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Monday, May 25, 2009

Sounds of the Jungle

I told before that the experience of sighting a tiger is a burst of senses. The dust in the air of the jungle smoothens the sunlight that tries to find its way through the leaves of the trees canopies and bamboos. There is not even a breeze and the air is hot. The scent of warm wood and dry leaves blends with an odd smell of the traces left by langurs. The atmosphere is set, you know that the tiger is approaching when you listen to the alarm calls from spotted deers, peacocks and sambhar deers - if you are lucky you may hear the roar of the tiger. You cannot notice the tiger until you see it clearly - the orange color of the his fur and the black stripes of his body moving through the bushes easily betrays your vision by desguised bythe shadows and yellow tones of the foliages - it is almost invisible. Then the tiger reaches a clear spot, the light reveals the big cat moving slowly, the massive paws touch the ground so heavily that you now can't loose his track anymore. There you go, camera on hands, can't stop clicking...

video

Play the sound file and listen to some of the most common alarm calls we hear in the forest. You will be able to notice the high pitch isolated screaming of the spotted deer (or Chital), like a small dog barking; and the loud alarm call of the peacock, which sounds more like a quick blow of a horn immediately followed by a series of usually 5 or 6 repeated strident callings.

It is a very low-quality recording, as it has been captured by the pocket-recorder we used for tagging the events along the game-drive. But we hope it can provide a slight idea of the environment where the pictures were taken.

Cheers.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bandhavgarh - Day 02 - Part 2

The daily routine at Bandhavgarh includes coming back to the lodge at 09:30am, after the morning safari, to have the breakfast, at Indian cuisine style, already including some typical spicy food between the toasts and the cereals. And after finishing breakfast the best deal was to take a nap to compensate the early wake-up call effects, while we wait for the lunch time at 01:00pm. Or we found something to entertain ourselves for the next hours like taking pictures of the many butterflies that keep flying in the center yard of the lodge.


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(The last one has the same colors of the tiger or am I getting obsessive?)

Loading the camera batteries, saving the pictures, cleaning the lenses and gear (that in fact is the most important thing to do between the game drives). After lunch Raj met us communicates that Deepak was very sick – he could not join us that afternoon so he would be going again with us as our guide. We were in good hands.

Raj told us that there were good chances of seeing B2 again that afternoon, because the park rangers saw B2 hunting a deer and hiding the remaining carcass in a bamboo thicket nearby the same place we saw him the day before. The tigers, when they do not finish eating the prey, they hide the carcass in places like this to keep it safe of vultures and other scavengers. As he entered the Ghorademon cave during the day for cooling, B2 would potentially exit the cave sometime late in the afternoon to go take the carcass back (or not…with nature you never know what is going to happen…).

Our vehicle and a bunch of other jeeps have got together in the exit of the cave to patiently wait for a majestic appearance. It seemed like everybody had been polarized by the same information that afternoon. Actually, seeing B2 is really special – who saw him before, wants to see him again whenever there is a possibility for an encounter to happen.

As if we had an appointment with B2, he emerges from the plateau of sandstone surrounding the cave.


B2_MG_1177_F

The biggest tiger in the area then walked toward the cars, which were all pointing to the direction of the cave, so the frenzy start – all jeeps start to move at the same time to turn around and follow the path of B2 – a real mess as the road is narrow with thick vegetation on both sides. Mr. Raj started to “coordinate” the mess from our jeep, yelling to the other where they should move, he knows that we have not much time for getting stuck behind that confusion of cars. In the meantime, B2 walked through the vegetation and showed up again in the other of bushes, and then started to cross the road.


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All jeeps had already found a place to be by that time, and we started to hear the burst of shots coming from everywhere around. Hypnotized by B2 eyes, we fall deeper into that encounter through the lens of the camera, and everything around disappears – the feeling of being alone with the tiger in our face just hit us again – the time slowed down, B2 moved smoothly between the cars until reached the other side of the track, deciding to walk through the bushes again.


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We restarted to follow him along the road getting ahead of him a couple of times, what provided a good view of B2 walking towards us. Despite the dense foliage, it was an excellent experience again. B2 kept going for his carcass, and we had to go.


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Recovering from the discharge of adrenaline, moving towards the park gate to finish our second day at Bandhavgarh, we could enjoy a beautiful sunset as we were driven back to Tala Gate.


