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So You Want to See Tigers (Part 2)

Updated: Apr 7

2/27/2024 - 3/5/2024

This is the second post (of two) that covers our trip to India. This post will walk through the tour day-by-day, starting with our time in Kanha and finishing with Pench. Like the previous post, I am going to highlight one or two experiences from each safari and then present some general photos.

I want to start with a bit of info about the parks. I have tried to supplement the stories we heard with information from the internet, but details are limited. Here is a bit of what we learned from one of our guides at Bandhavgarh.

At one point, the parks were a bit of a free-for-all. If you could find a jeep and a guide, you could pay your fee and get into the parks. This lead to a record of around 120 jeeps in Bandhavgarh in one day. There were a lot of arguments that indicated that the pressure of tourism was harmful to the tiger populations. The best data I can find shows that tiger populations have steadily increased since 2006. Census numbers are published every 4 years, and the initial census in 2006 shows around 1,400 individuals across the country. By 2022, there are around 3,800 individuals. That aside, in July of 2012, the Supreme Court of India heard a case and instituted a ban on all tourism in the tiger reserves. This ban would last until October of that year, when the Supreme Court would lift the ban but put in place a number of guidelines. These guidelines (among other things) instituted limits on construction of new tourist facilities, created limits on the numbers of tourists allowed in the parks, and defined limits on how much of the park is open to tourism.

So, where does that leave things now? Well, only 25 jeeps are allowed in a sector per day. Parks are split into three sectors, and these sectors only total 20% of the overall area of the park. This means that 80% of each park is unvisited. Surrounding the parks is a buffer zone. There are still villages within these zones. This does create a conflict between the tigers and the people at times. Livestock is taken at times, but villagers are compensated quickly for their loss. When possible, villages are being relocated. Our guide in Bandhavgarh grew up in a village that used to be located within the park. So, strides are being taken to decrease the pressure on the wildlife in the park and reduce conflict with the neighboring population. Personally, I think it is all good news. The tigers in the tourist zones are doing well. Maybe better than the unvisited areas? Those areas are not monitored, according to our guide. As with everything, there needs to be a balance, and it seems like they have found that, here. Tourism is strong. The local economies are benefitting, and the tiger populations are continuing to rise.

Now - about that trip? Well, we are in Kanha NP, and we are on the same schedule as Bandhavgarh. So, it is an early morning followed by a few hours off in the midday before heading back out for an evening safari. I have mentioned the jeeps before. Here is what they look like. The second pic is what it looks like when you get to the gate late.

Kanha, itself, was not a lot different than Bandhavgarh. Less bamboo, but slightly denser undergrowth. It was hotter and probably a bit dustier. Here are some iPhone pics showing parts of the park.

2/27 -

Kanha started out foggy on our first morning. It was dense enough to shoot the rising sun.

It did not take long for the action to start. We had just drove in when we hit a line of jeeps. Distantly, a tiger was sleeping on a dike. We lined up and waited. It did not take long for the tiger to get up and disappear into the tall grasses. We moved up and waited. In the end, we ended up right where we wanted to be, but our driver put us on the opposite side of another jeep. Like I said earlier, the quality of drivers varied greatly. Instead of putting in a position with a clear view, we were stuck shooting over another jeep. I had to stand on my seat. Carmen was totally blocked. Idiocy aside, it was a good way to start the morning.

We had a new species of deer in this park. Barasingha, or Swamp Deer, were fairly common.

The day actually featured a number of highlights. This would be the best Jungle Owlet shot I go this trip. I would have hoped for better. Again, I am just happy to have seen one.

We ran across a number of Gaur. They fed alongside the road for a while, and we enjoyed watching them. I had a hard time picking my favorites. So, here are two.

Finally, we had the most relaxed Langur of the trip. This guy just looked super comfortable.

Our tour this morning was taking us to the Kanha sector of Kanha NP. It is a straight road there and back. There is, I think, one loop road along the way, but we did not take it. The area near the breakfast area is all grassland, and it was beautiful. We had a number of grassland birds. Plain Prinia and Siberian Stonechat were very common. There were a few Zitting Cisticola and one pair of Yellow-eyed Babbler.

