Stripes ! Stripes !! Stripes !!!

Although it was a quite a pleasant spring time in the UK and I could have happily spent my Easter holidays amidst the floral blooms across England, but somehow I was getting attracted to the rising mercury levels of Central India.

Watching the Central Indian temperatures soaring to 42° C, I started getting nostalgic in the UK and made up my mind for a quick touch and go visit to the land of tiger in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh– Bandhavgarh National park.

While on the London-Frankfurt-Delhi Lufthansa flight, I was all the time dreaming about Indian summer - the blistering heat, the rustling of dry leaves, the early morning calls of the jungle and the late afternoon activity around the water holes. Followed by a Delhi- Jabalpur flight and a car pick up, I was right at the doorstep of Bandhavgarh national park for an afternoon round.

Quickly unpacked my equipment, bought some 3 kgs of rice to fill up my beanbag, removed one of the rear seats of the gypsy to open up my Gitzo and wimberly and was all set to go for shooting the stripes then !!

It was a surprising to realize that within just 24 hrs of having my lunch in London, I was now having my lunch near the entrance to the door of a famous tiger land. Thanks to the ever growing air connections.

All my travel and safari arrangements were made by Foliage-Pune and everything that they co-ordinated for me was just perfect- as always !! I stayed at Tiger trails – a resort which I always prefer for some excellent service, good food and very friendly staff.

Mukesh Burman was the fantastic and charged up jungle man who accompanied me with his gypsy and Santosh the driver. This duo fetched me some wonderful moments in the wilderness. His determination was to get me all that which I narrowly missed during my previous visit to Bandhavgarh with family in Dec’08.

During my stay this time - I could meet quite a few popular names in wildlife photography from Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi and Pune and we shared some wonderful time together. Staying in some specific resorts I like couple of things – first is that you easily get to meet like minded people in the jungle round breaks and secondly the birds and smaller wildlife visiting the resort campus provides a very good enjoyment even during the hours away from official boundary of the national park.

I had interesting "sessions" with Black naped monarch, Black rumped flamebacks, Puff throated babblers, Orange headed ground thrushes, Brown fishing owl, Crested Hawk and Serpent eagles Rollers in breeding diaplys and dancing peafowls.

Now talking about Bandhavgarh National park – it’s always a mixed feeling for me. Although I have visited this tiger land several times in the past 12 years, I’ve always observed a gradual decline in the habitat and the charm of the park. Honestly speaking it is no more the jungle that I used to experience during late 80’s or early 90’s. I remember the days when this little jungle used to be a real pleasure.

Lately, this national park has been criticized a lot because of the mad rush of vehicles, the crazy tiger chase, the desperate tourists, the undisciplined movement of vehicles and on top of this – the question the about natural freedom of Tigers here.

At this point – I would refrain myself from making any more comments on the status of the park , but in a nutshell – it is certainly turning into a crazy “highway” of gypsy laden tourists and I strongly doubt if there is any genuine privacy / seclusion left for the tigers and other wildlife here.

Personally, I dislike the trend to “name” the tigers in any national park. Calling them as A1, A2 or B1, B2, Xyz etc is something that I sincerely hate. ….this naming convention is of course a debate among nature lovers ….but I would like to stay away from that argument and I would prefer them to be called “Tigers” – either a male or a female …and that’s it.
(hence in this whole write-up you won’t see any specific names to these tigers – sorry for that !! )
Since the heat was rising day by day, I could observe a gradual transformation in the activity and movement of tigers in line with this change of climate from my first to the last day of my visit. Their routes to the waterholes and their patterns of movement to the cooler parts of the forest were evidently modulated by this obvious change of temperature.

