9 Sightings In 3 Days: A First-Hand Look At Tadoba's Big Cats

Till a few years ago, the Nagpur sanctuary attracted only a handful of visitors. Today, it is spoken of in the same breath with parks such as Corbett and Ranthambore
Tiger paw prints at the Tadoba reserve
Tiger paw prints at the Tadoba reserve

In the past decade, the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve has shot to fame. A park that until a few years ago used to receive a measly number of visitors is now spoken of in the same breath with parks such as Corbett and Ranthambore

It was in 2009 that the place first came to my notice—Times of India carried a big spread on a dramatic battle that unfolded in the park. It all began when a hapless sambar deer made an unwitting dash for the water's edge in an attempt to outrun a tiger on its tail. In doing so, the wretched sambar had unknowingly become sitting duck for a ravenous pair of muggers. Surely things couldn't have gotten any nastier for the sambar. Sadly, that was precisely the case when a second tiger entered the scene.

As tourists looked on helplessly, the sambar shuffled between four hungry predators, flirting with death every moment. But the gritty sambar persevered and it doughtily guarded its life for an entire day before exhaustion took over and it was eventually captured by one of the tigers.

Seven years later, I would get to witness the site of this herculean struggle. If the legends of the past weren't enough, then the constant chatter on the grapevine about Tadoba's unmatched rate of big-cat sightings had raised my expectations so much that I tended to dismiss most of it as unsubstantiated hype. I still had my fingers crossed however, hoping that the park would live up to the said hype.

The Buffer Zone

A national park's buffer zone is generally the haunt of animals that seldom show themselves to the prying eyes of a tourist, and for that very reason buffer zones are usually free from the manic rush of tourists. Strangely, Tadoba turned out to be an amusing exception. The tigers in the buffer zone, otherwise known to be shy, had been putting on such a show for their admirers that a good chunk of tourist traffic from the inner reaches of the park had been diverted to its edges.

I was blissfully ignorant of this fact when I reached Tadoba, my second visit to the park. The first had been washed out by a heavy spell of monsoon downpour. This time, there were no rains to play spoilsport and all the dust tracks leading to the nooks and crannies of the park, which are inaccessible during the monsoons, were ready to be investigated. Much to my chagrin, our first safari had been booked for the buffer zone, and I was quite upset. However, left to choose between a safari in the buffer zone and staying back in the resort, I grudgingly chose the former. The first uplifting sign came from an unexpectedly large gathering of gypsys parked outside the gate of the buffer zone jostling to get in. This early optimism was quickly dispelled as I sized up the jungle. Here, in the margins of the reserve, the forest lacked the pristine quality of the core area. It was also considerably smaller in size and animals were few. The mood amongst the guides, though, seemed quite positive, with each one assuring us that a tiger sighting was inevitable. My mood was further enlivened by the presence of Valmik Thapar in a safari jeep, looking for the big cats. Maybe those stories of tigers in the buffer zone had some substance to them after all.

However, as the clock ticked by without a single clue as to the cat's whereabouts, my prospects of a bagh-darshan seemed to get bleaker by the minute. I instructed the driver to locate Thapar's gypsy with the intention of trailing him -- if anyone could have sniffed out the tiger's coordinates, it would have been him.

Conservationist Valmik Thapar on the tiger safari
Conservationist Valmik Thapar on the tiger safari

Big Cats Galore

Twenty minutes before the curfew, and also 20 minutes since we began our search for Valmik's gypsy, we spotted the half-hidden stripes of a tiger. A minute later we spotted another one, semi-concealed by the undergrowth. Then, as we were returning to the gate, we spotted a third tiger lying in a ditch four feet away from us. All three of them were cubs from a single litter, almost fully grown, although their mother was not in sight. Thapar too was also present at the scene, casting a watchful eye, as always, on Tadoba's budding future. Next morning, I was back in the buffer zone, as it surely merited another visit. For a good half an hour, we watched a pair of cubs take a leisurely stroll through their territory, completely unfazed by a bevy of boisterous tourists, not to mention a terrorized sloth bear, who was not enjoying being in such close proximity with tigers.

While my encounters with the cats in the buffer had bowled me over, I had to abandon this tiger bonanza to explore other parts of the park. This included a part of the core zone, much more picturesque than the buffer and certainly more of a true wilderness. The afternoon safari was more of a recce, lacking any concerted attempts at tiger spotting. This was especially reserved for the next day's safari, also our last.

Tiger Kills 800-kg Gaur

There was news of a tiger kill, and this was no ordinary prey. It was an 800-kg gaur, also known as the Indian bison. A tiger feasting on a gaur would be a spectacle to behold, as rarely does a feline muster enough strength or courage to dispatch a prey that's about seven times heavier. As soon as we entered the park, not a second was wasted in arriving at the scene of the kill. The gaur, to my utter surprise, lay right in the middle of the road. Langurs were clamouring all around, alerting the other denizens of the forest to the tiger's presence. My gypsy was one amongst many, and the ruckus they were creating would have driven even the boldest of tigers away. Luckily for me, the occupants of the other jeeps weren't keen on playing the waiting game and almost every vehicle, barring one, dispersed in quick succession. The war of attrition had begun and all that was required was a dose of patience. The lengthy wait was into its third hour when a sudden spurt of animated activity in the jeeps parked on the other end of the carcass roused us. A tigress was heading towards the kill. After what seemed like an eternity, she broke cover and gave us brief, condescending stare, before giving in to her gluttonous desires.

A tigress dragging the 800 kg gaur's carcass
A tigress dragging the 800 kg gaur's carcass

Worth The Wait

She had semi-grown cubs with her and they followed suit. However, they refused to linger on the road and crossed over to the side quite briskly. Moments later, the tigress, in a lovely display of affection, tore off a huge chunk of flesh off the carcass, and carried the dangling piece back for her cubs, leaving the carcass unattended once again. It was easily the most touching moment I had experienced in the wilds thus far. Well worth the wait, I should say.

It is moments like these that inspire enthusiasts like me to take up the cudgels to fight the hard battle to protect our ecosystems. Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve has blazed the trail for parks which continue to languish, and have failed to get their act together. Nine tiger sightings in three days shall be a tall order for any park to surpass, but none of us has ever doubted the resilience of our national animal and its uncanny ability to spring a surprise when you least expect it. May the tiger's roar echo through our jungles for generations to come.

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