Along this road, we also had a Golden Jackal. She looked like she was going to have a very large litter.

Not much going on at the breakfast area. You had to eat inside; so, birds were not that active in the area. I impatiently stalked around while Carmen ate, and then we started back. We passed an area with some playing Langur babies, but lighting was a bit low. We also passed a large dammed area and had a few water birds.

The afternoon was not as productive. Mostly because we spent a long amount of time waiting for a tiger to reappear. In all fairness, it was towards the end of the day. It had walked across a dike and disappeared into some grasses. We waited around the back side of the area hoping it would come out. No joy.

Prior to that, we had out best looks at a female Indian Peafowl. We did not see nearly as many females as males, and they were usually quite distant. It was nice to get one decently close. They are pretty, too.

In general, shooting was slow. Barasingha and the requisite Bee-eater shot.

We did end the day with a spectacular moment. We had about 40 minutes left to get out of the park, and this was just long enough to take the long way out. We came around a corner and had a Changeable Hawk-Eagle feeding on the ground. We got positioned for a decent backlit shot and sat and watched it for about 5 minutes.

2/28 -

It was about here that we shifted times. It was getting light a little earlier and staying light a little later. So, we were heading in to the parks a half hour earlier and staying a half hour later. Maybe it was not until the first. I guess we were just getting up earlier to get in line. All I really know is that I have a picture of the moon that was taken while we were waiting at the gate.

There was not a lot of action this morning. We dipped on tigers. We saw a good number of wild boar. I managed a few bird shots over the breakfast break.

* The dragonflies appear to be a Fulvous Forest Skimmer (top) and a Crimson-tailed Marsh Hawk (bottom).

The afternoon held something a little different. As part of the tourism changes, the parks are required to be closed one afternoon a week. For our afternoon drive, we would be visiting a buffer zone. We knew that the odds of a tiger were very low. Unfortunately, we saw very little altogether. We got okay (?) looks at a Barking Deer. The markings on its face are crazy.

The drive itself culminated in a stop at a large lake. Here, we were allowed to get out and walk around a little bit. There were a lot of waders and shorebirds. Most were quite distant. The highlight was an Asian Openbill hanging out on the far side. A little closer was the Medium Egret. This egret is part of a three-way split of the Intermediate Egret. It is basically a very short Great Egret.

2/29 -

Leap day! Except is did not start out that exciting. In fact, I was feeling pretty down this morning. We had put in a long drive and had nothing to show for it by the time we went to stop for breakfast. It all started with another moon shot.

I did, at least, get my best pictures of a Eurasian Hoopoe this morning. Such an amazing bird.

From there, it was a few rando shots of a tiny Spotted Deer (super cute!), a couple of bee swarms, ... a Gray Wagtail at the breakfast spot.

Okay, so I am being a little dishonest here. We had pulled into the breakfast area. I was feeling a little dejected. I did see the wagtail. We pulled in, turned the jeep around, and left. Upon inquiring what was going on, we were told a tiger had been spotted nearby. We rolled up just in time to see this tiger like 15 feet away from another jeep. It was the only jeep there, and the tiger looked right up at them and snarled. I hope they got amazing shots! Then it turned its back on us and pretended we were not there. Cats.... It wandered down to the edge of the water and then walked back along it. I managed a few shots, but tigers seem to hold their head down a lot and walk with their eyes half closed. In general, they do not look at you.

The tiger walked by us and disappeared into the forest edge. Our driver got the jeep pulled around and positioned us looking out across a large grassy area. At the far left, we could see the tiger coming. From our far right, a second tiger emerged. It spotted the first one and crept forward before crouching on the ground. The first one had spotted it, as well, and was walking toward it. Suddenly, the first one bounded up and they play chased each other around the edge of the field. I shot a lot of pics. Very few came out. I do not know if it was the heat coming up off the field, the amount of dust in the air (and there was a lot from the jeeps rolling in), or just bad shooting. I am guessing all three. I am happy with this shot, though.

