Smitten by a Kitten: Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Madya Pradesh, India

26 Mar

‘Seen tigers?’ Not your usual evening greeting by an Indian family passing by on the street but then Tala is not your typical Indian village in one very important respect.

‘No, not today, but yesterday one. You?’ ‘Nothing.’ I felt so sorry for the young mum and dad with their seven-year-old son. They’d bought only one park entry and they were leaving tigerless next morning.
My story has a happier beginning. 

Our eyes met and it was infatuation at first sight. A perfect, handsome, totally wild specimen of Panthera tigris tigris. Master of all he surveyed, demonstrating supreme calm and confidence, he gazed up at me with liquid amber and coal black eyes from ten metres away. Be still my beating heart!

Lying prone on the jeep track next to a bamboo thicket he watched us as we watched him. The sole remaining cub of Wakeeta (Beautiful Flower), W8* was killing time waiting for mum to return from hunting. This was the fourth day he’d been seen alone in the area and still no sign of the tigress. It’s thought mum isn’t coming back, Her biannual litter is due in April and this was late March. Play time was over. W8 would be forced to claim territory and go hunting for real now to survive. 

    

After ten minutes he yawned and stretched, got to his feet in one fluid motion, and strolled through the bamboo, along the track behind our jeep, and down into the cave and pond complex of the area called Sita Mandap. Almost as though he was following a script he spent another fifteen minutes reclined on a sandstone ledge while jeeps repositioned so we tourists could see him. Sadly our i-devices are useless for photography at a distance so no pix and the video will come later when I figure out how to unfreeze my youtube account.

Next he ambled down to a sandy puddle and lapped water slowly, sunk on his front paws. He continued across the depression and at a stately pace walked up the bank and disappeared into the forest behind. The morning show was over folks. It was 7:30am on our first of four jungle drives and we’d already struck gold in Tala Zone Route D. An early birthday present for me.

 

 

It was then I realised I’d had a smile on my face since the moment I saw him. The smile is back now as I recall the encounter. My strongest impression, besides his vivid physical beauty, is of his calmness, an almost yogic serenity. I mentioned this later to Kay Hassell Tiwari, our hostess at Skay’s Camp where we’re staying for a week next to Bandhavgarh (pronounced Band-o-gar) Tiger Reserve entrance. Kay chuckled and said, ‘Of course he thinks he’s lord and master, he hasn’t got a clue. Then again one day maybe he will be’.

We retraced our path and Lala our park guide stopped the jeep to point out the tiger’s paw prints. Not quite two years old W8’s pug marks in the sandy track were the same size as a fully grown female.

In my thinking about reaching the milestone age of sixty, and how I wanted to experience it, the main motivation was to make my actual birth date memorable. Travelling into the jungle in the heart of India with Stuart to spot Bengal tigers seemed like a top idea.  

 

My wildlife experiences in South Africa, Botswana and Zambia , when I travelled solo aged 55, are some of my most treasured memories and I hoped Stuart would share in the thrill of Indian animal encounters. 
We both love India, a place that despite its contradictions and frustrations feels like home. Here was a chance to witness that national symbol, the wild tiger, and other wildlife up close over the course of a week while staying with award winning Bandhavgarh naturalist and renowned wildlife photographer Satyendra Tiwari and his British wife Kay, a wildlife artist and chronicler of the tigers of Bandhavgarh for almost two decades. 

  Kay and Satyendra in Skay’s Camp dining room with some of Satyen’s photos behind them. 

Here Kay beautifully documents five of the most significant tigresses in Tala Zone in 2015. I bought this and another print. Precious.
In the park most of the guides are highly experienced and seem to work cooperatively to find tigers with additional input from the forestry department monitors who move about by bicycle and on foot, plus a very few elephants with mabahouts.  

   

None of the tigers are chipped and they have access to around 1100 square kilometres so it takes enormous skill, knowledge and a lot of luck to correctly predict a tiger’s movements. These are not pack animals. Moreover since visitors are restricted to driving designated routes it’s a series of chess moves to position yourself to see them without interfering with their routine and scaring them off, especially tigresses with young cubs.
Over the week we enjoyed a crash course in the zoology, botany, geography and history of Bandhavgarh along with mesmerising story telling. On each of our four park entries we had crack driver Prakash, plus a different official park guide, plus either Satyendra or Kay to accompany us. There is so much to see and so much information to process it’s almost overwhelming at times.  

