The Tadoba National Park in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra is one of the oldest national parks of India established in 1955. It is named after the local tribal God ‘Taru’, legend says he died fighting a tiger and locals still pay respects at his shrine. With the addition of Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary and other protected forests, Tadoba National Park was upgraded to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in 1986 and now covers 1700 sq/km, with a core zone of 550 sq/km. The northern boundary is covered by thickly forested Chimur hills, while the perennial Tadoba Lake marks the other boundary, in between lie typical central Indian forests of teak, bamboo thickets and lush meadows.
Tadoba is a relatively new entrant in the wildlife tourism circuit; it sprang up on the scene a few years back, amidst reports of phenomenal tiger sightings. It was made famous by the four tiger sisters that travelled together and also featured in the world famous documentary – ‘The Tiger Sisters of Telia’. The Maharashtra government also realized the potential of this reserve and carried out extensive habitat development, village relocations and anti-poaching measures. As a result, the tiger population boomed in the reserve and it currently holds a staggering 85+ Tigers. Each tiger of Tadoba has been given a name/id based on its unique stripe pattern, and overtime some of them have become social media superstars. The King Madkasur is probably the most famous male tiger in India as it reigns over Tadoba’s prime tourism zone along with its wives Maya and Choti Tara.
While planning a trip to Tadoba, the most critical thing is to book your safaris few months in advance as safari permits sell out very quickly. We had booked our stay at the Svasara Jungle Lodge which is near the Kolara gate, and just 120 km from Nagpur, the biggest city of Vidarbha. We landed in Nagpur on the Christmas long weekend and the first thing that hits you is how warm and sunny the weather is compared to the chilly smog of Delhi. The word ‘Svasara’ means tree of life and the resort embodies the philosophy. The estate is so big that they literally have a mini forest of their own. The resort is designed like a local forest village, it has a common lobby decorated with local tribal paintings, a dining area decked with charpoys, a swimming pool peeping from behind the bushes and luxury huts for accommodation fitted with all the modern amenities.
At dinner we were introduced to one of the camp naturalists, Bhautik, who was to be our companion for the next couple of days. A naturalist is typically a young field biologist with whom you can discuss animal behaviour and predict wildlife sightings, it enhances the experience of visiting a forest manifold. As I dipped the liberally buttered piece of naan in the creamy red gravy of the butter chicken, small butterflies fluttered in my stomach in eager anticipation of the morning safari.
We woke up at dawn, the resort was already echoing with birdsong. We grabbed our hats, cameras and camouflage jackets, and set out on our first safari. Contrary to the balmy afternoons, the morning was quite chilly and we thanked our resort manager profusely for the arrangement of blankets in the safari jeep. Tadoba has three core safari zones, Tadoba which can be accessed from the Kolara gate, Telia which can be accessed from the Moharli gate and Kolsa Zone. It is said that Tadoba offers best sightings followed by Telia and Kolsa has restriction of only four tourist vehicles, hence Kolsa is not as popular. Our resort was near the Kolara gate hence we were one of the first vehicles to enter Tadoba.
Our safari vehicle cut through the morning mist , crunching the red soil of the deccan underneath. Forests of teak and bamboo emerged from the fog on both sides of the road, and we had our first wildlife sighting. A cautious Sambar deer doe walked out on to the road, got alerted to our presence and glared back at us, before slowly retreating into the cover of bamboo.
After a twenty minute ride we arrived at Jamni, it used to be a village inside the core area of the Tiger Reserve, but it was relocated outside to reduce human pressure on the forest and give much needed inviolate space to tigers. Symbolically, the dilapidated village school building has been retained, and sometimes the ruling male Madkasur is seen emerging from it signalling that a new headmaster runs this place now. The area where the villagers farms used to be, have become lush grasslands and support a big herd of Chital or Spotted Deer. Some of them looked up from their morning meal as our jeep rolled past and I was amazed at how quickly the forest and its denizens have reclaimed what was rightfully theirs.
