With children on their semester break and at home, we felt like a complete family once again and this definitely called for a celebration (aka a trip to somewhere). We opened the new year by visiting Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve near Nagpur, in Maharashtra, India.
Honestly, we as a family are not wild-life enthusiasts. Among natural attractions, we would any day vote for a beach holiday over a visit to a nature reserve. That may be the reason why we have not been to any of the nature reserves in our vicinity, around Bangalore!
So then why Tadoba?
1) To see a tiger in the wild.
Summer is always a great time of the year to spot an animal as elusive as the tiger or as shy as a leopard as they tend to visit water bodies to quench their thirst. We were going in January (and not flexible on time/season of visit). Due to the high population of tigers in Tadoba (115 in all), chances of spotting one is fairly good any time of the year.
2) To see a tiger in a different forest setting.
Most of India consists of moist deciduous forests, while the western and central region that Tadoba lies in is dry deciduous forests, therefore making the flora also interesting and different.
3) To drive a long distance (a dream of mine).
I have always wanted for the four of us to drive over a long distance for a holiday. We spilt the nearly 1200km journey (one-way) over two days, with a night halt in Hyderabad. Each of us drove no more than 2-2.5 hours on each leg of the drive, making it pleasant and enjoyable without any one very tired or stressed driver 🙂
The forest of the Tadoba Andhari National Park is divided into three zones (Tadoba, Moharli and Kolsa). Each zone has a core zone (only forest) and a buffer zone (mix of forest and non-forest land). There are several entry gates into the core zone and the buffer zone. Most resorts and homestays are found around a few specific gates like Moharli, Khutwanda (also spelt Khuswanda), Navegaon and Kolara which are entryways to the core zone. There are buffer zone gates close to these core zone gates.
When choosing accommodation, pick a place that is close to the entry gates that you have booked. For example you cannot stay at a resort near Kolara gate while your entry is from Moharli gate simply because they are so far apart (60-odd kms!). Eventually the core zone visited via the gates at Moharli, Khutwanda, Navegaon and Kolara is the same.
There are two safaris per day per gate with a limitation on the number of vehicles that are permitted in the forest per safari per gate. So it is important to book well in advance on the prescribed website. Wild life enthusiasts recommend atleast six safaris, we did three safaris and I must say we were lucky to spot tigresses and their cubs on all three trips – 15 in all!
The morning safari starts at 6/6.30am and the afternoon safari starts at 2/2.30pm – the half hour time change depends on the time of the year. The duration of each safari is 4 hours, with a short break in between.
The buffer zone is mostly dense bamboo and includes villages and large tracts of agricultural land. The core zone is dense bamboo, with lots of teak trees, trees of medicinal value, a tree whose trunk resembles the hide of a crocodile and aptly called crocodile bark tree, and a very special tree called the ghost tree whose trunk and branches change colour depending on the season from white to light green to light pink. The Indian jujube (ber) trees are very common and when I saw the berry-laden trees it reminded me of my childhood! I know these berries as ‘borroms’, green when raw that turn pale yellow and a lovely burnt orange when fully ripe and oh so sweet-sour to taste! I have eaten so much of this berry as a child that I had a sudden longing for it once again!
The forest is home to a variety of birds; we saw kingfishers, ibises, storks, owls, marsh harriers and Maharashtra’s state bird – the yellow footed green pigeon and much more.
We saw a sloth bear, a wild boar, loads of spotted deer, sambhar deer and even a gaur and missed the leopard – he darted off into the wilderness in that millisecond it took us to shift our focus onto his majestic self.
The tigers are something else! They are so used to seeing humans that they saunter around without a care in the world while we in our jeeps with fancy cameras like the paparazzi literally chasing and hunting the bengal tiger, India’s national animal.
On the first safari, we saw a tigress and her cubs that appeared to be taking a morning walk beside the road. They seemed a bit shy and quickly disappeared into the thicket. The guides of the various jeeps keep updating each other of the tigers’ movements. During the afternoon safari we were informed that a tigress and her cubs were near a watering hole. When they have hunted and eating a meal, they tend to feel more thirsty and visit watering holes more often. It was well worth the wait! She emerged from the bushes with such a majestic gait that we were simply stunned into silence and watched her as she knelt to take a few sips of water. As she walked on, one by one, her four cubs came by. She appeared to have asked them to stay put while she walked along on her evening jaunt. Tigers tend to mark and survey their territory twice a day – in the morning and in the evening. Watching her as she walked on was grand!