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Back in the camp, we joined the evening reunion, not around the fire (too hot for that!), but drinking Kingfisher (local beer) with Raj and the other guests. We asked Raj: How did you know that B2 was going to be really there? - He just waved his head in that typical Indian style and kept the mystery in the air…

Note: you can click on the picture to take you to the original size picture in our Flickr album page, being better to see the photographs you like. Or if you may want to go straight to our Flickr page, please access the link Our Flickr Page

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bandhavgarh - Day 02 - Part 1


Sunrise at Tala Gate_MG_0891_F

The days in Bandhavgarh start early, very early. We had our wake-up call at 04:45am. At 05:15am we were expected in front of the lodge gate to take our gipsy. Deepak was already in the car and Sujan , the driver, helps us to hop on. We have the car just for us as the lodge is not full – in total we will be 5, the driver, the guide, the ranger (who will join us at the park gate), and the two of us. In addition, Mr. Raj had asked the night before if he could join us in this game drive, and of course we have agreed.

The Main Gate of Bandhavgarh is just a few blocks away from the Nature Heritage Resort lodge, what allow us to be the first ones (if we want), but the exact order of arrival is not that much important to get the routes permits as long as you are within the first 25 jeeps (the maximum allowed in the park). As we arrived in the Tala Gate, we take a place in the queue and Sujan immediately goes to the forest department post to pick up the morning track permit. In the mornings, the route system works as follows: each jeep is assigned to one of the 4 routes (A to D), the gate opens daily at 06:30am for the jeeps and each one must stay on the assigned track until reach a place called Central Point until around 07:30am, where the jeeps must check in and get the checkpoint registration. If a jeep is caught by the rangers in a different track or if they do not show up in the Central Point, the guide and the driver can be punished with a suspension for weeks.

After getting the Route “A” in that morning, just before the gate opened, an official park ranger gets into the jeep – it is mandatory to have a forest department ranger in each car to be the guide and to ensure that the park rules will be followed along the game drive.
Until the gate is opened by the rangers, we stay in the car watching that crazy reunion of guides, drivers and rangers. Deepak and Raj takes the time to tell us histories about the tigers of the park, and explains us the park rules.

Just a couple of seconds before the gate opens, the guides call each other and the drivers jump into their jeeps and start the engines. The game drive starts with the frenzy of the jeeps squeezing themselves through the gate almost pushing each other – really not much different from Delhi’s traffic jams. Better hold on!

The fresh air blows in our faces as when in the time game drive starts in the morning, the park is still in the shade. Our little jeep keeps going on track “A”, tearing the soft mist that floats ahead of us along the road. The sand is soft, and no jeeps have used the tracks before us that morning, so that Deepak and Raj could look for fresh pug marks.

Route “A” takes us West, and Raj explains to us that the main objective is to rush during the first minutes of the game drive in the morning is to go straight to the points where there are chances to see a tiger – this will depend, of course, if any tiger has been seen in the area of the route earlier or in the night before by park ranges – if they get any tip of the rangers and other guides, the plan will be going directly to there to check.

The track follows the border of the park, in a point where there is a stone wall built to try keep the wildlife away from the neighbor village - nothing that will prevent a tiger from passing through, but it will avoid the villagers to take cattle in the park to graze the grass – Raj explains. The road is empty as this track is quite long, and in that moment we had already slowed down to allow following any fresh sign that might indicate the presence of a tiger.

All of a sudden, as the road bended slightly to the right, a dark silhouette appears in the far end of the road – Deepak whispers: “Tiger, down on the road!” – the jeep speeds up to get us there before the animal disappears, and we quickly reach the spot, or should I say, the stripes…


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The light was so good; the sun was breaking into the leaves of the trees’ canopies highlighting the road with a collection of yellowish tones, and the tiger moving away by the road alternating between light and shade stripes.


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It was a young male tiger, about 20-months old, according to Raj. He was one of the Mirchani brothers, sons of B2, both already independent of their mother, the Mirchani Tigress. They are not very strong tigers, as they are still learning to hunt properly. Mirchani tigress still stays around the young brothers as a mentor, the guides told that she has even made a kill for them in the end of 2008 because they were not succeeding hunting themselves and they were becoming weak. A careful mother.


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Mirchani boy kept walking along the track and refrained from time to time to try removing something stuck in his head. We could barely notice what he was trying to do, but then when he turned around to check on us, we could clearly see what was bothering him so much: a porcupine spine. Probably, in the night before, he killed a porcupine and got stung. We could notice some smaller stings in his fore leg.


