

Andhiyari Jhiriya Male Cubs

During one of the safaris in the latter half of our stay, we decided to stalk these male cubs about a year old. They are the cubs of B2 and tipped to one day rule Bandavgarh. They have clearly inherited the magnificence and stealth of their dad. They also look almost as handsome as the king already. Thanks to our guide and driver Mohan who reads pugmarks like we read newspapers, we spotted them lying in the shade. We enjoyed the serenity of the jungle all around with no other gypsy coming close. For around 15 minutes it was just us and them - the two charming boys. In time 3-4 other gypsies also came down. And then the drama started. A village dog had entered the park and and was barking. True to their inheritence the cubs were up on their feet in a jiffy and off they went hunting. Within minutes the barking died off. The driver and guide said they did remind them rightfully of a young B2.

Rajbehra Family

Most of this month, tourists have been given darsan by the Rajbehra female and her three cubs. Unfortunately, one of the cubs have developed some swelling / growth in it's tummy and was not seen in the latter days. But the other two cubs (of Bokha) and their mom gave us a spectacle that was unforgettable. It was a Sunday afternoon and the park was filled with the daily tourists too. We were not really expecting any sighting and was just enjoying the forest. Sometimes it is a great thing just to enjoy the jungle, keep away the cameras and stop worrying about tiger sighting(Well not sometimes, guess most of the times..but as they say old habits die hard!!). And then they came. World was silent. Somewhere a king vulture perched down. The bee eater took another insect in flight. Few kids were eating biscuits in their waiting gypsies. And then it started. Langurs shrieked. Sambars ran. Chitals called. Wild boars scurried away in a tearing hurry. From afar they came. The mom and the two cubs. They just decided to lie down in front of the waiting gypsies and play. The cubs jumping around the mom. Photography was difficult as the cubs were covered in the grass with the mom lying down. But it was one wonderful drama which makes all the hardships worth it. 15 minutes, 2 GB and a shaking hand and trembling breath latter, I beamed a smile to my wifey & photographers in other gypsies. We just looked around and nodded our heads. No one spoke. Everyone just stood still. We felt like a brotherhood bonded by the spectacle that we had shared. We went to Mukesh bhai's shop at Tala (Mukesh is a wonderful driver cum tiger lover cum conservationist cum Bandavgarh historian all rolled into one). Over tea I shared the pics with him and Mohanji. Latter Mohan and me went to the resort, put three chairs outside and we discussed the events of the day over few king fisher strong beers. Mohan have been driving at the B'garh parks for the past 12 years. He has seen Charger & challenger. Then the Bs - B1,2 and 3. He has dejectedly seen the guard change. It is tough on some of the more dedicated drivers like Mohan who so love these individuals. Day in and day out , morning and evening, their life is filled with tracking these brilliant creatures. And then some of them disappear. Some die. Some get killed and it is as if you suddenly lose a member of your family or a dear friend.

After Thoughts

The numbers of these beasts are decreasing at a fast pace due to poaching primarily for China and Tibet. Though there has been a bit of awareness of late, it might be too less too late. Tiger conservation is a national priority. But in the post Indira Gandhi era, none of the governments have done enough to protect our national animal. It is as important a symbol as the national flag and national anthem - even more since it is a living breathing beacon of hope for the country. Read what I had written some months back on economic and political importance of conservation here.
Let us all pray for and help create awareness on the criticality of this mission lest these magnificent beasts walk into the sunset of their era. And then there shall only be darkness. For generations to come.

Friday, May 09, 2008

The paradise called Andamans

Andamans have been in our plans for sometime. So me and Sandhya set out for the trip immediately after the wedding. Cyclone Nargis which wrecked havoc in Burma had left a little sister in the Andaman seas leading to all ships to the further islands being called off for a week. As we landed at Port Blair airport the guide who picked us up sounded sceptical regarding our trip to Havelock island which was our base for the 5 day trip. He said no ferry had sailed from PB Jetty over the past 3-4 days. However, by grace of god, it restarted the day we landed in Andamans.

The ferry from PB to Havelock is probably the most boring and tiring experience one can have in the trip. Before the ferry starts at 2 p.m we could take some time to walk around and see the cellular jail infamous for the incarceration of multitudes of Indian freedom fighters during the independence struggle. The clouds, colors and angles in the structure gave many wonderful photo ops.

Once disembarked on Havelock, it was smooth sailing . We were staying at the famous barefoot resorts built amongst rainforests where all one would hear is the distant thunder of waves in the lonely beaches and the sounds of many birds chief being the parakeets. (I think two species that I could spot were red breasted and long tailed). Alexandrine and vernal hanging are also around but I could not shoot either).

The first day itself we could spot a few endemics primary being the andaman woodpecker and black naped oriole.

There are many things to do at the islands. Most tourists are foreigners atleast at Havelock and prefer being on the beaches, diving and snorkelling. The forests are pretty much left untouched by tourists which is a thankful thing. I could see plastic bottles and garbage at some of the beaches but the forests were more sanguine. The littoral rainforests here were not as dense as what we get in some inland rainforests but the trees are as huge. And the trekking experience is quite eerie. You realise how small humans are in comparison to nature and how critical it is to protect whatever remains of these wildlife labs.
On the second day we had a glimpse of the large monitor lizard thanks to the alarm calls of a bunch of hill mynas. Could see it only for 3-4 seconds but was quick enough to get a half decent shot.

The third day was primarily dedicated for trekking around the Neils cove where the notes of other birders had noted presence of black headed kingfisher. However we could not spot them. We did see the collared KF instead which were too far off for any decent pics but were still interesting to watch.

Fourth day trek was through cultivated lands and fields. At the forest edge on a tree we saw the highly endangered Andaman serpent eagle apart from andaman coucal,white headed starling and shrikes.

The last day was a typical rainforest day. The morning was bright and sunny. During lunch it became as dark as say 7 p.m Then came the thunderstorm. I've seldom witnessed such heavy rains for around 2-3 hours. Rains inside the rainforests are an ultimate feeling. Craking frogs, crickets and myriad other creatures presented a swansong for what was arguably one of my best trips ever. I'm counting days when I can be back in the Islands.

The return sail to PB and flights to Chennai and then to Mumbai led us back to concrete forests. We are off to the Bandavgarh pilgrimage in 4 days and hence back to the real forests !! :)

Birdlist (Key ones)

Andaman Woodpecker (Endemic)
Andaman /Brown Coucal (Endemic)
Asian paradise blue
Emerald dove
Green pigeon
Black naped oriole (Endemic)
Hill Myna (Endemic race ? - Not sure)
White headed starling (Endemic ?)
Andaman Serpent Eagle (Endemic and highly endangered, probably only a few left)
Olive backed sunbird
Collared and white breasted King fishers
Common flowerpecker
Brown shrike (?)
Black naped monarch
Fulvous breasted woodpecker
Glossy swiftlets
Red breasted parakeet
Alexandrine parakeet
Long tailed parakeet
Some brown flycatcher
RV and RW Bulbuls
Jungle crow

Edited to add : The best place to stay at Havelock is Barefoot.. Highly recommended jungle resort...Quite close to what was rated as the best beach in Asia by Time (3 minute walk). A bit on the expensive side for Indians atleast :)