Nothing can match the sense of delighted awe at seeing a wild animal in its own habitat. Nor is the sense of our own insignificance in the natural order of things so pronounced. So it was at the Tadoba-Andhare Tiger Reserve near Nagpur in the state of Maharashtra, a wild bamboo-thicketed expanse covering some 625.4 kilometers of core reserve area surrounded by a buffer zone of 1067 km. comprising 79 villages. Home to various species of deer and other ruminants as also carnivores, we had warned ourselves not to expect a tiger sighting, just to consider ourselves fortunate should we actually get to spot one but all our lucky stars must have been rooting for us for we got much, much more than we had ever hoped for!
Our package included a two-day stay in cottage suites and full boarding and 4 expeditions by jeep over two days, with driver and guide thrown in. The first outing was disappointing, nothing more spotted than the wild Indian bison from afar, curious spotted deer, nervous barking deer, stately sambar dressed in majestic multi-pronged antlers gazing warily at us before melting silently into the bamboo brush, and other animals of smaller size. The following morning in the deep chill of early dawn, we met a large sloth bear, unmindful of watching eyes yet warily alert as it rooted in the ground before sliding into the undergrowth when it had enough of prying humans.
Then came THE sight, and the highlight of our memorable tryst with India’s national animal mascot! A fully grown male, splendidly orange and black, crouched by the stream below the jeep trail, stopping at several points to drink, unmindful of the several jeeps and their human contents. Soon, it clambered onto the trail, tail swishing slowly, and moved at a leisurely pace into the thicket on the opposite side. We inched alongside watching it through the bamboo branches and leaves, when suddenly it assumed a stalking posture, shoulders flexing slowly and paws moving silently one in front of the other. Then it was gone from our view when suddenly we heard an agonized cry. Peering through the dappled growth we saw antlers flailing as the large deer thrashed about for more than 20 minutes before it became still.
After that of course the spot became the mecca for all expeditions until the prey was disposed of by its hunter over the next 3 days. During the anticlimactic noon expedition we heard the tiger drag its prey further inside, away from prying eyes.
On our last safari our priority was to sight a female tiger with her four five-month old cubs or the one with 3 nearly adult year- olds. It was morning and pugmarks of cubs and an adult were seen leading to a waterhole. We waited breathlessy with other tourists before an open space between two large clumps of forest. Suddenly a large tigress emerged from the left and strolled to the opposite side. Partly screened in the bush we saw a nervous cub peering out at us, then suddenly dashing across towards its mother. A minute later the second cub did the same, then the third and the fourth. It was simply awesome!
We had got an intimate look into the reclusive world of a magnificent animal who, to save his breed, has retreated deeper and deeper into the undergrowth to avoid the traps, guns and electrocutions that are the poachers’ deadly arsenal which threatens to eliminate these precious creatures with a finality that can never be reversed. Skewered data about the tiger population creates a false sense of complacency instead of bolstering efforts to protect our wild life and their environment.
Tadoba is also home to many endangered reptiles and a variety of the strangest and largest spider varieties, whose large red webs spread across trees like giant fishing nets. It is an ornithological paradise with 195 species of birds and raptors and 74 butterfly species. And some of the strangest trees (many with medicinal properties) it has been our fortune to see – ‘crocodile’ trees(ain) with barks as striated and ridged as the reptile; tall, leafless , white ‘ghost’ trees shining eerily in the gloom of dusk, branches reaching up towards the moon.
How many lucky people would actually have been at a tiger kill and seen a tiger family as we did? Could it be because the Tadoba reserve is better managed than the others and flourishes as one of the best tiger breeding centres, with an excellent ratio of tiger sightings? Among other initiatives the villages in the buffer area are compensated for loss to their cattle by predators while local tribal youth form patrolling parties on a rotation basis, to curb illegal activities and reduce man-animal conflict while earning a livelihood.