One of the most interesting incidences during this visit was witnessing a kill by a Tiger. This male tiger pounced on a moderately sized spotted deer, dragged the prey to the edge of a nullah and was busy eating away the chunks. We could reach this hunt spot with the help of some strong and repeated frantic alarm calls –probably made by the fellow deer of the one that got hunted ! After about 20 minutes, this huge male tiger got up and started moving away from the place. We were all surprised to see that it was carrying the head of the hunted spotted deer in its mouth ! It was like a “trophy” being carried as a symbol of victory or some kind of a celebration. It was clear that the tiger ate the rest of the body of the prey and retained this head to be carried as a show off !! Though the head was peeled off , I could still see some expressions in the watery eyes of the deer.

Further the tiger got a bit disturbed by the swarm of surrounding vehicles –and it cleverly changed its path towards a bush where this “trophy” head was then secretly hidden in a thickets. What an experience ! First time in my life !!

Another interesting incidence was while moving towards Rajbehera route; we spotted a Sloth bear that was “encroaching” a den which apparently belonged to the two tiger cubs. Totally unaware of the real owners it entered the den – the two tiger cubs returned to find this big black furry ball inside the den !! The cubs were curiously waiting for this sloth bear to come out of the cave. I had a strong feeling that the tiger cubs probably were seeing a Sloth bear first time in their life ! The curiosity and the sense of surprise could be seen in the body language of this tiger cub. It was indeed a unique experience- for the tigers, for the sloth bear and for me as well !!!

While moving in the open 4x4 gypsy, you really need to hold yourself tight in place. I was holding the two camera bodies with two big lenses and hence both my hands were occupied. Suddenly there comes a distant alarm call from a spotted deer..and before you could control yourself…the vehicle is throttled to the top speed…darting towards the alarm call…powdering away a big cloud of dust on the equipment ( and the face !).

With all the equipment in hand and barely holding anything – you get a sudden jerk.. the racing vehicle comes to a sudden stop and you are almost thrown out the vehicle like a stone …if you were not holding things properly!!
After taking these rides - it gives a real good skeletal massage at the end of your visit !! You can count all your muscle and bones - if at all they are left intact !!

But over and above all this – when the king of the jungle emerges in front of me inside the deep corners of the forests- all that grace, the majesty of power and the charm of memsmerising stripes–the moment indeed touches deep into my heart and inadvertently I bow my head to this striped gentleman called “Tiger”– wishing a much better future to their tribe– may their numbers grow safe and healthy to retain the original charm of true wilderness – with all the freedom - which is their birth right by all means.. as they were "BORN FREE"...no doubt about it !!


Once again ..into the wilderness of “Apna-Desh”…
The best bit that I like about every India visit is the day-dreaming that starts a few days prior to the actual date of departure. The very thought of visiting India bubbles up a new cheer and every activity seems to be taking a happier tune. Clocks in the office start ticking faster…the days seems to be passing quicker than before and the calendar page starts appearing smaller!!
Usually our (me, wife Deepa and son Shakunt’s) air tickets are booked about 3-4 months in advance, but those last two–three weeks before departure are the real thrill…..that’s when we plan our luggage and start packing , gather all my photography equipment, stack up the clothes, pick up gifts & sweets etc for relatives/friends….get worried about being overweight for the flight….and then I get too excited thinking about the list of wildlife sanctuaries and locations that are on the itinerary. This time it was another triangle- Maharashtra, Gujarat & Madhya Pradesh.

Although it was our regular annual trip to the home country and was surely a good reason for all the joy and excitement, but before taking off from London airport on 6th December -a series of unfortunate events raised a big question mark in my mind -
1. The 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai had just shaken the whole world and I was sunk in a very sad feeling about the whole incidence. My trip was a dilemma for me because from inside I was a deeply disturbed to see all this happening back home, but at the same time I was not able to hide all the excitement that flooded out with the thought of getting to the homeland after one long year.
2. It had rained very heavily in the Kutch and my visit was almost on the verge of cancellation. Whole Rann of Kutch was flooded with this unexpected rain water and the interior routes inside Rann were all inaccessible. All my hopes for this exciting place seemed to be dying.
3. The overall economic slowdown was shadowing all the trade houses, shops were down on their business and the usual Christmas cheer was absent from the air !

