Tiger Cubs in Madnapur


- With Nature Clicks

- March, 2020

Planning Stage

I was in Bharatpur when I got a call from Abhay. I knew he had just been to Tadoba and had found 4 very small tiger cubs. He had even shared a few photos on social media.

He was calling for the same, he was suggesting we go for a 6-safari plan in March 2nd week. I had not planned anything for March yet (was thinking about taking a complete break that month and concentrate on blogs and some other pending things). But this offer was very tempting. I was in the midst of the birding trail with the BNHS team so I asked him to call later or just send WhatsApp message.

He said okay, but called again in 30 minutes. He now had a plan of making it a 10-safari trip, the cost would increase but it will have better chances of seeing the cubs. I did not have much time to think then but just told him to go ahead with whatever he thinks is good. “Just tell me the dates so that I can book my train/flight tickets accordingly”.

That is how this safari plan was cooked for March 10th to 15th. After coming back from Bharatpur, I booked my flight and train tickets as well.

Journey on the Empty Roads (and empty stomachs)

On 10th March I had the morning flight to Nagpur. It happened to be the Holi festival (the festival of colors). While planning I was not aware of this otherwise would have avoided traveling that day. But the good part was, the roads were empty.

The flight was on time; I was traveling from Mumbai and Ajit (Ajit Agale) was coming from Pune. His flight had reached earlier, so he was waiting there for me. He had already called the driver, so we were able to leave the airport immediately.

It was around 1 pm when we were out, the journey was of 3-4 hours, so we thought of having lunch on the way. But to our surprise, the entire Nagpur city was closed (they were all celebrating the festival of colors). The driver told us that the restaurants there are not likely to open that day. We started our journey hoping somewhere outside the city, we can find something. Finally, by around 3 pm, we found one small joint near Umred town.

The guys had probably just finished playing Holi (looking at their multicolored hands) but they made us some lunch, we were so hungry that any food was acceptable.

After lunch, we asked the driver about the place we will be staying at. But he was expecting us to know it. We frantically called Abhay (our tour organizer) and got the specific location of our hotel in Chimur.

We reached there around 5 pm. Apparently, there were only 2 decent hotels in that town and ours was supposed to be a little better.

Abhay, Mauli and Vidyasagar were driving down all the way from Pune/Ahmednagar and they were expected to reach only by night.

Chimur is a taluka place in Chandrapur district and has good road connectivity with both Chandrapur as well as Nagpur. It is very close to the infamous Naxalite areas of Maharashtra but we found it to be a peaceful town.

I was meeting Ajit for the first time and found him to be an excellent company. He had many interesting stories to talk about and happened to be working with TCS (where I started my corporate journey in 1993).

Abhay & others came earlier than expected, they reached by 8 (Holi holiday meant less traffic all thru their journey). At dinner we planned for our first safari… we decided to start by 5:15.

Day 1 – Face-to-face with the small Cubs

We started at around 5:30 from our hotel (it was still dark outside) and managed to reach the Madnapur gate by 6. Most jungles in India have a core area (main jungle) and surrounding buffer areas. These are the areas typically adjacent to the main jungle but includes some established villages with their private lands/houses. They are allowed to have these but any sort of industrial (causing pollution) activities are prohibited. Just for information, even from the core jungle only around 20% area is accessible by tourists, the rest 80% is completely out of reach anyway.

Madnapur gate is part of the buffer region of the main Tadoba tiger reserve. Typically, we prefer the core jungles as there are better chances of seeing the wildlife. But Abhay had specially chosen this as recently it had become famous. The reason was the first litter of the resident tigress Zunabai. The cubs from that litter were very bold and allowed good photography opportunities. Even the current 3 cubs (just 7 months old) seem to be not afraid of the tourists. And these were the cubs photographed by Abhay in January earlier. At that time there were 4 cubs but unfortunately one of them could not survive.