After a quick chase around, they headed back into the forest, and we headed back for breakfast. I actually got to shoot the Gray Wagtail this time. We ate and piled back in the jeep. Our morning was done, but we had an amazing afternoon ahead of us.

We finally got lucky. Not only did we have a great encounter, but we had a great driver. I think I termed him "nicely aggressive". Not in the sense that he was polite. He was a bit cutthroat. I just meant that I appreciated his driving style. It was nice to get a driver that knew where we wanted to be, would move when we asked, and was quick to put us there while dodging other jeeps. We were like the 5th or so jeep to arrive for this tiger. It was large and close to the edge of the road. It walked right toward us; albeit in the grass a lot. As it would get next to us, we would shout "back", and the driver would wheel us back in front of the tiger. I think we got to do this 3 or 4 times before the tiger dashed across the road between a couple of jeeps and disappeared. Look at this guy!

This would not be our last encounter of the day. In all, we had 5. Unfortunately, none of the others were as photographable as this guy. Regardless, it was an amazing afternoon, and we quickly forgot all the other days that we dipped or did not see much. We laughed with excitement and kept hoping for more.

In between, we had a few things. I definitely photographed the saddest Langur in all of India.

There were spotted Deer and crows collecting nesting material from a Sambar. I also got to see another one of my most-wanted birds. While waiting in an area where we had some alarm calls, I spotted a small bird in the bush next to us. It turned out to be a Black-naped Monarch. Such a beautiful bird. Not the pic I was hoping for, but it was nice to see it.

Nearing the end of the day, we ran across another jeep jam. A tiger had been spotted in a waterhole, but it had moved into some brush for cover. There were a couple of rangers here. They were in some large 4x4s. Very large. Yes, the rangers here rode elephants.

This became significant a moment later. What we did not understand is that they were being yelled at to push the tiger out of cover. There was a large number of jeeps here, and several of the rangers in jeeps were yelling at the rangers on the elephants. I was not really happy about what happened next, and I think this exposes a little bit of the ugly side of tourism. The tiger's well-being was not considered at this moment; only the desires of a few people. In short, one of the rangers walked his elephant downhill and pushed it into the brush. He was trying to circle around behind the tiger, but the tiger bolted before it let that happen. It moved across the road and into some more dense undergrowth next to the road. It looked tired.

We did not have long before we had to leave and started the long drive back to the gate. On the way out, we spotted one more tiger moving through the forest. It was an amazing afternoon.

3/1 -

No moon shot this morning. It was our final morning in Kanha, and we were ending it like we started. We were heading back to the Kanha sector. I had been wanting to go back; although I felt our chances with tigers were better in the other sector. For the record, the third sector was quite a long way down the road; so, only these two sectors were really used. It was our last day in the park, and I was hoping that we could carry on with the streak from the day before. I guess we had used our luck up.

The morning had a few decent sightings. Carmen's main attraction was Black Buck. The pre-tour had seen a larger number of these antelope. The Kanha sector was our only real hope of seeing some. We had missed them previously but were lucky to have a male and female this morning.

We also had an absolute brute of a wild boar. This dude was immense.

My favorite birds of the morning were probably the Indian Thick-knee. We just about drove past them.

Outside that, we had a nice mix of birds. A few were shots that I should have let go, but it is hard not to shoot them when you wanted to see them so bad. Indian Golden Oriole, Oriental Honey-buzzard, and Scarlet Minivet all fall into this category. We had a dramatic Greater Coucal and a Large-billed Crow that was ready to hotwire a jeep and go at the breakfast area. It was actually checking the floorboards and packs that were left in the jeeps for something to eat.

We drove back through the grasslands, but it was fairly quiet. We had a couple of birds. Coming around a corner, we had a Common Kingfisher with a shrimp that was in absolutely awful light I shot it anyway.

