Apoorva Joshi

PhD student - Michigan State University; Independent journalist - environment, science and international news.

Fellow - International League of Conservation Writers.

Member - Society of Environmental Journalists, International Communication Association.

BANDHAVGARH TIGER RESERVE - 5th to 11th May '08

It has been 8 hours since I've been back from Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, India. It has undoubtedly been a rocker of an experience. We left Pune on the 5th of May, by Gyan Ganga Express. Reaching Katni Junction on the 6th, we proceeded to Bandhavgarh and reached Mogli Resort at around 1:30pm on the 6th itself. We had a group of 36 in all. 4 camp instructors and 32 campers. Of the 32 campers, 27 were kids and the rest, adults.
Bandhavgarh, the land which has the highest Tiger population density in the world! A forest which is ENTIRELY different from any of the forests Ive seen so far! It's hills, rocks, sand, Sal trees, wildlife, weather, peace and calm, are all part and parcel of Bandhavgarh. A wonderful place to be in. The gorgeous meadows of Chakradhara, Raajbehra, Sidhhababa, etc., are an expanse of awe with Lesser Adjutant Storks in the water, Chital (Spotted Deer) grazing in the distance, and that majestic yellow and black striped Cat lying somewhere in the protection of the grass. The Tiger. Lying low, resting, ready for attack, walking, sleeping, running after Deer, and all its other activities, that make the Feline attraction so majestic! Our very first ride into the park was on the 7th in the morning. Waking up at 4am (IST), we entered the park at 5:30am. On that day, the route assigned to my gypsy was Route C. A very very beautiful route, great forested patch, wonderful activity of wildlife. I was half expecting a Tigress to come walking out of one of the thickets on the left and cross the route and go to the other side. I guess I should have expected the other half also! (Coz no such thing happened!! :( ) Anyway, we saw a lot that morning, on our way to the Central Point of Hardia. After that, we went to Sidhhababa meadow. And there she was... seated on her rock.. watching. The Sidhhababa female (Tigress) who was surrounded by three Elephants who were carrying tourists to her seated site for offering them a closer look at her. Our Elephant walked through leaves, water, rocks, sand, mud, possibly anything that came in his way, and reached her. She got up just as we reached her. A BEAUTY to the core!!! Ive no words to describe her. A pregnant Tigress, walking ahead, with us following in COMPLETE shock! (Plus, that Elephant wasnt contributing .. he was being really shaky and hence, so was the camera! ) She walked, marked a tree, turned around and looked at us in our respective faces, walked on ahead, waited, walked, sat at the edge of a stream, drank water with her eyes on us and our not-so-co-operative Elephant who thought it was upto him to chase her away. So we stepped into action and made him go back. Frustrating a gorgeous pregnant Tigress!! We aren't cruel!! So back we went. She took the chance, and got up, walked around the two other Elephants(much smaller than our's) with other tourists on them, and found herself a nice cosy spot and lay down. She slept on her back. :) a huge Tigress, sleeping like a domesticated kitty cat! How cute is that!! And now, common sense, would make people want to leave the poor soul in peace, and observe her antics.. but no! Our bunch of campers listened to us when we aksed them to keep quiet. But our jurisdiction unfortunately doesnt extend to all tourists there. People in bright red and orange clothing, with flashing cameras (illegal!!) and very very loud voices, talking about how the Tigress was very lazy! You have NO idea about the fury I felt then. If it hadnt been for 4 kids in my gypsy and 2 adults, I would have even said everything I wanted to! But kids hearing an instructor abuse stupid tourists isnt a bright idea. So the thought got abandoned. Instead, I took a different way to this. I got out my camera. And while people clicked away at the Tigress' changing positions, I clicked away at them! :) I got photos showing the torture they put a Tigress through. A tigress who's supposed to rest, and if allowed, she can do that in our presence! Only if we keep those traps shut. But apparently it's a very tough thing to understand. I pity the people who come there to enjoy a "picnic" and yell and shout and express their excitement in the worst ways possible. Educated people. Shameful.