From Jamni we headed to the beautiful and vast Pandarpauni meadows. A peacock wandered onto our path, it was a male peacock in its prime, its plumage deep blue. It was followed by a few more cautious brownish-blue peacocks, probably a bachelor group out foraging. Further afield, there was a mixed herd of Chital and Sambar Deer under a tree, the Sambar were sitting drowsily as if they had just woken up while the Chital were nibbling on titbits that their friends, the langurs were throwing down from the branches.
The perfect silence was suddenly broken as a young Sambar stag emerged from the trees. The ruling male Sambar perceived this as a threat to its harem and immediately stood bolt upright, shrugging its antlers and stomping the ground to establish its authority. The younger male accepted the challenge and lowered its head in the attacking position. There was a moment of tension when both the stags were sizing each other up…and then they charged.
Sambar is the largest deer in Asia, and it was quite a sight to watch the Sambar stags knock their antlers together. It lasted just a few seconds, the older male, with the swagger of a champion wrestler who has won many a fight, was cool and composed as they sparred. The younger male tried to hustle its opponent by jumping around and repeatedly disengaging and thrusting its antlers, but the older male stood its ground, and steadily pushed the challenger away from the herd. A final push and twist of the head into the mud completed the humiliation of the challenger who ran away into the cluster of trees to lick its wounds in solitude.
We were so absorbed in the Sambar deer drama that we didn’t notice the commotion at the back as other gypsies started turning around and heading off in another direction. As the last of them passed us by, their excited naturalist gave a shout, ‘a tiger has been sighted near Jamunbodi, come on rush’. Immediately the numbness and chill left us as warm blood and adrenaline pumped into our veins, the driver swerved around and headed after the others.
I could see movement of some animal near the roadside, but in the mad rush to see the tiger, tourist vehicles sped by without paying any heed to it. As we drew closer, my curiosity multiplied, and then we saw it, it was a beautiful specimen of the Dhole or Indian Wild Dog. Dholes are one of the most formidable hunters and even tigers tend to give them a wide berth. They are known to hunt in packs and start eating their prey while it is still alive. Interestingly, Dholes don’t bark but communicate with each other by whistling and hence also known as the whistling dogs.
Our Dhole was a full grown male, its coat a deep tan with dark ridges and a pale underbelly. Since it’s a pack animal, I knew that it would not be alone and sure enough, as the path cleared of commotion, another one walked gingerly out of the thicket. To our utter surprise, both of them started playing just like dogs do! For the next five minutes we watched enthralled as the two Dholes rolled over on their bellies, pulled each other’s tails, engaged in a mock fight and licked each other’s coats. I was looking for a good shot but they kept moving around so fast that it was very difficult to get a still shot, finally one of them got tired of the game and lay sprawled on a clump of grass. Sensing my opportunity I focused my camera on the target, and it obliged by opening its formidable jaws in a huge yawn that bared its long and sharp killer canines, a gentle reminder that they are not ordinary dogs, but one of the most fierce predators in the world.
Already late on the trail of the tiger, we sped past the bamboo thickets and twisted teak trees in silence. The forest started rising as we scaled a hill, this part was much greener with dense trees and a scenic lake spread out below. We climbed to the top to find a plateau of golden grass bathed in the morning sunlight. There was a line of tourist gypsies waiting here, on inquiry they told us with excited hand gestures that the iconic tigress Choti Tara had just crossed the road a few moments before. Expectant tourists waited patiently for the tigress to re-emerge with their long lenses ready to shoot. However, our experienced driver, Praveen Bhai and Bhautik had a discussion, basis which they concluded that the tigress was likely to reemerge near the water hole about a mile downhill. It was a difficult call to make as all the other gypsies were waiting here, but we decided to trust the knowledge of Bhautik and Praveen bhai, a decision on which I would pride myself for the rest of my life.
The jungle was silent as Praveen bhai parked the gypsy at the exact point where the forest trail descended into the water hole. We kept scanning the grass for any movement, or any alarm calls but to no avail. In fact, it was a bit too silent, nothing moved, suddenly I saw a movement in the grass about a hundred meters in the distance. I could see flashes of an orange silhouette moving stealthily in the grass and all of a sudden it emerged into the open. Choti Tara, the fiercely beautiful tigress was walking its majestic catwalk straight towards our gypsy on the forest path!!