We were well in time, Abhay had even managed to book a good driver/guide combination for all our safaris (normally the allocation is on a round-robin basis and is done by forest department… but we paid extra to arrange for the same guide/driver for all our safaris).

The gates opened at 6:30 and ours was the first vehicle to enter that day (total 8 vehicles are allowed from that gate, plus Kolara buffer gate is also in the same region and 5 more gypsys from that gate also roam in the same area). This being the hotspot because of the cubs, all 13 gypsys move in this region only.

Typically, when we start the first safari, the guide has some idea about the tiger movements from the previous evening. But 10th March was holiday even for safaris and hence there was no prior news about the movement of the tigress. We moved along the known paths and did a complete round of the routes within the half-hour. But there was no sign of the cubs anywhere.

At about 9 am, we got the news about a possible tiger near the waterhole. When we reached there, already 3 gypsys were on the road (on the lookout). Refer to the attached Hotspot map for specifics.

   

We were standing on the path between Woods-1 and Woods-2 and the tigers were sighted in the woods-1 region. It had dense vegetation and a lot of dry driftwood making it difficult to see if there were any tigers (unless there was some movement).

After a struggle of 10-15 minutes (by then almost all gypsys had lined up on the road) finally someone spotted some yellow colors and corresponding movement. One-by-one everyone of us became aware of that location. It appeared to be more than 1 tiger and that’s when all the speculation started.

All experts (and some non-experts too!) started giving their opinions (not just from our gypsy but also from those near us). The various views were:

    • I saw the tigress and at least 2 cubs
    • These look to be small in size, must be only the cubs
    • One of them looks big, unless the cubs have grown that big, it has to be the mother
    • I can see 3 cubs now (they are one behind other, hence you guys cannot see)
    • Occasionally some practical views were also offered: They are hardly visible from here, cannot make any guess
In all this confusion, I did take a few photos (advantage of the digital camera, you can always take chance.. these photos can be deleted later anyway).

This continued for some time, after which our guide suggested to wait at the water hole area. This area is marked in blue color in the above diagram. The area also has a dip on the extreme left that had a small water stream (it did have sufficient water for the tigers to lie down to beat the heat). Our wait was fruitful.

Soon the cubs came to the water-hole one by one. Their entry had a drama in it. First one cautiously put its head out of the grass, looked around and very slowly walked on the scene. The second one followed on similar lines but the third one threw caution to the wind and walked with an absolutely careless attitude.

   

   

   

After coming on the scene, they stayed for a minute near the borewell and then moved towards the water stream. One by one all of them entered into the water. This area was a little dip and we could hardly see any of them (gypsy at the extreme left was able to at least view them, but because of the vegetation, photography was not possible).

   

   

   

   

   

We continued our wait (occasionally taking a few photos through the grass thickets). Luckily, the cubs decided to come in the open again after a few minutes in water. They played for a few minutes in the grass and then dashed again back to the area (Woods-1) from where they first came in. But before going deep inside, they stayed in the bushes (hiding) for a few minutes.

  Enjoying water  

  Coming out from stream  

  Siblings Coming out from stream  

  Siblings Coming out from stream  

  Quick Jump  

  Cautious Walk  

  Looking thru vegetation  

It appeared that they were very cautious all along. And it was natural since the mother was not with them. With their mother around, they would spend more time in the open, playing freely in the grass.

That was the end of the show. It was already 10 am and we had to move out of the park by 10:30.

Evening Safari – For the evening safari, we decided to again wait at the same water-hole. Before stopping, we had checked at the forest-outpost about the movements during the afternoon hours. What we came to know was the mother had been missing since morning and she was possibly gone away to mark her territory (apparently a new tigress was recently seen in this region and it was therefore necessary for the Zunabai tigress to stamp her authority – unseasonal rains in the last 2 days may have obscured the territory marks and hence she was on duty).

