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 !!