On the Trail of the Big Cat in Bandhavgarh

20th Nov 2017

The mist parted as the life-giving sun rays invited a new day to dawn. But unlike other days when it gave way to mundane human establishments, today the lifting mists unveiled a utopian world- of swaying boughs of bamboo and surreal Sals. This was a world where time seemed to float at its own sweet pace, neither rushed, nor lazy, but just right. And every denizen of this wild world seemed to obey this Nature-Law, whether it was the humble deer or the mighty Royal Bengal Tiger. It was this wish to forget the qualms of urban life and be one with nature, that egged me to plan a trip to one of the last remaining homes of India’s most celebrated Big Cat- Bandhavgarh National Park.

Bandhavgarh Beckons

Tucked away in the eastern Satpura hill ranges of Umaria and Katni districts, lie stretches of hills, valleys, riverine marshes, flowing rivers, diverse vegetation and rolling meadows- all things wild and natural. In fact, the epitome of this vast wilderness is the ruler of these terrains- the Royal Bengal Tiger. The elusive ruler of the jungles roams a core area of about 716.90 km, and a buffer area adjoining the villages of 820 square km. The core area is spread across three zones, namely Khitauli, Tala (named after the Tala village) and Magadhi, each with a specific number of safaris vehicles permitted to enter. I had planned a total of four jungle safaris, over a 3-night stay at the luxurious and amenable Nature Heritage Resort. Thus, began an unforgettable foray into the forests.

Day 1 dawned fresh and hopeful, as we headed towards the Tala gate, the cold wind lashing against my cheeks and leaving them pleasantly numbed. But little did I know that this was just an iota of the numbing sensation, which I was to experience when I would be face to face with the Apex Predator. And so, we set out with single focus in mind- to search for the elusive cat in Tala, one of the prime zones of the park.

Back to the basics of communication!

The jungle ecosystem is a unique one, I observed. The local people have their own network and communication means, which I fondly call the “jungle intelligence”. So, though we live in a world of GPS-tracking and location-sharing, here I was delighted to see man turning to the primeval ways of “investigation” to find out whether a tiger was around or not. This archaic tracking down mechanism does not come easy, it is both a science and an art, and requires hordes of experience! The best of guides and drivers are those who live in close proximity to the jungle and understand the jungle ways. These people have reveled in the joy of wilderness, as well as faced the wrath of the wild. After years of observing these locals, I would rather like to think of them as “One with Nature”. And so, with our team backed by generations of jungle-wisdom, we set off into the untouched vistas.

The chances of sighting the big cat are high in Bandhavgarh, it has amongst the highest densities of tigers amongst national parks. Yet, tracking the tiger is a game of extraordinary patient and persistence. There are basically two ways of tracking a tiger- firstly by searching for its pug marks on the dusty roads, and secondly by listening to the alarm call sounds that other animals make to alert their kin of tiger-danger! Armed with this information, my eyes scanned the dirt trails and my ears pricked up at the slightest sound. Never before have I been so acutely aware to every minute movement, to every decibel that reverberated through the crisp cool air. I was initially quite fixated on searching for the big cat, but the rustling of the bamboo canopies and the occasional curious langurs peeking from above the Sal trees was a welcome reminder for me to appreciate and enjoy the jungle, tiger sighting or not. With this in mind, the first safari ended on a pleasant note, the winter chills just setting in on my way back.