We continued our futile wait all thru. At one point, we heard some excitement as 1-2 gypsys saw some movement in the same Woods-1 area. The cubs were there inside but they chose not to come out at all.

We could barely notice their presence through the thick bushes and that was the only wildlife we could see during that safari. In photography terms, that was a total “dry safari”.

Day 2

We were hoping that the tigress must be back with the cubs now and there was a possibility to see them together. And we were not entirely wrong.

As we started the morning safari. There were no signs of the tigers anywhere. But around 8 am we saw some movement in the Woods-2 area. The mother was there along with the cubs but they were so deep inside, it was hardly visible. And for all the remaining morning hours, they continued there (actually went further deep inside).

  Images thru the Clutter  

  Images thru the Clutter  

Afternoon was once again a dry safari. Only photography opportunity was a show by a few raptors. Before that we could also see a couple of sambar deer.

  Alert Sambar deer  

As there were no signs of the tigers, we were moving aimlessly on the roads (looking for possible pug-marks or calls but there were none). At one-point, Ajit asked us to stop as he had located one Oriental Honey Buzzard (OHB) on a nearby tree. It was oddly perched as the Sun was directly behind it. We asked the driver to take us a little further to change the angle. But in that process, we discovered another raptor, the Crested Hawk Eagle. And it was nearer to us than the OHB.

  Oriental Honey Buzzard (OHB)  

  Crested Hawk-Eagle  

Being photographers, we were happy to get this opportunity as they were very close. Soon we realized that there was another OHB and both the OHBs were calling continuously as they disliked the presence of another raptor in their territory

  Second OHB can be heard in Background  

But the Eagle was completely nonchalant. It just went on with its preening activity. It changed its position once (from nearby tree to a farther one) but that might be attributed more to our presence than the OHB calls.

In all this melee, one Rufous Treepie also made an entry. It sat on a branch close to the Eagle and tried to unsettle it. The Eagle was already ignoring the buzzards, there was no way it could get any worried about the treepie.

  Unperturbed Eagle  

  OHB taking flight  

  Treepie with Eagle  

  OHB with Eagle  

We were back at the hotel by 7 pm. It was 12th March and by now there was more news about the Corona virus and the possible impact in India. There was also one news about a foreigner in Tadoba being found positive. We were away from television but WhatsApp-sources were full of news (and rumors).

All of us were least bothered about any of these news items, our target was to roam the jungles and photograph the wildlife as much as possible. Luckily, there wasn’t any pressure from back home (at least on that day).



Day 3 - Lucky Day

This turned out to be another lucky day for us as we could see the father of the cubs.

The morning safari got a lot of cheer. Within the first hour itself, someone identified the cubs playing in the Woods-2 area. This time since their mother was in the vicinity, they were more playful. They had even found a plastic sheet to play with. It must have remained in the jungle, as there was some bridge (small one for the safari vehicles) construction work being carried out inside the jungle). As the light was very low, I decided to shoot a video instead of photos (advantage with video is you can get decent quality even with higher ISO)

  Photo with High ISO  

  Cubs Playing  

This went on for about 10 minutes after which the cubs walked a little deep inside and were not visible. Suddenly we heard some excited voices from the oncoming gypsys. They had seen the male tiger (the Kankazari male) walking along and they had followed him till the Woods-3 (refer to the map included earlier) area. Suddenly all gypsys turned into that direction. No one was sure from where will the tiger emerge but there was a possibility that it may go to the water hole.

All the gypsy guides used their logic/imagination and took positions accordingly. This time we were waiting on the road between Woods-3 and Woods-1. Fortunately, the tiger decided to take that path to cross the road. There were a couple of gypsys ahead of us but we could see parts of the tiger emerging from one side of the jungle and slowly walking towards the other side. What I understood from the experts is, seeing a male tiger in the jungle is not very common. Most of the time we either see the cubs or the mothers. Some of the male cubs could be of similar size as males but they won’t have established their territories yet (not entirely independent).