Its walk was so lyrical that we inadvertently started swaying our heads to its rhythm. We were so mesmerised we lost all sense of time and kept staring in wonder as it got bigger and bigger in our vision. It was hardly twenty feet from our safari vehicle now, I could see the folds and ripples form on its golden skin, the hunch of its shoulders and the swish of its long tail as it walked.
Its flaming eyes bored right into ours, and it held the stare forcing us to look away. When we had the strength to look again it was already descending the slope towards the water hole. Its arrival startled a Sambar deer at the water hole, which broke into ear splitting alarm calls. The alarm calls attracted the other gypsies to our spot as Choti Tara drank its fill nonchalantly and disappeared into the forest.
We were welcomed back at the resort with little shots of iced lemonade and wet towels, and led to a steaming hot lunch of chicken casserole and grilled veggies, but my mind was far away, that moment of being alone in the silent forest with a tigress walking right at us will remain etched in my memory forever.
The afternoon drive was in the buffer zone. While planning an itinerary, one should definitely include a couple of trips in the buffer zones as they are quite scenic and have a high density of tigers too. Some of the famous buffers are Kolara, Alizanza, Junona and Agarzari. We decided to try our luck in the Alizanza buffer. While the drive to Alizanza was through villages and farms, as soon as we passed the entry gate of Alizanza we were enveloped by thick forest. As we drove further, the buffer was greener and even more pleasing to the eye than the core. On top of that, the narrow winding road was just wide enough for a four wheeler to pass though with thorny bushes scraping its sides and overgrown branches hanging dangerously low made the experience wilder and more adventurous.
Our first sighting was of a group of grey jungle fowl , a handsome breed of chicken endemic to peninsular India. Further up, our road was blocked by a mongoose, it was displaying very un-mongoose like behaviour, instead of scampering for cover it chose to stay put and stare back defiantly at us, giving an excellent photo opportunity. Suddenly we heard the unmistakable alarm call of the barking deer, and our driver sprung into action…a tiger was moving somewhere close to us…
We followed the alarm calls and right after we turned a bend in the road we encountered an unexpected scene. The road was blocked by some 10 tourist gypsies. Further inquiries revealed that a tigress had just crossed the road and was supposedly resting in the meadow by the roadside. This Tigress was known as Jharni and had been extremely shy lately as it was nursing a young cub. We also circled around the vehicles and took our place in the queue.
It was the weekend, and with the buffer zone allowing on-spot bookings, there were quite a few picnic parties and leisure travellers enjoying their weekend. One of the gypsies had a crew of six females and a dude in a pink vest trying to entertain the party with wisecracks about how the tigress was hiding because the real tiger was in the jeep, not many of them were laughing though. Another gypsy had a couple of bawling babies creating quite a ruckus. A third had a couple dressed in matching red t-shirts and sunglasses conducting a mini photo session choreographed by the hapless tourist guide interspersed with questions like whether film shootings ever happened at Tadoba or whether the superstar Amitabh Bacchan had ever paid a visit ?, the guide probably knew that Mr Bacchan had infact shot Tadoba’s eco tourism campaign but he chose to stare resignedly in the distance.
We were quite appalled by the scene, there was no chance the tigress would come out in the middle of this madness, so we told our driver to move on. Praveen bhai started the engine and it all happened so suddenly… a sleepy tiger cub stood up in the clearing disturbed by the noise of the engine , and right behind it the Tigress Jharni stood bolt upright. I zoomed in on the tigress and immediately realised from its expression that something was very wrong. Its lips were stretched apart tightly and its canines bared.
Before I could react, before I could even so much as sound out a warning , the tigress charged…It moved like lightning heading straight for our jeep, everything was happening in slow motion, I remember that scene in excruciating detail, the tigress leaping over the bush and bounding towards us with fluid movements , a visceral fear that I had never experienced before gripped my entire body in a stranglehold, the camera fell from my petrified grasp, as if from another world I could hear Bhautik repeatedly yelling to the driver to kill the engine, but it was too late, the tigress was nearly upon us, I could taste bile at the back of my throat as the corners of my vision turned red, the tigress was barely 10 feet from us when the driver managed to shut the engine, Jharni screeched to a halt right in front of the bonnet, looked up at us with eyes full of fire, threw back its head, and roared. The primeval roar reverberated across the clearing , the birds flew away in the trees as the roar echoed throughout the forest telling the denizens and humans alike that it was the undisputed queen of this forest.