However, end of the day - this trip turned out to be a great visit (socially as well as for wildlife) and we thoroughly enjoyed being in “Apna-Desh” and its enchanting jungles !!

Landing at Sahar airport, passed through the usual custom checks on my big lens and other equipment. Few typical questions – as always – and those fixed answers from me !

Soon, we were cruising on the Mumbai- Pune expressway. Although, Pune was not really a place on my wildlife destination list but every year I need to complete a few essential tasks like bank accounts, house tax, electricity bills etc – the rather uninteresting side of visit – I guess.

Maharashtra - Pune and aroundThanks to Gaurav Purohit and Foliage – with their help in planning and arranging the logistics– every visit becomes a pleasure for me. Backed up by the in-depth knowledge of the wildlife & various locations plus an excellent promptness of communication - interaction with Gaurav and Foliage is a great boon.

My first local outing from Pune was to Saswad & Veer Dam. It was a great pleasure to meet Rahul Rao after a long gap and this visit truly revived many memories from a few years back. I admire Rahul’s passion, dedication and his supernatural spotting skills. He accompanied me to the top of Diveghat…sighting some Chinkaras, Kestrels, Montagu Harriers, Larks on the way….and following further to Veer Dam. During my earlier days in Pune, I had some special feeling associated with this dam and I have always had some surprise sighting at this dam. This time I was hoping for the Bar headed Geese, but being a wrong time of the day (it was almost lunchtime….), Veer Dam could only fetch us with a Greater spotted eagle, Woolly necked stork and a few waders.

An extremely interesting event was the breakfast at “Asmita vada pao centre”. This is surely a must to do agenda & without this "ritual" the visit to Saswad-n-Dive ghat won’t be complete. Finally we rushed back to Pune by afternoon. We also had Rohan Pandit with us – who helped me in a big way by lending his beanbag for my whole trip. I had planned to get one made while being in Pune, but didn’t have enough time – so this beanbag from Rohan was indeed a great gift.
This was also a test round for my newly picked up Canon 50D Body. I think the D40 & D50 combination works best for me with a 100-400 lens on one and the 500+1.4x on the other. However, I found the noise level a bit high on the output images of Canon 50D. To be honest, by the end of my trip - I am more happy with 40D compared to the 50D, not sure if I change my opinion in a few more days with some more shooting with 50D.

Though I wanted to cover a few more destinations in and around Maharashtra this time, but time was a real challenge and I had a full schedule ahead for other locations !

Gujarat - LRK, Velavadar & Jamnagar
Next destination was Gujarat. All my Gujarat itinerary was planned / managed by Vishalbhai Thoria – a wonderful guy to work with. He himself is a wildlifer and nature lover and also has got an excellent grip over whole of the wildlife circuit in Gujarat. I got connected to Vishalbhai through Nirav Bhatt – another “godfather” for me! Nirav helped me for every small and big thing….and most importantly Nirav is a fantastic person & a great friend to be with !!

My flight from Pune to Ahemdabad was supposed to be a quick 50 min one – but got delayed and hence my plan of reaching LRK and having an evening round on the same day was ruled out. As such with the heavy rains the previous week – LRK was a big doubt in my mind….but I was glad that atleast I could get there and was able to make a few rounds to Rann.

Incidentally while on the outskirts of Ahmadabad, I saw a signboard for “Thol Bird Sanctuary” and asked the driver to steer the vehicle toward this well talked birding spot ! No doubt this place is an interesting location but by the time I reached the lake, the sun had almost set and what I could get was a few calls of roosting cranes, few comb ducks edging to the shelter and some Pelicans returning to the far side of the lake. Since it was almost dark, we headed to Patadi – A village close to Little Rann of Kutch. I stayed at Bhavana farms – a very nice and comfortable resort run by Prashantbhai Raval. He is an organic farming enthusiast and is involved in a lot of initiatives for the salt pan workers and people of LRK.