  Kankazari male - Crossing the road  

  Kankazari male - Crossing the road  

It then decided to stay put in the same area in Woods-1 where we had seen the cubs on day 1. He sat down in the thick bushes and for the remainder of our safari time, it didn’t move. Soon after its arrival, even the tigress came near it (possibly to show allegiance to the King). Since the male was the father of the cubs, they were safe anyway but they did not come near him.

The Zunabai tigress stayed with the male for a few minutes and then walked towards Woods-2 where the cubs were located. Zunabai’s movements were also from the same road, but we missed her crossing both times.

  Kankazari in the clutter  

  Zunabai walking  

We continued to wait on the same road (between Woods-1 and Woods-2) in the hope of the tiger movement but there was none. While we waited, we managed to see a pair of woodpeckers and also a white-bellied drongo.

  Woodpecker pair  

  White-bellied Drongo  

In the evening safari, our first stop was the usual waterhole. And within the first half-hour, we again got to see the cubs. Once again, the mother was not with them. This time they spent hardly a few minutes in front of us and quickly moved out of sight.

  Coming up from stream  

  Watching us  

  Looking back for siblings  

  Watchful while going ahead  

All the gypsys were waiting at the same waterhole and no one seem to be intent on moving. The gypsys that came late, did not have any place where they could see the grassland near the waterhole.

That day, the forest officers happened to be at the outpost. On seeing this, one of the officers came forward and asked the gypsys not to wait at one spot for more than 15 minutes. He ensured that none could stay there for long. Little reluctantly we moved out from there.

After about 15-20 minutes of roaming around the jungle, we were once again near the same road when we saw the tigress with the cubs.

  Zunabai with cub  

  Waiting to cross the road  

They were in Woods-1 and it looked like they were trying to cross over to Woods-2. We immediately reversed our gypsy making way for them (keeping 30-40 feet distance between the gypsys in front). The tigress did cross the road within the next 10 minutes but by that time 2 other gypsys positions themselves between us and the path of the tigress. We again managed to get a few shots through the available window. The tigress crossed first and the cubs were immediately behind her.

  Started walking  

  Cautious approach  

  About to cross  

  Walking with cub in tow  

  Cub sped ahead  

  Laggards walking behind  

We continued at the same spot for the next half hour. And during that period, we saw a fantastic camouflage by a hare. It must be hiding in the dry leaves for long and we had no clue about it till it made a move (small jump actually). Even after knowing that there was a hare, we took a long time to locate its position and take photos.

  Excellent Camouflage  

  Hare raising its body  



Day 4 – The day without tigers

Our safari numbers 7 and 8 were entirely dry as far as tigers are concerned. But we all liked the evening safari when we decided to check out different parts of the jungle (from the same gate) that we hadn’t seen in the last 3 days.

This part of the jungle was surprisingly more dense. To the extent that the regulars like Abhay were saying “this cannot be Tadoba at all”.

  Forest habitat  

Before that during the morning safari, we managed to see a few spotted deer and also a group of monkeys playing happily.

  Spotted deer - Synchronized moves  

  Will it rain today?  

  Catch me if you can...  

  Ringa ringa roses...  

  Ringa ringa roses...  

By the time we were back in the hotel in the evening, we had to decide for tomorrow. I had a train to catch in the evening and Ajit had a night flight. Considering the travel time required to reach Nagpur, we decided to skip the evening safari. Abhay and others were anyway going back in their car. They planned to leave on the following morning.



Day 5: Story of a Narrow miss…

This was going to be our last safari of the trip. So far, all the earlier safaris were from Madnapur gate but this one was from the Alizanjha gate

Based on the information received from our guides as well as some fellow photographers, we were aware that this part of the jungle had Jharni tigress with cubs but she was very shy and the chances of seeing her were very remote. But there was this other pair (Mowgli the big male and Mayuri) that was known to walk along the gypsys giving good photos. If we were lucky, we could see them today.