The episode was over as quickly as it had started , the tigress turned back and vanished with its cub into the forest leaving behind a stunned silence. We sat down with shaking legs, the guide was consoling us that this was not the first time that the tigress had charged, it was known to be quite temperamental , but it always pulled away from the charge at the last moment. However, I was unable to erase the scene of the angry charge from my vision, at a deeply instinctive level I had felt for a moment the paralyzing fear that the tiger’s prey feels. The weekend revelers were panicking and urging their drivers to go back, they had just realized that tiger territory may not be the best location for a family picnic.
After having enough adventure for a day we decided to head back to camp, but the forest is always full of surprises. Just as the cold dusk started setting in, we spotted a column of dust, there are only two animals that are capable of raising a cloud of dust this big, either a herd of elephants or a herd of gaur ( Also a line of tourist gypsies !!). Soon enough, a large herd of gaur emerged into the clearing.
The gaur is the largest bovine (wild cattle) in the world, in fact, with the dominant males weighing nearly two tonnes, it is among the largest living land mammals after the elephant, hippo, rhino and giraffe (Remember the bullfight scene from the Bollywood movie Baahubali, it was Bhallaladeva vs the Gaur, that’s how big it is !!). It is characterized by the muscular hump of its shoulders and its unique coloration where its whole body is black but the legs are white , making it seem as if the animal is wearing white stockings. We watched in fascination as one after the other the herd of twenty plus brownish black females lumbered across from the woodland into the grassland where they would spend the night grazing peacefully free of any disturbances. The rear-guard was brought by a magnificent handsome bull gaur, towering a metre above the rest of the herd, its hide was pitch black and glossy and its muscles rippled as it walked with effortless swagger.
The night at camp Svasara was cold and foggy, but the welcome sight of a large bonfire with dancing flames lifted our spirits. it was Christmas eve !! All the guests were huddled around the bonfire with their jackets clutched tightly to their chests and relishing steaming hot bowls of broth. The menu today consisted of a variety of exciting dishes from the local Maharashtrian cuisine, the best of them being puran poli, a deep fried flatbread dessert with mango filling.
The Christmas morning dawned misty and pink, today we decided to explore the other half of the core zone, the area around the Telia lake which was at quite a distance from our resort (closer to Moharli gate), but the good part was that we could enter from the Kolara gate and drive all the way there through the dense forest. As we crossed the Jamni meadows on our way , the sky was just beginning to lighten and I was engrossed in a discussion with Bhautik, suddenly I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye, I twisted my neck sharply to come face to face with Madkasur, the dominant male tiger of Tadoba emerging from a dry canal bed. I couldn’t believe our luck, Santa Claus was being overtly generous !!
The tiger was moving at a fast pace, It descended the canal striding powerfully and crossed the road in a flash. My first impression on watching Madkasur cross the road was its sheer size !! it was huge, easily one of the biggest tigers that I have seen. Its muscular limbs were like small trunks, its belly was full and bulging indicating it had fed recently, its long tail flailed behind like a whip and its face had a menacing expression that sent shivers down our spine. In just a matter of seconds it had disappeared into the grassland on the other side of the road leaving giant sized paw prints on the soft mud.
A series of shrill alarm calls of the Chital announced its movement in the grass, Madkasur remerged in a clearing to our left, its head was down as if it was smelling a trail , suddenly it lifted its massive head and rushed in a different direction tearing the grass that came in its way. It was angry , and the reason was revealed soon. Alarm calls broke out simultaneously in two different parts of the grassland. Bhautik told me that the two sub-adult male cubs of the Tigress Choti Tara had been spotted here the previous evening. Even though they were technically Madkasur’s progeny too, Madkasur was clearly not happy with them moving about in its core territory.