   
The five-thirty am starts began to tell on Stuart but Sanjay was fresh as a daisy!

Back at camp we accessed reference books to fill in the gaps and our shared meal conversations inevitably revolved around Bandhavgarh’s tiger dynasties and other fascinating creatures with a seemingly endless source of anecdotes provided by Kay and Satyendra and other guests.

Skay’s Camp has seven two-person guest rooms/cabins and a central dining room with a rooftop terrace (perfect for yoga practice) set in an orchard behind the main road through Tala Village. Kay and Satyendra run it in relaxed family style with all vegetarian (and vegan) meals, snacks and non-alcoholic drinks included in the very reasonable daily rate. Drives in the reserve are extra of course. 
This was our room.

  Typical meal at Skay’s Camp. Healthy and delicious. 
A Catalan group who overlapped with us for the final two nights. Great wildlife enthusiasts and good company.   
Saluting the sunset from the rooftop.

 Our room was number six, on the left. The laundry belonged to another family.

  

In other respects Tala is your basic small, rural village spread alongside the newly sealed road. I counted four barbers, two dressmakers, two ‘cybercafes’, post office, ATM, miller, liquor store, and several sundries shops with a few places to have tea and snacks and pick up souvenirs, all very low-key.  

 Roadworks and cabling were being done while we were in Tala.

The handicraft and arts store, Malaya, deserves special mention. It’s owned and run by Ahmedabad-born Neelam. We visited twice to browse her wares, chat and exchange information about travel as Neelam is an inveterate road tripper. During monsoon she shuts up shop and sets off interstate to visit selected artisans and handcraft boutiques to restock for the following year. My Melbourne nieces can expect one of Neelam’s beautifully crafted paper cut and collage illustrated fable books to arrive next week by India Post. 

 

Major changes in park regulations were implemented recently. The most impactful have been a ten per cent increase in the ticket price (Indian nationals pay fifty per cent of the international visitor entry price) and a reduction in the number of vehicle permits granted daily. 

During the tourist season from October to the end of April (monsoon begins in June so the park is closed May-September) the maximum number of vehicles per day is 110 comprising 20 for each of the three zones in the morning and 16, 15 and 20 vehicles in the afternoon. 

Ticket sales were previously unlimited then twice daily quotas of 40 in Tala, 57 In Khitauli and 35 in Magdhi were introduced so the current reduced quota is significant. Most of this season’s permits sold very quickly when they were released last July. I suggest there is no point coming to Bandhavgarh if you haven’t already arranged an entry ticket. 14 out each batch of 20 can be purchased online but to be safe I organised ours through Satyendra a year ago. When ticket sales opened he secured ours.

An obvious effect of reduced permits is a drop in tourist numbers which has affected the lodges and small guesthouses that feed into the park. There is little else touristic in the immediate vicinity. The nearest airport is Jabalpur (190k) and the train station Umaria (37k). Many businesses have contracted or folded. Given my marketing background I see an opportunity for small, new business ventures and services in and around Tala that add value to the visitor experience but that don’t rely on park entry to generate revenue.

Overseas tourists who have travelled far to see tigers are well-heeled and able to afford extras like ayurvedic treatments and massages, henna painting, good quality souvenirs, cooking classes, and birdwatching, butterfly and bicycle tours to suggest just a few. Another option could be a half-day wildlife photography course delivered before you go into the park. Of course these have to be marketed effectively, perhaps a consortia approach of like-minded enterprises would work.
Certainly the overall Bandhavgarh tiger population, which is currently healthy (there is a question mark about dominant male numbers**) will benefit from reduced vehicle numbers which is good for the long-term viability of the park and the local communities as many villagers work in park-related jobs. 

    

The sun sets as we drive out of the park after our final drive.

 

Much more concerning are non-touristic human encroachments, principally cattle and water buffalo grazing and, cutting and collecting wood and bamboo as fuel for cooking, other forest product collection, forest fires which decimate habitat, as well as continued animal trapping and tiger poaching. Climate change and questionable water management practices are also having negative impacts. 
Reading the Skay’s Camp reference books on the subject it seems the major stumbling block for nature conservancy in Bandhavgarh is political. Indian politicians, like most of their ilk, seem only interested in being reelected, consequently their policy making has been populist and short-term. Tigers don’t vote, end of story. 