Tying up with the wonderful duo of guide brothers-Pratapbhai and Ranjeetbhai, we chalked out the next day and entered LRK early morning…to start tracking my favourite – The Falcons ! But luck was not on our side that morning…all falcons eluded us…and we could only end up with few Common cranes, Greater flamingos and a few waders.

However, the afternoon round with Ranjitbhai turned out to be a more fruitful one – A desert cat followed by two Desert Foxes, Imperial, Steppe and Tawny eagles, Short eared owls and then with a sighting of 4 McQueen’s Bustards – certainly an icing on the cake. The sun had already set and the dwindling light was a big hurdle, but seeing these bustards for the first time was an unforgettable experience.
The second day at LRK started with a dull and cloudy morning - not the kind of day one would like to ever have in the field- still we entered-and got a fabulous opening score of McQueen’s bustard sighting. But moving further a few hundred meter….OOOPS…our vehicle got stuck in the muddy soil which had got soft due to the recent rains, our guide and driver tried all the ways and means to get the vehicle out but all the efforts were in-vain….the tyres were sinking deeper and deeper with every attempt…..there was not a single person around to call for help…we were the ONLY three warriors in that endless expense of Rann….and finally we were rescued by a tractor which came down from the village few kms away…and pulled us out of this trap !

We had already wasted almost 3-4 precious morning hours and it was actually the time to come out of LRK and return to the resort.

And what a surprise ahead -a fantastic Peregrine Falcon within a few hundred meters of me !!
I tried and managed to reach quite close to this wonderful speedy raptor with a very slow approach of the vehicle......and what a shame…..our driver got a ring on his mobile right at this moment and he started speaking in loud voice….the Falcon…my dream…flew away with all this drama….and I was left back with my mouth wide open….what a stupid thing that could happen with me ! This was a disappointment at its best !!

To my highest dissatisfaction, I bid an immediate good bye to this “clever” driver and thankfully Nirav and Vishal could get me another vehicle+driver- Sumo & Sameerbhai…and this alternate combo worked wonderful all through the further journey. I must say that these days a “mobile phones” have really become a pain for wild lifers.

We then moved on towards Surendranagar and it was here that I got to meet face to face with Nirav Bhatt, Chikubhai Vora and Vishal Thoria at the weeding ceremony of Vishalbhai’s sister. It was a pleasure attending the function and at the whole ceremony with everyone dressed up in festive kurtas and sherwani’s …I was the only odd man out in camouflaged and rugged claddings…with the Canon biggie and Gitzo tripod on my shoulder and dust filled lowepro bag on the shoulder …a guest arriving from Rann of Kutch !!

It was indeed nice meeting Nirav Bhatt. I was happy to see that Nirav also has interest in classical music which is another passion for me as well. He gifted me some superb music CDs – which are indeed a great collection. Together with Nirav, we visited the Eurasian Eagle owl quarry – which is a wonderful habitat and an asset for Surendranagar. The surroundings of Surendranagar are indeed very favourable for good birding and it’s a nice , peaceful town. Wish I could find a job there!!

Further it was a straight 3.5 hrs drive to Velavadar. The road was a bit bumpy and there were a few traffic jams on the road which caused a bit of pain…but a timely break at a small shack on the highway.. with some hot pakodas and jalebi straight out from kadahi…. proved to be a better idea. We were a bit late to reach Velavadar guest house in the night, but being a full moon – the grassland seemed a great habitat. The food at the guest house was already ready – had a nice meal of Gujarati sabji, daal and rotla. I slept with all the harrier dreams in mind.

