Pench National Park

I am sure most of you are aware that The Jungle Book is being remade and being released in April by Disney. Rudyard Kipling‘s imaginations about Mowgli, Bhageera, Sherkhan and Baloo is what most of us Indians have grown up on. I doubt there maybe any people of my generation that wouldn’t be aware of this story. What fuelled the imagination of Kipling were the jungles of Pench. Even the most famous documentary Tiger : The spy in the Jungle by BBC was shot here, which again I am sure most of us would have seen on TV.

 

Pench National Park derives its name from the river Pench, it can be best accesed via the Madhya Pradesh Side of Seoni and Chhindwara districts. The forest is a dry dedicious forest and sheds all leaves by March making it an excellent time for viewing during summers. We have made a pact as a family to spend atleast 2-4 days looking for a tiger in march every year and so this year it was the turn of Pench after we had visited Ranthambore, Kanha, Bandhavgarh & Melghat. The jungles of central India which many decades ago were all one are pretty diverse, whilst Bandhavgarh and Kanha side are sal forests which are evergreen, Melghat and Pench are dry deciduous forests with loads of teak trees.

 

The jungle was pretty dry when we went, there was a carpet of dry leaves all around the forest as the trees had shed them and were not yet ready with new growth. This is a great advantage if you want to spot birds, less leaves, less foliage always aid in great viewing of animals and birds.

 

Pench has its own charm, at the outset you might even feel the jungle can’t hold enough life as it seems so dry, however, only a small matter of about 35000 spotted deer, over 8000 sambar survive, making it a perfect place for Tigers to live and thrive. We did most of our safari’s via the Turia gate and the area in which we were searching for the tiger some 4 tigress’ lived and all of them were with cubs. This news brought us all great happiness, for we are yet to witness a full family of tiger in one frame. I have always seen tigers who are alone, it would be great to watch a group of them, playing with each other.

 

Anticipation was ripe as we started our first morning safari at the crack of dawn, the weather was cold and a nip in the air, we needed a pull over for the first two hours of the safari. The bird life viewing was excellent, within an hour into the park we had spotted a Pied Malabar Hornbill, Mottled wood owl, spotted owlet, jungle owlet, racket-tailed drongo, Indian Roller, Wooly necked Stork, Rudy Shelduck, Painted Storks, Great Teat, Flameback woodpecker, Vultures of two species to name a few!

 

Bare(bear) necessities was the song on my mind all the time, the jungle seemed just enough for the wildlife to thrive without being lush in greenery or water. The waterholes were all full of activity, after about two hours of driving and no calls or any clue about the Tiger’s movement we decided it was better to sit at a waterhole and wait. We selected a waterhole that the guide told us was the Baigan Nala Tigress’ favourite spot. She had 3 cubs and that sounded like music to my ears.

 

We spent about an hour and half at that waterhole, during which we got an inkling of life in the jungle, as we reached the waterhole we saw an egret and a wild boar drinking water, whilst an Indian Roller dived around for insects that only it could see, there was a white breasted kingfisher who stood transfixed in its spot, two cormorants were drying their wings in the sun after a dip in the pool and a bee eater hunting about as well. As we waited we saw the Boar disappear after a while and a group of langur’s came to drink water, after they departed a group of spotted deer came to quench their thirst, they drunk water in a peculiar manner, the fawns and females all drank leaving space in the middle where the antler came and took position and drank to its hearts content, Rhesus macaque followed the deer and then it was the turn of the sambar to take a dip.

 

Life around a waterhole was so busy, I had once read a book whose name I forget, written by an english lady who spent about a month in Dudhwa National Park, she would go to a waterhole everyday morning where her Mahaout would drop her and she would sit all day like a wood log observing and soaking in the jungle till sunset when her elephant would come to pick her up. I had loved reading her experience back then and it was good to have a slight insight into that this day.

 

The calmness, the activity, the sounds of nature, the way life moves about sitting and watching, talking less and just soaking does it for me. It gives me a kick that I doubt anything else would. The jungle is there to soak and I tried my best to soak as much of it in as I could.

 

We didn’t get to see the tiger this time around, however, the jungle was still pretty hustling with a lot of life and that kept us busy. I was fortunate enough to witness a Peregrine Falcon sitting on a far off branch and then taking off leisurely. For those who might not know, it is the fastest diving bird and one of the fastest members in the animal world. When it makes it scoop to hunt it can reach a speed of 350 kmph. Go tell that to Ferrari folks, now thats a standard to match up to! Just imagine it for a second, the bird hunts parrots in mid air, parrots are pretty swift flyers themselves!