 Where tigers and people meet….. This fence is no barrier for a fit tiger or tigress and certainly does not deter people.

Fortunately dedicated Indians and foreigners who appreciate the significance of Bandhavgarh continue to work incredibly hard to document, protect, promote and improve the tiger reserve as the precious global resource it unquestionably is.
But back to the new love of my life. 

 

We discovered next day that W8’s mother, Xena, had returned to collect him and they’d moved into territory we could not enter. Full independence is only days or weeks away for him though.
In our subsequent drives we were unlucky during the morning drive in Tala on my birthday, but incredibly fortunate the day after. For our morning drive in Magdhi we were number three in 6:15am entry queue so were able to follow fresh tiger tracks, two sets that told the story of a tigress and a tiger moving along the sandy road recently.  

 

We searched the usual spots listening for alarm calls. At one spot around six jeeps were waiting, listening. Kay knew the behaviour of the tiger, he didn’t like vehicles, so there was little point staying there in that crush. Instead we headed back up the road and both Sanjay our guide and Kay simultaneously heard two distant sambar alarm calls, single sounds that shout ‘tiger’. Prakash quickly drove up the hill and we positioned ourselves on the ridge crest at Sher Marg. The consensus was that he would cross the jeep track somewhere near there. More alarm calls followed as monkeys and chital deer joined in and we could hear animals scattering in the dense undergrowth. Two other jeeps had followed us and sensibly stopped well back to leave a gap. For ten minutes we sat silently, intently listening, watching and waiting. Suddenly we all heard it, the unmistakable sound of an unseen large animal moving through dry grass and leaf litter up the hill towards us. It was ten suspense-filled seconds before a large tiger’s head appeared 50 metres away. Harun, a four-year-old male, immediately saw us and paused for one second then continued our way, heading for the gap. 
At that point I had been videoing but in my excitement lost focus on the task, consequently the camera work is pretty wonky. Still Harun came closer. Midway across the jeep track he gave the merest turn of his head left to look at us, as if to say, ‘¡Hasta la vista baby!’, then sauntered down the other side of the ridge and disappeared. (When my youtube account becomes unfrozen and I have better wifi I will upload the videos.)

 

Whew! I was so thrilled with this second encounter I threw my arms around Sanjay and gave him a big hug and kiss on the cheek and repeated the hugs with Kay and Prakash. Completely culturally incorrect of course but I knew that it was the canny combined efforts of the three of them that had put us within spitting distance of that second magnificent tiger. 
Still on a high as we drove out we received the icing on the cake, a long encounter with a pair of jackals crossing the track. The male carried the head of a White Spotted Deer in its mouth. When it heard an alarm call it stopped, dug a hole in the earth and carefully buried the head, then the pair of them trotted down the road behind us. This was a first for Kay too so a real treat.   
However even if the tigers are no shows Bandhavgarh offers lots of other fascinating wildlife. Besides all the birds, reptiles and mammals the park supports, a highlight for me was driving up a steep, ancient sandstone track then walking up massive stone steps to see Sheshshaiya, a spring fed pool carved out of sandstone with its reclining 10 metre Lord Vishnu lying on a multi-headed cobra. The god’s statue was sculpted in situ during the tenth century BC from sandstone, the many hoods of the cobra representing the multiple desires of man.   

    

 Langurs keep watch over villagers and park inhabitants alike. 

 Chital graze in the open meadows. 

We saw three Gaur bullocks calmly grazing. It would take a big tiger to pull one of these down. 