To get back to the main area, you have to traverse a ridge. Atop this ridge, it was fairly birdy. We saw a few new birds on the way through, and a couple were still here singing when we came back through. One of them was a White-rumped Shama, and it finally popped out of cover briefly. On the way out, we stopped for an Indian Scops-Owl. Nearby, I heard the call of what was quickly becoming my nemesis bird for India. We heard White-naped Woodpecker calling in a lot of places. At best, we would get glimpses. Well, we did slightly better today. Not a lot, but at least it is a photo of one.

The evening drive was miserable. Notes state, "nothing. nada. zilch." That is not entirely true. I had an Oriental Turtle-Dove.

3/2 -

We got to sleep in. Kinda. I laid awake in bed for a while and then went out to bird a little bit around the hotel grounds. I should have been up earlier. The place was very birdy, and I added Puff-necked Babbler to my trip list. The birds were literally right outside my door.

We are heading to Pench for three nights and will squeeze in six safaris during that time. Pench is probably most famous for being the inspiration behind Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book". We did not have any singing orangutans or leopards. No tyrannical tigers. We did have tigers. Just as importantly, we had leopards - and dhole! Pench, somehow, might have been my favorite place. Our time here was shorter, and we had already "been there/done that" with a lot of the deer shots, etc.; so, I got a lot less photos than the other locations. The place was beautiful, and it had more water than any of the places we visited. I really do not know what it is, but I recall this being my favorite place. Kanha was the place with the most tigers. Bandhavgarh was the most beautiful. But... Pench was my favorite. I guess it was the leopards.

I am getting ahead of myself a bit though. Here is a tiny bit of what the park looks like.

The evening drive was fairly rewarding. It stared off with an Indian Leopard. Of course, it was buried in grasses. For as open as this park is, stuff still found a way to be obstructed.

We also had a tiger. Unfortunately, she was injured. She was laying in some tall grass near some thick undergrowth. Specifically, I believe it was lantana. Lantana is their version of Indiana's Japanese Honeysuckle. It is invasive. It grows thick, and it grows everywhere. We saw where large sections had been cleared of it. Other sections were still immensely thick. Anyway, the tiger was laying there and intensely focused down the road. There, two rangers were standing by and watching her. She was watching them. It may seem odd, but most of the tigers are afraid of people. You hear about the man-eaters all the time, but most are afraid of us, and they definitely do not view us as food. If they did, a buffet on wheels rolled through the parks for them every day. The jeeps would have to be enclosed. You do get one at times. A tiger had killed several villagers not long before we arrived. It was captured and taken to a special fenced enclosure (a large area; not a cage) near the center of the park where it was released. So, back to the tiger at hand, again. The minute the rangers moved closer, she struggled up and limped off into the undergrowth. Over the next several days, the rangers and medics were seen looking for her. You can see what looks like a bite wound on her front leg. It is quite swollen, and, apparently, very painful. Hopefully they eventually found here and helped her.

The rest of the day was a bit anticlimactic. We had a beautiful Changeable Hawk-Eagle. There was a goofball Indian Roller showing off for his girl. We had some deer and even some baby Guar, which look exactly like baby bison.

3/3 -

Maybe this is what I liked about Pench. During our time there, it was pretty good to us. The morning safari started out with a Rhesus Macaque perched (seems like an appropriate description) alongside the road.

Then we rolled up on a small tree next to the road. It had a jeep parked in front of it. Suddenly an owl flew out of the tree. A Mottled Wood-Owl! Then another. While we were looking to see where these two had gone, a third flew out. We were just wondering how many owls could be in this tree when a fourth flew out and landed in the open.

Things were going well. We had nice looks at a White-eyed Buzzard.

I got my best shots of Yellow-footed Green Pigeon, but that is not saying a lot. They needed to come down out of the light.

Our second-most amazing encounter of the day was waiting for us as we drove around a corner. There, a pack of Dhole were playing near the road. I have to admit, a video would have worked out a lot better here. I pointed the camera and hoped it would make sense of the rough-housing the was going on. It was just a mass of squirming bodies rolling over each other and having a good time. All at once, one popped up and looked around. As if on cue, they all sprang up and took off. Someone said they look like foxes with a haircut. It seems a pretty accurate description.