The Aha Moment

After a sumptuous lunch infused with local flavours, I was yet again on the jungle trail. This time it was to be the wooded canopies of Magadhi zone. Curious spotted deer played peek a boo with the dappled sunlight, and also with us. Parakeets perched upon the tree tops to warm their feathery selves after a cold clammy night. We soon stopped at the breakfast point for a lip-smacking breakfast in true wilderness style i.e. laying out the spread on the gypsy bonnet. But a leisurely breakfast it was not to be, for a single, shrill alarm call penetrated the morning air. A simple rule I have learnt in the jungle- anything can happen at any time, there’s not a moment to be wasted. We quickly wrapped up, boarded the gypsy and headed towards the exit gate, high on adrenalin and expectations. The single call soon turned into a series of calls, and our expert “jungle men” tried to decipher the direction. Soon, another animal joined into the orchestra- a langur screeching “Danger, Danger” from the treetops. The once silent jungle had suddenly erupted in a chaotic din, one that spelt dread and danger like no other. Surely, the mighty one was on the prowl, maybe in search of a sumptuous breakfast! We frenetically tried to identify where exactly the breakfast table would be set for the predator’s meal. Before we could fathom anything, a Sambar deer called out in the bushes, and a thrashing sound deafened us. And then, a majestic being emerged from those very bushes, a few metres away from us. Tall and graceful, she was a tigress in the prime of youth. She took a nonchalant look at us, and as with a dismissive nod, went about her feline duties. A single “oooggghh” seemed to reflect her displeasure at the sambar’s escape- an opportunity lost. It was this sound of raw, untamed wilderness that set my hair on end. The gorgeous beauty walked the dusty roads, marking her territory, establishing her reign. It was her undisputed reign, she was the queen of this territory, with the power to stir up everyone into a bundle of nerves. She led us ahead, as if showing us her beautiful home. A single turn behind, and we met eye-to-eye. I could not help but think, maybe it was this very intimidating presence that awes us humans. Somewhere deep down the primordial awakens a sense of nervous excitement in man. And that’s why people flock to these tiger reserves to experience an iota of that feeling, that our ancient forefathers must have felt every single day, and somewhere still runs in our blood. As I looked on, the first lady of the forests took a final look at us and disappeared into the thicket, the mistress of her own mind. I was left was with the impressions of those cold cat-eyes, a memory that I would cherish for years to come.

Photo of On the Trail of the Big Cat in Bandhavgarh 1/2 by Rhucha Kulkarni

A Lesson in History Unfolds!

Little did I know that the tiger sighting was not the only highlight of my Bandhavgarh encounter. The next day I eagerly awaited history lessons at the mighty Bandhavgarh Fort in Tala. Perched upon a plateau, the 10th century fort is an intimidating landmark- an icon of man’s infiltration into remote areas. One can see the irrefutable remains of the reign of various dynasties- the Maghs, Mauryas, Vakatakas, Sengars, Kalchuris and Baghels. The fort also has a mythological twist, legend goes that Lord Rama had built the fort for his brother Laxman so as to keep an eye over Lanka. In fact, Bandhavgarh has been named after this fort, “Bandhav” meaning “Brother” & “Garh” meaning “Fort”. As our gypsy traversed the steep turns enroute the fort, I could see man and wild blend together in the form of manmade caves, the statue of, and Pols or large gates. But truly, a visit to the Bandhavgarh fort is incomplete without admiring the large statue of Lord Vishnu as he reclines on the seven-hooded serpent, “Sheshnag”. The legs of the Lord Vishnu give rise to the life-line river of Bandhavgarh, the Charan-ganga. As I admired the intricate stone work on the status, a Malabar hornbill flew along with its partner into the surrounding greens. This was indeed a starting point of all things good- whether it was life-giving water or burgeoning species- wild and free.

Truly, not just tigers!

Having witnessed the tiger’s majesty, I focussed on the other species during my last safari in Khitauli zone. The denizens seemed to welcome me into their home, provided I did not intrude in their daily way of life. The gigantic gaurs bellowed, the wild board wallowed and the chital fawns frolicked about in the luscious meadows. Apart from tiger, as many as 34 species of Mammals have been listed and nearly 260 species of birds and 70 species of butterfly*. The last safari and the tour ended with some amazing encounters who make the jungle what it is- full of life!

Photo of On the Trail of the Big Cat in Bandhavgarh 2/2 by Rhucha Kulkarni

Despite the limited connectivity, I could find a real connect here. It was a connect with a far-removed world. More importantly, a connect with myself. What I could not find in the concrete jungle, I got here in plenty- A sense of calm, serenity, and most importantly, a sense of being humbled, up against the mighty wonders of Mother Nature.