 

Our luck with the Tigers was overwhelming in Bandhavgarh last year and so this time around we were not lucky enough to spot one however, I still have fallen for this jungle as it makes for excellent viewing of animals, the dry trees and low foliage are an advantage which many green forests at times though far more beautiful do not offer.

 

I will leave you with a few pictures of the sights of Pench NP. Hope you like them!

A herd of Sambar cross the road

A herd of Sambar cross the road

A Grey Hornbill

A Grey Hornbill

A Changeable Hawk-Eagle awaits its turn at the waterhole

A Changeable Hawk-Eagle awaits its turn at the waterhole

A family of wild boar run about

A family of wild boar run about

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A shikra keenly keeps an eye on proceedings

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The head of the herd takes the prime position for a drink!

Pench River Bed has maximum greenery for the deer to graze, boars to dig the dirt, jackals stalk them, peacocks strut about, the Vultures await an opportune moment!

Pench River Bed has maximum greenery for the deer to graze, boars to dig the dirt, jackals stalk them, peacocks strut about, the Vultures await an opportune moment!

A mottled wood owl didn't seem to amused at spotting us in their territory!

A mottled wood owl didn’t seem too amused at spotting us in their territory!

This handsome dude wanted to pose..

This handsome dude wanted to pose..

Finally a near good shot of the Greater Racket Tailed Drongo after 3 years!

Finally a near good shot of the Greater Racket Tailed Drongo after 3 years!

In the jungle, where ever you go, whatever you do, remember someone is watching you at all times!

In the jungle, where ever you go, whatever you do, remember someone is watching you at all times!

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Machli Jungle Ki Rani Hai

Once upon a time, there was a boy, who was fascinated by story books, comics and tales by his Naani. He lived in that fantasy world of so many characters and stories. One day, whilst he lived in Mumbai, came a movie opposite to his house, The Jungle Book, an animated movie, based on the book by Rudyard Kipling. The boy starry eyed went for the movie, during the course of the movie they also were selling the comic book with the same name. Fortunately, the kids parents bought one for him.

 

All of a sudden, the Indian jungle was alive in front of his eyes everyday, Kaa, Bagheera, Baloo, King Louie, Col Haathi, Mowgli all would dance around all day in his imagination. He would re-read that comic endless times. Somehow, the negative character in the movie, for this kid, Sher Khan was also a hero. Some fascination for the mighty, arrogant, cunning lord of the jungle kind of remained in his mind.

 

As life progressed, for a brief period, this kid was left at his maternal uncle for about 3 months time in Baroda, interestingly, that phase was a very good one. His uncle had made an arrangement with their office help Pandubhai to take this kid to the local zoo(Kamatibaug) everyday. So sitting on the little seat on the rod of the huge Atlas cycle this kid would everyday lap up the chance to go to the zoo and see his favourite animals. Apparently, retold by Pandubhai, the kid would daily sit in front of a tiger cage, the tiger’s name was Vitthal, for almost an hour talking to Vitthal. 

 

Time flew and the kid grew, his life was more involved in studying and trying to escape from studying both which didn’t quite work out well. Amazingly even though he always loved the woods and read books about the jungles and forests and saw programs on Nat Geo or Discovery, this kid actually never made it to the jungles. He did get one chance during a school trip to Gir but that was a 2 hour routine and nothing more.

 

Eventually the little kid grew up into a man and decided to marry, when you marry atleast you get to go for a honeymoon, so as luck would have it the kid’s lass and the kid planned a honeymoon in Uttar Pradesh(Now Uttarakhand) and as luck turned out one of the two places that they were visiting was Jim Corbett National Park.

 

The kid and his lass both were actually having their first real fling with the jungle. Little did they know it was a triangular love affair. The forest around Dhikala in Jim Corbett National Park has never left the kid’s memory till date, 14+ years have passed, but he swears he still remembers the smell of the jungle. The tree’s so tall that he had never seen before, the introduction to Jim Corbett’s book (Man Eater’s of Kumaon) happened then and that kind of increased the whole fantasy game even more. No, they didn’t see a tiger there, they didn’t even spot herds of Elephants, as far as sighting was concerned it was kind of poor, spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, wild hogs, a hornbill, a few parakeets was just about all that they spotted yet the jungle sorry the experience left a lasting effect.

 

For many years they didn’t travel much and life’s other routines took over, then once again a trip was scheduled to a tiger reserve in Ranthambore. By then that kid, that is me had a kid who was 8 years old. 🙂 Time flies I tell you.

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Ranthambore has got many relics mingling with the woods and vegetation that is growing all over it. All this adds up to the viewing experience.