 Chital/White Spotted Deer

  

Having had my first taste of the sublime pleasure of seeing a wild tiger in the heat of summer, I now have a newly minted desire to return to Bandhavgarh in the winter time in the hope of seeing a tigress with young cubs, maybe Xena’s! How cool would that be?!
According to nomenclature developed by Kay Hassall Tiwari, a tigress’ litter is given a code based on the first letter of their name and birth order with males numbered first, therefore W8 was Wakeeta’s 8th offspring. If they survive to become independent and carve out their own territory they are then given an appropriate name. ** No one has evidence of the existence of any of the known dominant males in the entire park since December. Forestry staff claim they are there but have nothing to back it up, i.e. no fixed camera photos or any other photos, no reliable sightings and no verifiable fresh pug marks. This is extemely concerning and should by now have triggered a proper search. Without tracking chips or radio collars the tigers can just disappear and their disappearance is never adequately explained.
Sincere thanks to all the Skay’s Camp inhabitants who made our week so enjoyable and educational:

FAMILY

Kay

Satyendra

EXTENDED FAMILY HOME FOR HOLIDAYS

Harium

Niminsha aka Sonu

Mahi

Neelanjana aka Mun Mun

Julie (puppy)

STAFF

Kalicharan, Head Cook

Anand, Dining Room and Drinks Specialist, Assistant Cook no.1 and general help

Mukash, Assistant Cook no.3 and general help

Prakash, Driver
A list of animals we saw (at least one but more often multiple sightings):
Tiger 

Chital/White Spotted Deer

Sambar deer

Gaur

Hanuman/Common Langur monkey

Rhesus Macaque monkey

Indian Wild Boar

Jackal

Indian Rabbit

Squirrel

Soft-shelled Turtle
Birds we saw:
Shama

Red Jungle Fowl

Peacock and Peahen

Brown Fish Owl

Rose-ringed Parakeet

Crested Serpent Eagle

Indian Roller

Magpie Robin

Green Bee-eater

Malabar Pied Hornbill

Greeny blue parrot

Emerald Dove

Cuckoo Strike

Long billed Vultures

Lesser Adjutant Stork

Racquet-tailed Drongo

Wooly-necked Stork

Coppersmith Barbet

Spotted Owlet

Blue-Bearded Bee-eater

Chestnut-shouldered Petronia

Eurasian Thick Knee

Cattle Egret

Cormorant

Stork

Jungle Babbler
Two organisations that Kay believes do valuable work for tiger conservation are:

Fund for the Tiger USA and Tiger Awareness UK
Accommodation and Park Entry Notes:

The daily rate this month at Skay’s Camp for two people all inclusive sharing an en suite cabin is 5,500 rupees/AUD108.
Satyendra charges 4,400 rupees/AUD 88 per person for morning or afternoon drives which includes the foreigner park entry, guide, vehicle, fuel and driver. Park fees are expected to continue to rise about 10 per cent per annum.
To inquire about a reservation email Satyendra at skayscamp@gmail.com
If Skay’s Camp is full or you prefer to stay in hotel style accommodation with more facilities like a spa and pool but still close to a Bandhavgarh Park entry gate, I can recommend Tiger’s Den nearby. I checked it out and it seems well run and clean with a choice of luxury junior suites (6,500 rupees for two people inclusive of all meals) or a deluxe hotel room (5,500 rupees for two people inclusive of all meals). Be aware however that that you won’t have the benefit of Kay and Satyendra’s assistance and knowledge as they can only service their guests. I don’t know what any of the other lodges are like. 

Personally I was in Tala to see tigers and learn all I could so the combination of Skay’s plus access to Tiger’s Den around the corner was ideal for me.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bittu, Saghal, 2008, ‘The Bandhavgarh Inheritance’, Sanctuary Asia, Mumbai

Green, Iain, 2002, ‘Wild Tigers of Bandhavgarh: Encounters in a Fragile Forest’, Tiger Books an imprint of Chevron Publishing Ltd, East Sussex, UK

Green, Iain, 2007, ‘Tiger Jungle: The Epic Tale of Bandhavgarh’, Tiger Books an imprint of Chevron Publishing Ltd, East Sussex, UK

Thapar, Valmik, 2013, ‘Tiger Fire: 500 Years of the Tiger in India’, Aleph Book Company, New Delhi

 

2 Responses to “Smitten by a Kitten: Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Madya Pradesh, India”

  1. Charles March 27, 2016 at 11:13 am #

    Sharon
    So sorry to fail yet again to wish you a happy birthday especially such a significant one. Our only hope is that like the queen you will have an official one too at the end of May when we will see you in Devon.
    Really looking forward to that
    With our love
    Charles and Anne

    • Sharon Tickle March 27, 2016 at 12:32 pm #

      Charles, My birthday started in Feb and will run all year so don’t worry about it! Looking forward to catching up end May. Sxx

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