As soon as we entered the gate, we all liked the forest. It is sometimes difficult to tell why you like that jungle but you enjoy riding through it. We did not see many wildlife species there but maybe the trees were different, they were taller, it was denser, it looked greener, not sure what else.. but we liked it anyway!

Coming to the point of “Narrow miss”… we were going along the given path and suddenly at one point our driver noticed fresh pug-marks. Abhay quickly leaned out and realized that the tigress (the marks appeared to be of a female) must have been on this road recently and she was walking from the opposite direction. We quickly took a U-turn and started following the marks. It led us to a steep upslope, the road was very bumpy. The driver was reluctant to go further and instead suggested taking a longer route to reach the top (this steep road was still being laid down by the forest department and hence it was not a drivable one). Refer to the below map to get a better idea.

   

But Abhay somehow convinced him to take us up and we held onto the gypsy tightly. Within 5 minutes (completely bumpy ride) we were on top and just at that moment the guide got a call saying the tiger pair was spotted at the place where we had seen the pugmarks. On hearing this we quickly turned back and took the same bumpy ride down. As we were approaching the earlier spot the guide kept getting more clarity about the location and to our utter dismay what we realized was that the tigers had taken exactly the same route (bumpy road) that we had taken and had got down to the other side of the jungle just 50 meters from where we returned back on the bumpy road. Had we just continued with our gut-feel, we may have gone closer to them but that was not to be.

This time, the driver took the longer route (shown in the map) to reach the same spot and drove further towards the location where the tigers got down. This road was very close to the Navegaon gate (another buffer gate of the tiger reserve and gypsys from either gate could drive here). At least 6 other gypsys by then had got the news and they were ahead of us in that narrow road.

From all the gypsys ahead of us, we could hardly see a glimpse of the tigress (Mayuri). The male was somewhere behind. So we decided to wait and take our chance but no luck!! We had to return empty-handed. On the way back we got to see a Crested Serpent Eagle and then a brown fish-owl. But that was all we could photograph.

  Tigress Mayuri  

  Crested Serpent Eagle  

  Brown Fish-owl  

Just as we were about to exit the gate, we heard a nice song of the Oriental Magpie Robin. Little further the Robin decided to perch very close to us and kept its song going. That seemed like a nice parting gift for us.

  Oriental Magpie Robin - Singing  



Journey back

This gate was a little closer to our hotel so we were back well before 11 am. The trip was over for me and Ajit as we planned to start our return journey to Nagpur by 3 pm.

As we were returning, I called up home; and got the strict instructions that after coming back, I was to keep my clothes separately and have a good bath first before touching anything in the house. That’s when I realized the threats posed by the Corona Pandemic. Till then I was more or less cut away from the world and was happy in the wild.

In Nagpur I planned to meet my nephew (Adwait, he is doing his MD studies at the government hospital in Nagpur). He managed to spare a couple of hours from his busy schedule but when he came, he had the stethoscope on him and was aware that he could be called back anytime. Although he had a different set of duties, additionally they had to work on the Corona ward as well. He made me aware of the ground realities.

I boarded the train at 8:30 pm and soon realized the Railways had stopped providing blankets and the window curtains were missing too. These were recent measures taken because of the pandemic. Some people in the train were having their masks on, they were regularly using sanitizers to wash their hands. It was like I was back in a different world altogether.

At Thane station, there was no queue for auto (but fortunately there were autos)!! The auto-driver was curious to know about the situation on the station/about the rush on the platform, etc.

I reached home, had my bath, put all my clothes into the washing machine and kept all my stuff (camera, lenses) separately.



From that day, till today (April 9th) I have been more or less at home (occasionally stepping out for groceries and medicines). But that is how I got time to write about these experiences, else by now I was supposed to be in Corbett Reserve enjoying my time in the Himalayan foothills.