India is home to over 70 per cent of the tiger population in the world, according to the Tiger Census conducted in the year 2014. In the last four years, the number has gone up considerably and the report for latest census which started in January 2018 is eagerly awaited. In India, Madhya Pradesh is proud home to quite a large number of big cats, so when we decided to go on a jungle safari, MP was our first choice. Without wasting time, we booked tickets for Jabalpur, which is the nearest airport to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, where tiger sighting is pretty high as it has over 50 tigers.
After covering some sightseeing places in Jabalpur, we hopped into our cars to cover the next 197 km by road. Our driver Sachin was eager to share information about the place, so the next five-hour drive turned out to be pretty interesting. He would address Narmada River as Narmadaji, as it’s considered the lifeline of Madhya Pradesh. He spoke about the network of roads connecting the forests, which is pretty good, however there are no streetlights and traveling in the late evening through the winding roads with steep curves, one has to be really cautious.
Since it was poornima (full moon day), the moon came as a saviour and guided us through the stretch of jungles which was pitch dark. All we could see was sal and mahua trees along the path on which the tribal people depend for their livelihood. They collect the mahua which falls from the trees and then sell it immediately or keep it for months and then sell it. The price they get for the mahua is based on the age of the product, the longer they store the better the earning. However, most of them don’t have proper storage facilities so they end up selling it for lesser price. We crossed villages which were far and few, and saw raised shelters in fields, where some villager sleeps at night to protect the fields from wild animals.
It was 10 pm by the time we reached Bandhavgarh, the overhead highway sign read: Baghon ke samrajya mein aapka swagat hai (welcome to the kingdom of tigers). Badhavgarh National Park is spread across 450 sq km of which the core area is around 105 sq km and there are three zones where tourists are allowed- Tala, Magadhi and Khitauli. Next day early in the morning we went for on a safari to Magadhi area in an open jeep, accompanied by driver cum local guide and a government guide, both of them were passionate about their work. Once into the jungle we were told to maintain complete silence. It was hardly 15 or 20 minutes into the forest when we spotted our first Royal Bengal Tigress, who was resting behind bamboo bushes, on seeing us, she got up lazily and growled, we were frozen in our seats and could not muster courage to lift our cameras. Finally when we managed to pick our cameras the tigress started moving into the forest making it difficult to capture the frame… after a couple of minutes she came back towards us but on second thoughts decided to ignore us and retreated into the woods.
The jeeps which were at a distance from that of ours missed the tigress and then there was a mad rush to spot the tigress. However, the secret to spot a tiger in the words of our guide, “When you come to the jungle you must be patient and enjoy the nature, the tiger will come out on its own. But if you run madly after it you would not only miss the beauty of the jungle but also other animals.”
Words of wisdom, which we found to be true throughout the trip. Our guide showed us pugmarks of another tiger which had crossed the path before we arrived at a particular spot. During a safari, tourists are not allowed to get down in the middle of the jungle and sitting in the jeep, it was difficult to figure out which way it might have gone. Then we found couple of spotted deer busy eating something from a greenish ball like thing, the government guide told us they were feasting on elephant dung. The elephants eat bamboo and when they defecate, the deer eat it as the bamboo is partially digested and in addition they also get other nutrients.
As we went around, we spotted large herds of spotted deer, barking deer, jackal, gigantic bisons and saw the bond shared by langurs and spotted deer. Langurs sit atop trees, pluck leaves and drop it for the deer standing at the foot of the trees and they in return alert the langurs whenever the tiger is around. Despite so many animals and birds around, there was complete silence and all we could hear was the wind whistling past the trees, it was like the jungle was breathing deeply.
In the evening, we went on another safari outside the core zone and our guide was a man on mission, he would stop to hear the sounds and could tell us which animals were around from the sound, while all we could hear was crackling of dried sal leaves under the tyre. After driving for an hour he stopped in the middle of nowhere and took a torch and focussed it to the right side and bam there was bear in the bushes. It was a black bear with a cute white face and long snout. He kept looking at us for some time before running away.
On the last day, we went on an afternoon safari in the core zone and that day there was so much excitement all around as in the morning one tiger was sighted near a waterhole inside the jungle and another had ventured out of the core zone. On this round, we were accompanied by naturalist Pradeep Wasunkar, who led us straight to the water hole where tiger was sighted and asked us to wait patiently. However, many other jeeps followed us and the tiger did not make an appearance, probably due to all the noise made by the screeching tyres and screaming engines. There were dozens of foreigners in number of jeeps getting restless to see the tiger. But people on such safaris forget that they are not in a zoo, they forget they are in a natural habitat, where the tiger is the king and there are no rules of the game.
We waited and waited, and then finally, it was time to step out…after we came out of the core zone, some tourists saw the tiger near a pond in the buffer zone. Vehicles again formed a long queue, this time on a small bridge but all we could see was his tail, the tiger was somewhere behind the tall grasses, not in a mood to come out for the visitors.
Slowly it became dark, the nature decided to pull the curtains down and the show was over for the day, it was time to say goodbye. But we were simply happy to be in the jungle, it felt like a privilege to see the animals in their natural habitat leading simple yet beautiful lives.