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It is interesting to see how comfortable this tiger is with our presence, potentially the result of the regular contact with the tourists since he was born. He stretches and rests peacefully in the middle of the road, not bothering with our presence.


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We enjoy the peacefulness of this moment, as there were no other jeeps with us. Again a private encounter intensively appreciated with no rush.


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As time passes, we feel the temperature of the day rising, and so does he. He stands up once more to continue his walk, however he soon exits the road and seems to prefer entering the forest where the dense foliage still offered some shelter and kept the sunlight away.

It is time again to move on. We have still our mission assignment to accomplish: we must get to the Center Point to register. The sooner you get to the Center Point, the better position for the tiger show you grant (if there is any Tiger Show). I will explain: Tiger Show is when the mahouts of the park take you for a ride on the elephant to reach somewhere away from the road where a tiger is hidden. The jeeps are not allowed to go off-road in any circumstance, and Tiger Shows only happen in the morning. No Tiger Shows were happening that morning, though.


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The morning drives are always strongly focused in going for the tigers first, because the early light and temperature are more suitable for the tiger to move. Tigers are nocturnal predators and after a night of activity, they will look for a place to rest during the hottest hours of the day. As we were there in the summer, the temperatures can rise above the 40°C and then the Tiger and the early morning time is the moment when they will look for a place to rest, usually a cave, the shade of a tree or a shallow riverbed, not far from water sources. That´s when you are able to see them roaming along the roads or crossing the open areas.

So after we spot the tiger we can relax and enjoy the local wildlife, and: What is that?! - Alessandra asks Sujan to stop abruptly. Is it a tiger cub?. We all look to the left of the road, in the place totally in the shade of big ficus trees with the ground fully covered with dead leaves. It´s a jungle cat! So difficult to spot during the day, the jungle cat is as much elusive as a tiger but not so much adapted to the day, so we could just observe it quickly moving deeper into the forest, but fortunately we had the camera preset for this kind of opportunity and we could take some frames of it. One more for the collection!


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Other birds also have been spotted. For bird lovers India is a paradise, we can see nice colorful birds everywhere, even outside the parks. Some are very endemic to India and to a particular region of the country, and others recall us of African birds usually seen in East Africa, but other names – a proof that Asia and Africa were linked and shared the same wildlife species a long time in the past.

Indian Roller (or Blue Jay)
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Changeable Hawk-Eagle
Changeable Hawk-Eagle_MG_1042_F

Approaching the time to leave the park (the park gate closes at 09:30am) we come across a wild boar, the Indian version of the African warthog. It crosses the road towards a gang of monkeys – very shy animal. We noticed it was quite wet, probably from diving in the waterhole just behind the bamboos, so we decided to check, and then we saw other animals also drinking at the edge of the waterhole, including a Langur monkey. Animals drinking water are always a good subject for photograph and despite the harsh sunlight we managed taking some good pictures…


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We have finish this fantastic game drive spotting some more Langur monkeys hanging around the Siddh Baba shrine, and one of them was carrying a baby. Look at this!


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Note: you can click on the picture to take you to the original size picture in our Flickr album page, being better to see the photographs you like. Or if you may want to go straight to our Flickr page, please access the link Our Flickr Page

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bandhavgarh - Day 01 - Part 2

The encounter of a tiger in the wilderness is quite different than a sighting of a big cat in Africa. In Africa, the tracking activity, most of the times, reveals the lion, cheetah or leopard quite in advance of approaching it, allowing us to spot it far away and get closer in the sequence. Scanning with binoculars, a gathering of cars, radio talks, all artificial tools that the guides can count on to find the big predators.


Chorbhera's Pug Mark_MG_0793_F

In the jungles of India, we have to rely on the signs of the wildlife, fresh pug marks, alarm calls of antelopes, monkeys and peacocks, dead leaf and bush cracking, and sometimes the own tiger roaring, to track them. What happens is that you will usually see or hear a sign and will then stop to listen and wait quietly for the next sign of the forest, then these signs will guide you to the right place. So, in this meantime, you already start to be involved by the smells and sounds of the jungle, and the guides and drivers call their instincts to help them look for the tiger. The atmosphere is set. There is no radio communication, sometimes a SMS arrives despite the use of cell phones by the guides is prohibited by the Forest Department, and the forest is too much dense to see other jeeps in the distance in advance.