Next morning the welcome to the park was from the numerous harriers (Montagu, Pallid, Marsh) emerging from their roosting locations and setting off for their day to the grasslands. As the daylight got better, another surprise meeting with a Hyena and its pup made the morning very special. To my surprise, this was the second sighting of a Hyena in my life…the first one being only a fleeting glance in the night crossing front of the vehicle headlights. So seeing a Hyena in broad daylight was something that I had to pinch myself to believe.
Moving on further, there were graceful herds of blackbucks peeping in an out of the grass accompanied by Bluebulls. Occasional sightings of harriers in flight and other birds of prey were keeping the lens busy all the time.

At the water body, a flock of White storks, Pelicans and Flamingos fetched us a great time. I found these storks to be more colourful, healthy and brighter than those I had seen last year at Great Rann of Kutch.

Velavadar is indeed a magnificent grassland habitat. The presence of Lesser Florican in the monsoon months and the exclusive density of Harrier population makes this location a very prominent on the wildlife map of Indian subcontinent.

After Velavadar, it was an extensive drive of seven hours to reach Jamnagar. The road was quite nice and the journey was much easier than what I had expected.

Jamnagar is a destination that should be on the wish list of very bird lover. Many of the species that you struggle to see else where in India…..are easily sighted around Jamanagar. I stayed at Hotel Aaram – a very comfortable and nice hotel – a sure recommendation if you are in Jamnagar. Kunal Joshi accompanied me to the birding spots in Jamnagar and Kunal’s company was a great help – as he was good on bird sighting and identification and was very well conversant with tide timings, routes to various areas and the lighting / sun angles during the day.
We explored Narara for waders, Valsura Road for Greater flamingos and Dhichda for other waterbirds. The presence of numerous Godwits and hundreds of Lesser flamingos was a stunning sight. Khijadiya bird sanctuary and its surrounding area is another place in Jamnagar which provides an excellent opportunity for water birds.

On the way back from Dhichda, we had a unique experience which I will never forget. Since it was a red alert all along the coast owing to the recent Mumbai events – all the villagers were forced to a vigilant approach by Jamnagar police.

While we were birding on the back side of Dhichda…I took a lot of effort to crawl on my knees with the big lens and beanbag in my hands and managed to reach the edge of the lake to try some eye level experiments with flamingos and Pelicans. I like to call these as ELI (eye level images). While I was struggling hard to work with this ELI - some over eager villagers saw us doing this strange act of crawling and reported to the nearest police station that they have just seen some “suspicious people with camouflaged equipment and dress” and as a result of this we had to land up in the police station for all that unnecessary enquiry, irrelevant discussions and I had to run them through all my 40 GB of CF cards to prove that all that I was photographing was birds and nature…nothing else…it was big task to convince these police guys…their computer operator guy was more than an operator.....in all it was a session full of agony…and -we all somehow managed to get out of that bloody place..only when the senior Thana in-charge came down and listened to us in more detail and we had to get some external authorities to resolve the things.
These are the kind of incidences that sometimes make a nature photographer’s life extremely miserable. Luckily I had a couple of good UK birding organisations letters / membership cards with me..which helped to save our life !!
Later we visited Lakhota lake–which is quite popular for its “Swarm of Gulls” and I was also amazed to witness the acrobatic waves of the roosting starling flocks.

Madhya Pradesh - B'garh & Pench
Next destination was Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh - my home state. I have been associated with Bandhavgarh for past so many years but somehow, I dislike the idea of giving names to the tigers in the national parks. Especially Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Ranthambore – this practice is very popular but would be good if these Tigers are not identified by such “hard-coded” names. Surprisingly this time – Bandhavgarh usuals ie B2, Bokha et all eluded us and it was only on the last safari round that we could get a Tiger sighting. Although I have never been a tiger-buff , but we really wanted to have a good Tiger sighting for my wife and son…who had their first visit to the park. We were with the guide-driver duo - Mukesh Berman and Vikas. We stayed in tiger trails - which is quite a decent resort to stay with the family.

Outside of the park boundary, I could get three remarkable sightings. First was a Brown fish owl – which I saw for first time in my life- fishing in a water stream…true to its name. Also, spotting a Mottled wood owl pair and a Blue bearded bee eater was quite rewarding for me.