 

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A full grown adult male spotted deer

 

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A Sambar baby looks us up!

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A pair of wooly necked strok were busy feasting on an algae infested pond

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A crocodile soaks up the sun on a cold morning.

 

The wait to spot a tiger in the wild was just getting longer and longer. For those who have never gone to spot a tiger let me just describe the whole fervour.

 

Apparently, most tigers are not social unless during mating season, tigers are usually alone. Female tigers have smaller territories depending on its strength anywhere from 6-14 square kilometers. Male tigers have even bigger territories of 15-25 square kilometers and there might be some 3-4 female tiger’s being in the vicinity of the male tiger. Apart from some very rare instances most of the times the male tiger and the female tiger are never together apart from a few weeks when they are mating.

 

So challenge no.1 is to locate one tiger, unlike lion’s who are in a pride you have to search for one tiger who has a significantly large territory. Usually these animals are nocturnal and move more during colder periods of the day rather than during hot periods. So either your chances are good early morning or late in the evening before it gets so dark we can’t see.

 

The tracking is usually done by drivers and guides who take you on a safari and whilst in the early morning they might be guided by pug marks more often than not they depend on a call by a langur or a deer. Now this is a very interesting way of spotting a tiger. The guide hears a call and raises his hand signalling everyone to be quiet. Everyone stops, the jeep also is shut, everyone tries to listen, the sound of the jungle reverberates in your ears. Pin drop silence, fresh air of the jungle, a small chi chi by a bird somewhere, a fly buzzing by your ear, the rustle of dead leaves as the deer walk on them, you can hear the jungle come alive!

 

Cooo…

 

You whisper to the guide

kaun hai?

us taraf ped pe se koi langur awaz de raha hai..

Apparently, when the tiger is on the move, a langur or a deer who ever spots it keeps giving an alarm call to all others alerting them that the Big Boss is on the move. The whole experience of keeping quiet, listening to that one hoot from a distance, tracking that hoot and seeing which direction it is being relayed is by what the guides gauge the location of the tiger. This whole exercise when there is pin drop silence and you actually absorb the jungle just by your eyes, ears and nose is what makes the whole experience quite fascinating and unreal for me.

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Mornings be so wonderful in the woods! Dawn at Ranthambore

Okay so back to my story, after the first safari was unsuccessful, the second day’s morning safari was pretty eventful as we managed to actually spot a leopard of all people. Amazingly, there was no alarm call, there was no evidence we were going to see it and all of a sudden it was me who thought he saw a deer walk and asked the jeep to stop and we realised it was a leopard. Early morning the leopard seemed to be walking back up the hill, as the guides would generalise, leopards spend the day in higher ground away from the tiger ground. This fellow was quietly walking away, he crossed the road whilst we stood there transfixed, he paused for a second looking at us and then as if we didn’t matter kept on walking on his merry path.

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This fellow posed just for a second! Terrible shot I know, but the excitement of having spotted a predator!

No tiger, but hell a lot of excitement, Bagheera’s fair cousin after all 😀

 

The next safari we got into a zone that was special, it belonged to the legendary & the most famous tigress of the country and apparently she had killed something in the morning and our guide and driver excitedly took us to the spot. Machli, the tigress, is probably the most photographed and most well documented tigress amongst all Indian tiger’s not just that but infact a  report says that India had earned about USD10 million per year due to tourists attracted by the tigress for the last ten years!!!!  She has stories galore, they call her the Park ki Naani as she was 17 year old then in the last stage of her life and many of the powerful tigers in Ranthambore were her kids! So we stood at that spot where she had been seen in the morning for an hour, I was transfixed and did not want to move even if that meant 4 hours of waiting. Eventually, whilst we were busy shooting a mongoose some movement was noted below a banyan tree it was dark and far she was moving, she was spotted, but, as most tiger’s are, she was lazy and in the noon at 3 pm she was in no mood to move she actually lied in some nullah (waterbody) where we couldn’t see it.

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The first sighting!!!! Albeit quiet far and zoomed up!!!

After so many years, so much of a wait, a glimpse from miles away, I didn’t want to go or give up but my driver and guide took me around teaching me to enjoy the jungle and all other aspects and not be crazy about the tiger. They were right, but, it was my first time! Sigh… after about 2 hours of zipping about we came back to the same spot hoping that now that it was a bit of late evening and considerably cooler she would probably make a move. The fact that she had some kill around there made our chances bleak. As the time went by, the exit time was nearing and most of the other jeeps started to go, I was feeling gutted, I didn’t want to go. We were the last jeep and I requested by driver, last 5 mins then we will go away.