Our afternoon drive continues in the search of more tigers. After having spotted Chorbhera Tigress at Siddh Baba area we enter the Chakradhara Meadows and get around it to take a road that turns before the main elevation of the Tala Range, where the Bandhavgarh Fort is. We haven’t been to the Fort, but we can see it always from any point as it is the highest point in the region.

Langur on the Road_MG_0686_F


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We had set our course towards an area called Aala Naala to follow pug marks left by another tigress that lives in that territory. We get to Ghorademon, a rocky spot, in our way back and then we meet other jeeps. The guides are following tracks of a male tiger that they said he had made a kill in the morning and had hidden the carcass somewhere near there.

We stopped there for a while and then after some time the male tiger comes toward us, just walking slowly as if we were simply not there. He is B2, the current King of Bandhavgarh, the dominant male tiger of the Tala Range. Deepak told us that he is almost 15 years-old, a very old, and thus respectful, age for a wild tiger. Despite his age he is still a massive animal, 10 feet length and weighting around 660lbs, his huge paws and the wide white whiskers give him an extreme menacing appearance. His heavy steps could be cleared heard as he moved continuously passing through the space left by the jeeps just piled along the track. He just ignores us.


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B2 _MG_0813_F

He was actually walking to the entrance of a cave where there was a waterhole and a river bad, both out of our view, as the cavern seemed more like a hatch on the floor. The place is called Babehi Waterhole. B2 will go there to refresh and probably will stay far from our eyes for some time. Deepak assure us about the behavior of this tiger: he said he was going to stay there, but in the end of the afternoon, when the sun would be already much less hot, he would get out again to go back to the carcass that the other guides saw him hiding in bamboo thickets back there in the direction where we first spotted him. So we have left him in Babehi just after he entered the cave, and restarted our game drive.


B2 Entering the Cavern _MG_0828_F

Despite our search, we could not find any other tiger signs, and we then enjoy the ride through the park, watching the new wildlife that we were just meeting for the first time. We come back towards Aala Naala to take a look once more, still unsuccessful, and then we go back to Babehi Waterhole to wait for B2.

Some active langur monkeys were around the rocks totally unaware of the proximity of B2, and we in our jeep listening to Deepak stories and about his book he had just printed.


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Langurs Fighting _MG_0705_F

Langurs disappeared, but had not produced any alarm call, but still the movement called attention of the guides who quickly announced that B2 was getting out of the cave.

The sighting was perfect! We could clearly see him jumping up from the bottom of the hatch, scaling the cave out to the opening where we saw him earlier.


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B2 Leaving the Cavern _MG_0835_F

He stops and gaze all cars parked along the edge on the road, as if he was saying: “Oh, you are still here?”. And then he just starts to look for the right place to climb and finally leave the place to come after the carcass. He apparently selects a track and starts to walk again towards us.


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Watching B2 so close is a real prize. He is the perfect example of a successful tiger in the wild. B2 is very important for the tourism of the park and he has recently been given a symbolic life-time achievement award by TOFT (Travel Operators for Tigers), for his contribution to the park and to the region estimated in USD7.5 million per year! We will tell more about B2 in the next chapters.


B2 Leaving the Cavern _MG_0852_F

He then decides to stop and rest in the bushes, and Deepak asks Sujan: “that’s it! We must go now.” – the park rules are strict, the gate closes at 18h30, so we just go straight there taking a shortcut through Charanganga area and finally reach the Siddh Baba area and the gate just next. In the way to there, we have just stopped once to take a picture of a wild rooster, very colorful. But sunlight is gone, game drive is over!


Rooster _MG_0886_F

Still sitting on the jeep, while crossing the small bridge to the village, we took just 2 minutes to reach the lodge, but it was time enough to realize how amazing our first game drive in India was. 3 terrific sightings, Chorbhera and twice B2, in one afternoon in our first safari experience in Bandhavgarh. Who could ask for more?


Note: you can click on the picture to take you to the original size picture in our Flickr album page, being better to see the photographs you like. Or if you may want to go straight to our Flickr page, please access the link Our Flickr Page

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bandhavgarh – Day 01 – Part 1


Bandhavgarh Gate IMG_0458_F

Our first game drive in India, and in Bandhavgarh, was about to start, it was 3:00pm when we have got into the jeep (“gipsy” as they call), to go to the main gate to get the permissions. Onboard we had Deepak and the driver Sujan. At the gate, the procedure requires that a park ranger of the Forest Department goes onboard with us throughout the game drive to guide and to ensure the good practices and rules of the park are being obeyed – this time we had Siddhu, a local experienced ranger, with us.