Since last few years – I am quite excited about Pench. I had visited Pench few years back on a bike !! Now visiting Pench again after 10 years was quite interesting for me. The joy at Pench got multiplied because of the wonderful resort called “Mogli’s Den”. This is indeed a very nice place to spend a few days in Pench. Neat, clean and spacious rooms, excellent service and hospitality, wonderful and sumptuous food and a convenient distance from the park gate. I liked those tasty starters like Hara bhara kabab & spring rolls which they served after returning from the afternoon safari round. This resort feeds you like a king !
Next morning our vehicle was the first one ..and to my greatest surprise - just within 2 mins of entering the Pench park gate… ..and I was still hearing the voices of the people near the entry barrier gate…. a majestic Tigress came walking straight to us…gave a cursory look and disappeared in the side growth. Another unbelievable experience!
Sometimes things happen so quick and unexpectedly in the wild that there is much more fun in experiencing that moment fully ….rather than photographing it… I couldn’t click a single frame!

In Pench, I had scheduled for 5 safaris, but the next whole day was almost a spoilsport due to cloudy and murky sky and somewhat smoky surroundings. We tracked the famous leopards of Pench very hard and most of the times closed in on pertinent alarm calls, but somehow these clever cats tricked us in every way. Rohan- the popular Pench personality was with me. It was just on the last safari round that I got to see a fleeting glimpse of this graceful predator of Pench.

Last three days of my visit we were at Indore - my hometown with my parents. But on top of that I was very keen to visit the Sirpur lake- where I had seen a dream few years back – to transform it to a Bird sanctuary- and today I was delighted to see that the dream coming true. A healthy population of migratory birds amidst the urban pressure was pleasant surprise and thanks to the efforts of “TNV” (The nature Volunteers) that the place is sustaining and the species and population of birds is growing here every year. I had a few press / media interviews/ Television cahennel recordings in Indore about the lake. Some of these are here -

Also, my 5th major contribution as a book - "Ducks, Geese & Swans of India" - was launched on 03 Jan'09 - for which I've shared images to author Dr.Asad Rahamani, Director-BNHS and this book has been jointly published by Oxford and BNHS. The book includes around 50 of my photographs including front page and the back cover. This is the book -

And then…it was the LAST day of the year 2008 and also the last day of my India visit….didn’t realise that the whole month had already gone by so fast…and it was the time to catch my return flight back to the UK.
I was a bit sceptical about my Indore-Delhi-London connection because Delhi had been under severe fog for prevailing for two days and some of the flights were cancelled. Keeping my fingers crossed and eyes glued to the gradually fading fog, we could manage to reach Delhi and then to Indira Gandhi international airport, got the flight to London in time and finally entered the British “habitat”!!

YES…and now it will take a while for me to get out of this nostalgia of the exciting wilderness and its inertia…..and its difficult to get back into the office work…..but you know what…..I‘ve already started dreaming about my next visit to India !!

Some lessons learnt from this trip –
1. Towards end of December usually the sky gets a big foggy and the light quality is a bit smoky. This uncertain weather condition prevails usually for a couple of weeks in most parts of India and then it clears up later probably after a few showers.
2. While moving in the jungles, a fine layer of dust settles on the lens front element, especially if the long lens. This layer is usually not visible but can only be witnessed if you wipe off the front element with a slightly moist duster cloth. This dust layer cause a slight reduction in the image quality. So while in a jeep, its best to keep the front of the lens covered by some suitable means.
3. Ensure that your vehicle driver (if he is unaware of the wildlife) is instructed to keep his mobile off while driving in the sanctuaries….especially if you are expecting to sight something important.

(The images with this write up are general memories of the tour, for more images - specifically of the wildlife species and their behaviour would be available soon on my website http://www.saleeltambe.com/  – which is awaiting a changeover to a new version…so please do visit the website in a few days…thanks).