 

Just as my driver’s patience was wearing thin and late exit fine looming on us our guide excitedly gushed in a whisper….

woh hili

woh hili… 

jhadiya hil rahi hai….

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Finally she emerged! Her snooze was perhaps over! Yay… she was moving!

Those two minutes when you try to spot the movement are like crazy, you feel you are blind, then eventually we saw her moving, she was still quite far, but she came out of the bushes and climbed a rock and sat down, we could see her in full but she was quite far.

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She sat down at a vantage point, probably eyeing her kill and whiled a few minutes before flies ensured she didn’t stay there!

We gaped, looked in our binoculars and soaked the feeling of watching a tiger, free and on its own, not a care or worry in the world she sat there, yawned, shook her head to get rid of the flies, gaze about and allowed us for a minute to understand what her world was like.

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For a minute she looked into my lens! Zoomed image but boy she looks magnificient doesn’t she?

The most powerful beast was all alone actually, every one stayed miles away and yet as she again got up and made a move Cooo went a langur, for a change, human’s had spotted it before the monkey’s! As she moved down from the hill the langur shrieked harder. The jungle suddenly seemed to be coming alive as she moved and then it struck us, it was moving towards a road crossing.

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Some how in this image she looks quite short and actually like a long lost kitten!

Our guide took us to a spot where he reckoned the tigress would come out, for a few anxious minutes we lost it, we wondered if we might not see her again and then a few bushes moved, and like the cutest of kitties, she emerged, cutest she looked from a distance, but, as fast as lightning it dawned upon you, as she walked and walked towards us, decreasing the distance to about 6-7 feet of our jeep we actually experienced how enormous and how terrifying the feeling can be. She never for an instance indicated or even took notice of us apart from a casual two moment glance. No even an iota of threat was issued by her, we were a total non event for her. Perhaps she was so used to having camera’s chasing her for so many years she stopped taking notice. But boy when she came really near our jeep, before it crossed it, this was not something we were used to and it was certainly a first for all of us, we had frozen, I had stopped clicking and grabbed by son close to me. DSC_0238That moment was indescribable, fear, joy, ecstacy, excitement, nervousness everything in one and you dared not shriek at that moment. Something that you have wanted to experience for so long in your life suddenly happens like a blur in front of you and you don’t even know how to react!

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That blur of a moment is still alive in my eyes, she went a little away from our bushes and lazily plonked herself on the floor again. In those 5 minutes of activity it had given memories of a lifetime to a few people. The beast as some would call it was beautiful, graceful, light footed, arrogant but above all was free to its own will! Yes, this wasn’t a tiger in a cage, it was in its own free world, where she could sleep all day or walk miles if she wished. Yup that was my first tiger in the wild.

 

Machli I guess was worth the wait of 35 years! The queen of Ranthambore, Park ki Naani, Lady of the lake are some of the names of her but none appeals to me more than Machli. Apparently Machli was the trigger point for many more encounters in the future to come, which I am all going to recount in the next few posts. Here are a few pictures of the most picturesque Ranthambore, for a reserve in Rajasthan you will be surprised by the number of water bodies it has and all of my pictures are from March!!

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Nothing and I repeat nothing can compare to this experience of stalking the biggest stalker of them all in his own backyard! Yes spotting a tiger in its natural habitat is an experience one can only comprehend once they experience.

 

 

 

Stop! Tiger on Prowl!

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Early morning safari’s are blissful! Not only do you get to be in the woods early in the morning and take in the fresh air, but the slowly penetrating sunlight gives you a thousand sights that will fill your memory for all those days when you have to go to work! The jungle is fully alive first up in the morning, the birds in full flight and at their chirpiest best!

The visitors in the park even more excited at the hope of spotting animals and among all a tiger!

Then, 5 minutes into the park you see this beautiful young female cub walking all alone on the road towards you and you wonder whom do you thank for your luck today!

Oh she was awesomely pretty walking down towards us! We kept reversing our jeep as she kept on walking towards us, she refused to acknowledge our presence, spraying on the trees and marking her territory.

This cub is not yet an owner of a territory and will soon mature into a full grown tigress and make her own territory, she has started doing a bit of it. We were blessed to watch her from up close! 🙂

The beaten path…

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Its dawn in the jungle and its time to rush… the tiger trail is hot!

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Slowly but surely the sun breaks through, providing some much needed warmth to all the beings in the jungle!

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Snaking through the jungle on these slopes, curves we spent 3 days shooting the animals in the jungle, with our camera ofcourse 😉 😀