After getting a wonderful time watching her, by learning to ignore the blabbering all around, we headed back to the gate as it was time for the park to close. So off we were. Our people being elated at having gotten close to the Tigress on the Elephant. That evening we had our second ride in the park. Evening rides don't have routes alloted to gypsies. One can choose where he/she wants to go. The trademark moments of this camp were sighting the Raajbehra male (Tiger), the Sidhhababa female crossing our path and giving us a beautiful one hour on our last ride, the Tigress at Andhyari Jhariya whom we followed for 65 minutes from 5:30am, the Patiha male cub (Tiger) who we spotted sitting faaaaaaaaar away in the bushes... but were super excited all the same!!The brilliant birds and those awesome Vultures that glided their way everywhere, that rare Egyptian Vulture, the injured Long-billed Vulture, their roosting sites, that MASSIVE Bandhavgarh Fort and the even more fascinating habitat in Bandhavgarh of meadows, marshes, drylands, green forests, hills, all in all an awe inspiring Reserve! Then the next highlight being the Raajbehra male making a dash at a Chital and killing it and then dragging it into the grass to ensure no visibility.
Oh yes, and truely saving the best for the last, I now announce, that after 7 freakishly frustrating years of searching and waiting, I have FINALLY spotted my FIRST Wild Leopard!!! While returning from a one hour observation of the Raajbehra male (Bhokha) , who by the way, is stunningly handsome, we were racing away to reach the park's gate in time before it closed, and on our way, some Cat like animal crossed the road in front of us at a little distance from us, and went into the forest on the right. I stopped the driver immediately saying it's a Jungle Cat. The guide with us, said it's a Tiger cub. We stopped. The cat stared. We stared back. Then it sunk in. Leopard. Leopard!! Leopard!!!!! Oh dear lord!! Just out of the blue!! Without warning, without anticipation, she's there! Right in front of my eyes! 10 feet away from me. Looking at me. Contemplating her next move. Her eyes talking faster and faster. My eyes big and flabbergasted. She turned, ran, stopped, and turned again, to look at us, waited. And then it dawned on me - photo!! I fumbled for the camera while she took a few more paces away. I clicked, while her head was behind a thicket and only her body and tail were visible. She was far away by then. I didnt even care about the photo. I had just seen a Leopard for an ENTIRE 75 seconds!! People I know, who have seen a Leopard before, have told me - "It stood up, jumped, and went away." , "I saw it for 4 seconds! How do i know if it was a male or not?!" , "Those cats dont stay man!! U get the camera, look up, and realize they're gone!!" . And with so much of a feedback, my instinct told me, - "Observe. Chuk the photo. Just observe." That's exactly what I did. Observed. One photo. And 75 seconds of observation. A Leopard. I don't think anyone understands the importance of this sighting. 7 years!!!! And now suddenly, when I'd given up hope that I can spot one in the wild, it just comes! Well, after we came out of our dazed state, we realized we had 5 minutes to make it to the gate. So it was do or die. The race had begun. We sped across no matter what we spot now. Tiger , Leopard, Sloth Bear, who or what came, we kept going!!! Reached the gate with 4 seconds to spare for closing time. :) PHEW!! I can actualyl FEEL that excitement!!
Undoubtedly, this camp, has been one heck of a rocker!! With much more stuff than mentioned in this article, it's been a splendid time knowing a forest I can only wait impatiently to go back to!! The sessions with the campers, the meal times, the rides, the frustrating times when we had to control the kids, the chase for the Rat Snake, the Wolf Snake caught on campus, the Scorpions, the early morning tea times, the rooms!!! Everything was downright amazing!! Memories that will last all of us for a very very long time Im sure! The night spent sleeping by the pool, looking at the stars with rain drops falling on our faces now and then.. it all seems so clear. Like the water that glistens on a dark night with a full moon over it, causing the ripples to shine and shimmer. Moments of glory and those not so bright (-the train journey back to Pune) ; this camp, had it all! :) So the next time anyone is travelling by the Darbhanga Express, make sure u have enough memories to last you that harrowing journey and some left over till you go back again! :)
So for all those wilderness residents of Bandhavgarh, here's a salute to their majesty, their existance, and their sheer effect on us. May the Land of the Tiger live on!! :)

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