Few seconds after Madkasur had bounded off, Bhautik excitedly pointed to the far side of the grassland where two sub adult tigers had emerged quietly. I zoomed in, they were nearly as big as adult tigers but their scared expressions belied their youth.
They were crouching low in the grass , ready to sprint in case of any threat. Luckily for them, the Chital alarm calls signalling Madkasur’s movement drifted farther and farther away. Still they kept lying low , refusing to allow themselves being seen lest a stupid deer reveal their location with an alarm call.
The drive to Telia typically takes an hour or more, and we had an eventful journey where we spotted a pack of wild dogs and a solitary barking deer en-route. By the time we reached Telia the sun was bright in the sky, the lake was nearly dry as rains had been scarce this year, but the grassland that had sprung up on the lake bed and its surrounding areas shimmered golden in the sunlight.
This territory is ruled by the iconic tigress Sonam, from the original gang of tiger sisters of Telia documentary. Its mate is a massive male tiger Bajrang, eyewitness accounts rate Bajrang as even bigger than Madkasur. Close to the lake we spotted a kingfisher resting on a bamboo branch, looking for fish from its high vantage point.
We scoured the beautiful forests full of bamboo clumps, towering teak trees and ain trees (whose bark looks like crocodile skin) for the next couple of hours, but did not find any tigers. Finally we proceeded to partake our breakfast (packed by the efficient Svasara management in eco friendly containers) in the tranquil silence of the forest near a water hole , watched over by a curious herd of Gaur.
We were on our way back from Telia, it was almost 11 am , the sun was beaming on us directly and we were feeling quite hot and itchy. Just as we crossed the Jamni meadows where we had seen Madkasur in the morning, we spotted something white under a large clump of bamboo. Lo and behold, it was a tiger !! It was fast asleep in the shade and its upturned white belly is what we had seen from afar.
Bhautik confirmed that this was not Madkasur, but one of the sub adult cubs of Choti Tara. We knew that both the cubs were traveling together hence the other one could not be far behind. Soon enough, we saw a movement in the grass to the left, it was the other cub hiding in the grass and feasting on a fresh kill, we could hear the crunch of bones fifty feet away. At that moment it decided to stand up from its kill and stroll across to its brother in the bamboo shade. The sleeping cub also woke up, stretched leisurely and spread open its mouth in a big yawn.
Both of them sat side by side, making for a perfect photo opportunity and stared back at us drowsily, looking at them made us long for the comfort of our cosy beds and the lemonade shots and wet towels waiting for us at the resort.
Lunch at the resort was excellent as usual, but we were feeling a bit sad . The evening safari was going to be our last, our one last chance for a rendezvous with Tadoba’s famous tigers.
The afternoon was balmy with a gentle wind caressing our hair as our gypsy lurched and bumped over the rickety forest track. As all the now familiar areas rolled by, Jamni, Pandharpauni, Ainbodi, I tried to freeze the scenes in my memory to relive them later. At Pandharpauni we parked the gypsy near the water hole and decided to wait as this was the territory of Maya, Maya is the other wife of Madkasur apart from Choti Tara, and considered a photographer’s dream as it is extraordinarily beautiful. Meanwhile at the water hole a procession of grey langur’s was approaching cautiously. They approached the water’s edge and aligned themselves in a perfect queue according to height, with the junior most being the first to drink as the big ones at the back kept watch.
Chital and peacocks were spread out in the grasslands going about their evening meal. After a while we could not detect any alarm calls so we decided to try the shady green patch of forest beside the perennial Tadoba Lake. As soon as the lake came into view, we saw a huge Sambar stag with trophy antlers wallowing in the shallows. It got up hurriedly and stared at us as we approached, which probably saved its life as we spotted a big marsh crocodile slinking on the shore just a few feet behind the stag.
The drive beside the lake was very scenic with a gently sloping wooded mountain full of Jamun (black plum) trees on one side and the shimmering lake on the other. Suddenly a deep bass sound like the sharp blast of a battle horn rent the air, it was accompanied by the thrashing of bushes on the mountainside. I looked at Bhautik inquiringly and he whispered that it was the alarm call of the gaur. Another bass alarm call reverberated across the woods and suddenly we could sense a heavy body thundering down the hillside crashing through the vegetation, pretty much like T-Rex in Jurassic Park. Suddenly a scared looking mother gaur and its calf burst out amidst a cloud of dust and twigs, they leapt across the road and reached the water’s edge, the calf disappeared beneath its mother’s legs.
