If you don’t spot a tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, you’ve got the worst luck in the world.
That’s the word of the jungle as far as Wildlife Safaris in India (circa 2015) go. Bandhavgarh is currently the reigning champion as far as tiger sighting in India goes, with a flourishing population of the royal feline. The stark contrast to Satpura National Park. Now there’s two things that contribute to your fate. One is lady luck and the other, the skill of the naturalist or forest ranger. While one was on our side, the other was notably absent. Across our safari drives through Bandhavgarh National Park across the 105 square kilometres of its zones named Tala, Magdi and Bamera, we learnt a lot about the jungle, all from the perspective of it’s famed inhabitant.
We were staying at the Kings Lodge in Bandhavgarh. Our Pugdundee Safaris naturalist (we were told) has known the region for over 19 years, making him the best qualified to take us around, and sniff out a tiger if there ever was one. I’d been observing these strange creatures, who straddled civilised mannerisms (they were always polite and attentive to guests) and wild instincts (it seemed like even their breathing was in sync with the jungle). Being a naturalist is no easy feat, and there’s plenty of study and practical training that makes them who they are, so this post (comprising tricks I picked up over a couple of days) are in no way exhaustive. Our naturalist pulled out the big guns, leaving no stone unturned, for if there was a tiger roaming the accessible tracks of Bandhavgarh that day, he would certainly have found him. Unfortunately, his sage warning at dawn turned out to be rather prophetic – “Do bear in mind, this is the jungle, the wild is unpredictable.” Nature reared her unpredictable head, and the tiger remained elusive, but what we experienced over the course of two safaris was a crash course in tiger tracking.
1. Be still
We spent over half an hour camped (in our jeep) next to a watering hole in the hope of spotting a tigress who is often seen there with her cubs. Initially, taking our cue from the calm naturalist, we were quiet and there was an anticipatory axe in the air. Soon the silence turned into boredom, as we occupied ourselves watching several birds flitting about the water. Soon a jeep full of families (with children) happened along, and all peace was annihilated. It wouldn’t be fair to blame the children for the absence of the tigress, but a little quiet could have helped.
Ever so often, we would hear our naturalist in conversation with the park ranger, both of them cocking their ears, discussing the nature of an animal’s call (one that I could only say was imaginary, since my untrained ear couldn’t hear it). Even in the midst of conversation, while answering our barrage of questions, they’d always have one ear trained for the slightest hint of sound from a distant langur or peacock. An alarm call, would have been a clear giveaway of a tiger on the prowl, alerting us to his whereabouts and direction of movement.
A large part of tracking a tiger is learning to think like one. What time of the day is it? What’s the weather like? Tigers are more liable to come out to the watering holes at midday when it is hot and they’re thirsty. They’re more liable to hunt at dawn or dusk. Rain showers mean they don’t need to come out to the watering holes as water tends to collect in little pools deep in the recesses of the jungle. I was rather stumped at the authority with which a naturalist (in Kanha National Park) confidently proclaimed that the tiger would emerge from the bushes at 6 pm for his daily rounds to mark his territory. The tiger appeared like clockwork at 6 pm sharp.
4. Pay attention
Just like they had a ear reserved for the sounds of the creatures, it seemed like the naturalists had eyes at the back of their heads and sides too. We were zipping along, when he suddenly hit the brakes and backed up the jeep for us to see a baby cobra no larger than a pencil go crawling under a leaf. What were the odds of catching something like that? Their eyes are trained to spot the smallest hint of movement and the tiniest flash of colour (or in the case of camouflaged creatures, the lack thereof). He pointed out a herd of spotted deer, with a couple of them standing to attention. That meant there was a predator around, and the deer were waiting to confirm it before sounding the alarm. He could also tell when a bunch of them ran bounding in a single direction, that it was a jackal they were running from.
When you’re zipping along dusty dirt tracks at 20 kmph, the ground does look like a blur. Not to the naturalist. He seems to have some sort of scanner/autopause feature to his vision (which the rest of us ordinary humans lack). He was able to spot a faint pugmark in the ground, study the sharpness/ shape of the nails and tell us it was a female, the size and tell us it was a sub-adult, the depth of the impression and tell us it was 12 hours old. Incredible.
They do of course have a sophisticated system of communicating across a network of fellow park rangers and beat marshalls, using radios and cellphones (when the spotty coverage allows) to check on the last known whereabouts of the usual suspects. One of them will shout out in response, “She was playing near the stream with her cubs this morning” or “she’s hiding in the caves at the top because she’s pregnant“, and “he’s hidden away his prey and won’t be out for a couple of days“. It was an exhilarating experience those drives, one that turned what could easily have been a disappointing “we didn’t see anything” into a fascinating “we learnt so much” with just a little attitude adjustment. After all as the naturalist said, “the wild is unpredictable.” We would never have guessed.
This post was made possible by Pugdundee Safaris. Opinions as always, are our own.