zondag 4 december 2011

Me and my Tiger

I was absolutely sure: there were NO Tigers in Bandhavgarh. Despite being one of the most hailed Tiger reserves in India and promoted with quotes for the National park like “you are unlucky to see a Tiger in Bandhavgarh”, I was certain: it was a hoax! A tourist trap.

I had taken 8 safari’s already in the park without seeing a sniff. Of course I had seen pugmarks on the road, but I also saw forest guards walking with sticks in the park. As far as I could see the Tiger pugmarks were made by the forest guards, just to give tourists an idea that Tigers were around. All the other guest who were staying at the fabulous Monsoon Forest lodge had seen Tigers of course, but I was convinced that they had seen plastic dummy’s that were mobile steered on remote control devices that were also controlled by the same forest guards. The photo’s the tourists showed me were previously taken in a zoo of course. One time I had heard 4 young Tigers cubs in a Bamboo patch but as far I could tell that was tape playing for pre-recorded cub sounds; just for passing vehicles, to give them hope.

Bandhavgarh consists of a five zones, three that are accessible for vistiting cq paying tourists who were also buying the hoax: Tala, the main Tiger zone; Magdhi, in both I had seen zero Tigers; and Kitouli, an area where nobody went because there was nothing to see.

The ninth safari didn’t start too well; the driver was half hour late; we had to pick up two other tourists, and before we could get the tickets there was some confusion about payments for the park fee that costed some precious time. If you wake up at 4.30 you want to be in the park when it opens, otherwise there is no point to get up so early! Finally we were off, well after opening hours, and it turned out that we were also going to Kitouli instead of the two core zones - the area where no ones goes because there are so very few Tiger sightings.

I had given up the idea that I was going to see Tigers that morning and actually was looking forward to visit the Kitouli area because I could dream Magdhi by now and a fresh surrounding is always good. There is always some surprise and I wanted to see how the landscape look liked compared to the other zones. Besides, there were only 2 cars going in this area (instead of the 44 that tour around Magdhi) so we had the whole area for ourselves - which I prefer.

The safari started promising with an alarm call from a Spotted Deer that usually means a Tiger is around, and some Muntjacs in the forest, a small deer species that I hadn’t seen before in the other zones. We just took a road into the forest which looked great, looking for signs of Tigers. We came along a small guard post, because this area is divided by the ‘main’ road, and both sides were blocked by bars which had to be opened. We crossed the road and drove on and still no sign of Tiger, eg pugmarks on the road of alarm calls of Deers or Monkeys.

It was all very quiet in the forest and after driving through a scenic river we moved on through a bamboo desert - thick vegetation with no decent views of the forest undergrowth so mostly crossed fast by car - because there is nothing to see.

I was standing in the back of the - open and small - jeep, enjoying the moment, taken in all the smells and sounds of the jungle when suddenly all the people in the jeep where brutally taken back to reality when a deafening roar came for the left side and, as if appeared from nothing, a huge orange cat with black stripes was standing next to the car. A big female Tiger had charged the car whilst driving past! So overwhelming was the experience that I had fallen back to my seat looking straight in the eyes of a Tigress just two meters away! Wow!

The car stopped a few meters further on and the Tiger gave another roar and stepped back into the jungle. Before I could say anything he driver reversed and drove straight back to the place were she went back in. I considered this not a good idea given the charge that she made. We stopped and saw the female lying looking straight back at us. What an animal! I had the feeling that she was going to charge us again so I sat on the bench as far away as possible, grabbed my camera and started shooting. The Tigress was not at ease and she gave a few deafening growls and a good look at her teeth. Which are big at just five-six meters away. And then she had it, with a load roar she leaped out of the bamboo and charged the car again, the driver was just in time to drive off with spinning wheels which stopped the Tiger.

Stopping 50 meters further, the Tiger stepped onto the road, looked at us and decided to walk on the road away from us, occasionally looking back over her shoulder if we drove a little closer. She did some littering at the base of a tree, looked up and she disappeared from sight when the road made a corner.

Slowly we drove closer to the bend, expecting here to see walking on the road, but she was gone! Puzzled we stopped in the bend. Something made me look to the right and hidden in the bamboo I saw an orange shape ready to leap! I hid the car yelling ‘GO! GO!GO!’. The driver spun off with the Tiger jumping on the road, roaring, where we just stood, and this time chasing the car!

After 50 meters she gave up and some 100 meters further we stopped. All in the car gasping and all visibly shaken! This was no ordinary encounter! The Tigress started walking slowly towards the car. That was better. The driver turned off the vehicle to avoid shaking to make better photo’s. That was for some reason an ignition for the Tiger to make another charge. At full speed and full power she made a run for the Jeep, this time with no holding back! The car came at life and again with spinning wheels we drove of with the Tiger in pursuit for some 100’s of meters until we made a huge gap.

The Tigress stopped and if nothing happened the strolled back into the bamboo.
We never saw here again and made sure that we didn’t by driving straight back to the guard post where we all had to sit and relax and contemplate about the extraordinary wildlife encounter we had witnessed. A once in a lifetime experience!

So there were Tigers in Bandhavgarh!

The Tiger, just a nano second before she charged the vehicle again