They were clearly trying to escape a predator, Bhautik scanned the hillside with binoculars to see any signs of a predator, and bingo, he spotted a tail, no two tails, it was a pair of leopards!! The Leopards were under dense cover and we were speculating whether they would follow the gaur mother and calf to the water’s edge, but then their savior arrived, a huge gaur bull. The gaur bull was literally fuming at the nostrils, it turned around with its head bent and took its position with its massive horns facing the hill where the leopards were, it repeatedly dug its hooves in the wet mud and swayed its head vigorously in warning as its vulnerable family cowered behind.
Even a pair of Leopards would never risk taking on a bull gaur in its prime, so they left the calf alone for the day, but the forest is never a safe place for young ones, the crocodile had surreptitiously slipped into the water and was inching close to the calf unseen by the mother, who knew what drama was yet to unfold but we decided to move and try our luck in Telia one last time.
Bhautik was determined to try to find something interesting and took us to through dense jungle paths where we literally had to duck to avoid getting scratched by the bamboo. Just as we crossed a waterhole, we suspected there was an animal at the ledge, as we went closer our spirits soared, it was a sloth bear drinking water, the legendary baloo from the Jungle Book. It was a fine specimen with shaggy black hair and long white nose that looked up surprised as we approached, halted for a second and then ran back into the cover of bamboo. Central Indian forests like Tadoba are famous for holding a large ursine population but bears are highly secretive animals and not seen too often in the open. We were thrilled!! Tadoba had decided to showcase its entire biodiversity to us in this short two-day trip.
Darkness was approaching fast but on our way back we decided to check the Jamni meadows one last time, and Tadoba had our farewell gift waiting for us there. There was a large assembly of tourist gypsies and canters with buzzing cameras, the sub adult cubs of Choti Tara were putting on quite a show. One of the cubs had killed a mongoose and was running around in circles with the limp mongoose dangling from its mouth.
It would toss the mongoose up in the air and then pounce on it, prod it with its paws, lick it then grab it between its canines and proceed to give it a thorough shake as a dog does with its chew toy.
The other cub decided to join the game by stalking from behind and then pouncing on its brother and pinning it to the ground, the cub rolled on to its back in surrender, but that turned out to be a feint as it suddenly lunged for the mongoose and sprinted off, the other cub gave hot pursuit and caught the dead mongoose by its tail, both of them began pulling at it, suddenly they stood up on their hind legs , clawed each other then got dis-balanced and fell together into the bed of soft grass.
These mock fights are essential life training for the young males as they get to test their strength, it would hold them in good stead in the future when they have to fight real bloodied battles for territory, maybe with their own father someday. Through the entire drama one should have felt really sorry for the mongoose but the innocence of the tiger cubs was a delight to watch that really warmed our hearts.
We could have watched Heera-Panna endlessly ( The tiger cubs had not been given IDs yet, so the guides had become quite creative) , after all, this is the successful outcome of protecting wild tigers for 50 years under the Indian Govt’s landmark Project Tiger initiative, a world where tigers don’t need to fear humans (atleast inside the park boundaries) and give us a peek into their private and social lives. However, our safari time was coming to a close, and we reluctantly bid them goodbye promising to check on them in the next season. With a bunch of incredible memories, we left the burnished golden forests of teak and bamboo behind for the hustle and bustle of the city.
I have visited many tiger reserves and I can easily say that I have never seen so many tigers in a single trip; we saw an incredible 6 different tigers in just 4 trips in the forest!! I would highly recommend this park to all the wildlife lovers seeking a rendezvous with a tiger in the wild because here, you don’t just get to see a tiger (you may get to see many tigers!!) but also observe it in its natural habitat displaying its raw natural behaviour. Tadoba is undoubtedly the jewel of the Central Indian tiger habitat and truly deserves the title- “Land of the Tiger”.
(c) All text and photo copyrights with Shikhar Ranjan@2018