In the afternoons, the jeeps can go anywhere without having to keep a designated route. The route system is reserved for the morning drives only, what we will explain later on the next posts.


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Langur Sitting _MG_0655_F

Deepak is focused on tracking the tigers – that is what we are all looking for, right? So we enter the park through the main gate – it may sound very silly, but we felt like entering in the “Jurassic Park” – the Bandhavgarh park is a very dense jungle in most of the areas, the vegetation is not all dry yet and the trees and bamboos are tall, filtering the sun shine along the tracks and covering the ground with reddish and yellowish tones of dead leaves. The tracks are mostly designed with fine sand. As the jeep advances into the jungle, the sunlight beams penetrate the bamboos foliages and the canopies of the tall Sal trees creating a mysterious and serene atmosphere. The air is fantastically hot, above the 40°C and the shade is so convenient.

The main objective is to find a tiger (our first one), but of course we have started getting introduced to the local wildlife. We have first spotted the Chital or Spotted Deer and the Langur Monkeys, both very typical species which we will see many times in all game drives. The park is also a great place for observing the local birds such as the Serpent Eagle and the Red-Watted Lapwing.

Spotted Deear (Chital)_MG_0683_F

Red-watted Lawping _MG_0675_F

Serpent Eagle _MG_0663_F

All of a sudden, the car stops, we hear an alarm call, a loud barking of a Sambhar Deer, a big kind of antelope. Again, and again. Deepak explains that the Sambhar alarm call is the sign of potential threat, meaning a bigcat (tiger or leopard) is around. In the right side of the track there was a hill all spread with trees, dry bushes and dead leaves, the last cracking with the heavy steps of the antelope.


Sambhar Deer calling _MG_0714_F

The Sambhar is looking fixedly ahead and calls again. Deepak releases a whisper-shout: “Tiger! Tiger!! Keep silence!”. We couldn’t see the tiger yet, but then we saw the Sambhar standing still and looking straight forward and barking again – we then realize the sound of the steps cracking the twigs and dead leaves distinctively heavy but progressing in a smoother pace than the ones we had heard before, so we turn our heads towards where the sound was coming from and, slightly upper on the hill we notice something slowly moving through the dry bushes. Deepak points: “There, a little up, do you see? Don’t worry, the tiger will come down and cross the road in front of us, believe me!”. As magic, the distinguishable head of the bigcat materializes amongst the vegetation and, in a couple of seconds after, we can see its whole body heading downwards the hill.


Chorbhera Tigress _MG_0741_F

Our hearts were beating fast in that moment, that one was our first tiger encounter. The moment we have planned so much and aimed to see is now coming true. The Sambhar alarm call sounds again, louder than ever, breaking the silence of the jungle echoing in all around and chilling our spines – the Sambhar is following the tiger trail, chasing it away to ensure the bigcat was really moving away from there.


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Then the tiger appears from behind a tree trunk in the edge of the road. No other cars around, it was our private encounter, our very first tiger sighting! We will never forget it!


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Deepak says: “This is a tigress called Chorbhera. This is her territory, around Siddh Baba”. Chorbhera crossed the road calmly, just in front of us, as predicted by Deepak, and she reached the other edge of the road on the left and dives into the open grassland covered with high vegetation. She moves slightly limping one hind leg due to an almost healed injury we could barely notice.


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We could still follow her for few more minutes before she vanished in the sea of tall grass, just after a last glance of her black ears stained of white spots above the grass.


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That was a fantastic moment we will keep forever in our minds. The senses, the sounds, the vision. Our first tiger encounter could not be more authentic and unique.


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Elliot Neep (a professional photographer who has helped us with a lot of information about tiger photography) was totally right, the 1st tiger sighting is a very strong emotional experience. You get connected with the eyes of the tiger and the World around disappears, it rests only you and the tiger. After having lived this experience, I personally think that the deer alarm calls, the deep silence, the atmosphere of the jungle, the smells, everything in the scenery evokes the deepest human instincts of survival and all senses become accurate and focused exclusively on the big cat.

We had in mind to reserve this first encounter to enjoy the moment rather than living the experience through the lenses of our cameras, but we still have taken some good pictures despite the shaking hands – we had prepared ourselves for that!

Mission accomplished. The driver moves on.