Our third safari was in the buffer zone. We drove by the Irai reservoir which is home to a variety of birdlife. Our meeting with another tigress and her cubs was a bonus! We watched as they simply lay around, well, doing nothing! One of the cubs was quite a curious fellow who lifted his head every time he heard the safari jeep and curiously looked at us humans and then would lie down again and then repeat the process 🙂 We moved on deciding to let them be, only to be treated to the sighting of another mom and her cubs. These had just had a meal and were resting and simply lazing around, stretching and yawning and trying to find the right posture for a good siesta! We stayed there simply watching them and would have continued doing so if we had more time!
The drivers and guides on the safari are locals. They belong to villages in the buffer zone of the forest reserve. They know the forest and its inmates very very well. Some of them have spent their childhood playing in the very same forest or collected firewood when they were a little older – all this long before the area legally became a national park. If you chat them up you learn so much about the flora and fauna.
They have an exceptional ability to sight birds and animals. They spot pug marks from sooo far away that its unbelievable! One of the guides told us that there are few behaviours of the tiger that are nearly impossible to sight: hunting, fighting, mating, giving birth and cubs being carried by their mothers. The tigers we spot on the safaris are clearly bolder than others in the tiger reserve, just like us humans and our various personalties 🙂
A pregnant tigress finds it difficult to hunt large animals. During gestation, tigresses find it easy to prey on smaller animals such as fawns and wild boars. Their soft meat is preferred by young cubs too. When cubs start to learn to hunt, the tigress half-kills an animal and brings it to the cubs to finish the job. By the time the cubs are 1.5 years old they are ready to hunt. The cub that makes its first kill gets to keep the carcass to itself. By now they are ready to move on and make their own life. In fact, if you are near a carcass and the wind is blowing in your direction, you can ACTUALLY smell it (we did!!)! Tigers tend to cover a lot of ground during the day marking their territory, if there is a carcass, they will return to it by nightfall.
Before it was notified as a tiger reserve in 1995 there existed the Tadoba National Park that was formed in 1955 and Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary, two different entities, jointly today it is the tiger reserve spread over 625 sq. km. People had easy access to the area and they would come in all kinds of vehicles (two wheelers, autorickshaws, cars and vans) and picnic around the Tadoba Lake that is in the core zone. Slowly and one by one, rules were imposed. The villages within the core zone were relocated to the buffer zone. You can spot flat lands without any vegetation in the core zone where there used to be villages, wild vegetation is yet to make its presence in these areas. Next, vehicles were banned and also picnicking. Nowadays only safari jeeps are permitted. Each jeep carries a paper bag for any trash generated. Cellphones are disallowed. Cameras are permitted on paying the required camera fees. Huge fines are levied on rule breakers.
On the banks of the Tadoba lake, there is a temple dedicated to Taru, a tribal chief who, according to legend died fighting a tiger. He is worshipped every year in a festival which sees the coming together of a large number of tribals.
As one traverses along the well-laid road in the core zone (In total there is about 50-60km of roads inside the forest. During the rainy season these roads get washed away and need to be re-laid!), it is difficult to miss a continuous line of manmade pillars that stand equidistant from each other. According to our guide, these pillars belong to the times of the Gond Kings who used this very same road for their travels. A rope would be passed on top of the pillars through rings and bells would be hung on the rope. When the king was on his way, the rope would be tugged at, the bell would sound and the message would be conveyed to whoever it was as the receiving end of the king’s upcoming travel 🙂
One must understand that a safari does not start and stop with the tiger. Do not be disappointed if you do not see one. Make the most of the trip – get to know about the forest and all it holds because the flora and fauna are all interconnected and need each other for survival. It is indeed a fine balance. There is a lesson for all of us if we wish to see it and learn from it. This hoarding conveys it best.
Some useful links:
1) Two very informative websites about Tadoba National Park. Click here and here.
2) A map of the national park.
3) Booking page here and here. The second link is more user-friendly than the first one. The booking page is not easy to use. You can seek help from your accommodation to make the bookings on your behalf.
4) For a brief understanding of Tiger Conservation see here.
Carry something to protect your hair from the dust. A hat might keep the sun away, but not the dust.