Text by Saon Bhattacharya | Photographs by Dwaipayan Bhattacharya
Picture a fawn-shaded, summer landscape from Central India. Now imagine a sharply contrasting mahua tree, with its crimson leaf clusters, mothering a myriad group of wildlife. As a regal black shouldered kite perches on the top branch, a tree shrew scuttles down its trunk to the seclusion of a neighbouring jamun tree. On its way down, the shrew meets a family of langur monkeys feasting on mahua flowers, dropping bits and pieces on the forest floor beneath. Nothing ever goes waste in the forest, and a herd of golden chital deer graze beneath the tree, feeding off the munificence of the monkeys.
As you let this piece of jungle imagery settle down, add another element—a harsh peacock call from the unkempt bamboo grove beyond. The brilliant bird bursts upon your idyllic canvas in a riot of colours—and your picture is almost complete. Sense the unease in the still air? A langur call suddenly follows close behind; and the chital are decidedly uneasy, stamping their dainty hooves and snorting nervously…. Wait, did you catch a stealthy movement behind that bamboo clump? Did a sleek, striped figure just glide by behind that camouflaged veil? A flash of gold and ebony stripes? In the blinking of an eye, a wild stampede breaks through the forest undergrowth, shattering the peace—a wild boar, tail in the air, sprints out with a majestic full-grown male tiger leaping in hot pursuit. As the boar’s death rattle rents the air, your picture is finally complete.
The brilliant beauty, the soul-settling peacefulness, and the danger of wild Nature lurking around each bend.
And that’s just a short glimpse of the Tadoba–Andhari Tiger Reserve, near Nagpur, Maharashtra, that you just had.
Tadoba. An ancient tribal wildness seems to cling to the very name, and why not? This piece of land has been home to Central India’s Gond community for centuries. Man and beast and forest have been melded seamlessly together for ages here. Scratched tree barks with the territorial markings of the Panthera tigris sit comfortably with the tall stone pillars of the 18th Century Gond rajas. A line of pillars, with a curved “U” on their tapering tops, still stand by the main forest path between Moharli and Tadoba lake. History has it that they were erected to mark the way for royal processions between Chandrapur (now Tadoba) and the Gond headquarters near Nagpur.
The forest here abounds in a vast web of such juxtapositions—social history joined at the hip with natural history; villages wedged within notified forest lands (the newest relocated villages being Navegaon and Jamuni); the white flowers of the kura tree favoured by the adivasis, while the white clustered kukri flowers are a delicacy of resident deer and antelope; and top predators sharing space near each other’s territories. Reserve forest areas in India are seldom hemmed in by an official perimeter, to be contained by their wildlife alone. Instead, they are a larger ecological zone with villages and their resident population who have lived in harmony with the jungle and its produce for centuries. Tadoba is an excellent instance of just such an inclusive and rich ecological zone.
Involving the local population in conservation efforts and offering them livelihood options is a win-win situation for all involved. And therein lies the conservation success of the greater Tadoba forest area, which was notified on 9th April 1955 as the “Tadoba National Park” (116.55 sq. km.). It was later on 25th February 1986 that an additional 506.32 sq. km. of the Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary was notified, finally creating the 622.87 sq. km. of what we today recognize as the “Tadoba–Andhari Tiger Reserve” in 1993. Over the last 15 years or so the area has rejuvenated itself as one of the nation’s great natural resources—through the joint endeavours of the administration, conservationists, and local communities alike.
Sightings at Tadoba
We visited the reserve on its sixtieth anniversary, having heard tales of Tadoba for quite a while beforehand. We had been as far mid-country as Kanha and Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh; and as far south as Nagarhole and Bandipur in Karnataka; but this particular Maharashtra outpost was a first for the family. We’d chosen the scorching month of April, usually ideal for most tiger country safaris. And Tadoba did not disappoint.
Dotted as the landscape is with lakes and waterholes—both natural and man-made (we noted a waterhole being replenished with a boring machine)—Tadoba offers numerous wildlife sighting opportunities. Apart from the key Tadoba, Moharli and Telia lakes, the area also includes the Irai reservoir and the Andhari River. The Tadoba lake, for instance, supports a varied waterfront ecology of water birds, amphibians, and raptors. For quite some time one of its lake islands had also been a safe haven for an injured young male tiger, who had retreated to this hideout to lick its wounds (wounded pride included) in solitude.
The eight-year-old wounded male, in fact, inadvertently gave us our first glimpse of Tadoba’s tigers on our first safari ride. His brief appearance was for those eyes alone that were quick enough to catch his stealthy glide beyond a thick curtain of bamboo and forest undergrowth. A flash of his brilliant stripes, and the rest was left to your imagination as you heard the crunch of dried sagwan leaves beneath his paws…
We sensed that he sought privacy, waiting for our safari jeeps to pass by before he stepped out onto the dusty trail. Maybe he’d hurt his paws too in that terrible territorial fight with another, slightly older male a few days ago. We had heard that his face had received a few nasty bruises. The prickly twigs and dry bamboo leaves on the forest floor may have been hurting his soft paw pads…. And so we decided to move on, returning him his dignity.
A few bends ahead in yet another bamboo grove, we caught a beautiful tigress drinking at a less concealed forest pool at about 3:00 in the scorching afternoon. They called her Maya, or P2 in the tiger-tracking lingo of conservationists. We waited awhile, watching her lap up the water, unconcerned. She looked magnificent in her forest glade; and the spot was right in between Kolara Gate and Jamuni Chowk. I shall never forget that spot, it’s seared in my mind’s eye.
The rest of our sightings came a day later; and some of these were for our eyes only. The first was when we came up quite unexpectedly before a collared tigress resting by a nulla on Cheetal Road, just ahead of Jamun Bori. It was about 7:00 in the morning. Chhoti Tara—they called her P1 too—had two cubs they said. Sitting right in the middle of that cool, green forest path, she was probably resting before a kill. Chhoti Tara had two other hungry mouths to feed, after all.
That was one of the best tiger sightings we ever had. All alone on that Jamun shaded road, it was just our jeep standing at a respectful distance from her. The mother-of-two generously allowed us a good fifteen minutes of her company, before she tired of us and crossed over the nulla to disappear into the forest beyond. We were left in such awe that I believe we stayed rooted for a good ten minutes more, recovering in silence.
Later the next afternoon we were to meet her two-year-olds, a male and a female, playing in a large watering hole. Yet again we were allowed some alone time with Chhoti Tara; and this time she had brought her little family along for high tea. Her children are called Chhail and Chhabili. We hope they grow up strong and multiply their kind manifold within Central India’s green cover.
Despite all efforts some things continue to remain rotten in the state of our tiger country, however. Territorial fights notwithstanding, Tadoba’s tigers have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. A cub was found dead on the Nagpur highway a few days ago, apparently the victim of a road accident…
We left Tadoba this summer, with the certainty of returning again. The heady fragrance of ripe mahua blossoms, sweet smelling young bamboo shoots freshly soaked in rain, and the twin-shaded green and fawn forest canvas beckon incessantly. If you’ve been bitten by the jungle bug, it’s unlikely that you shall ever recover; for she slides beneath your skin, and makes her home in your heart.
The sun descending in the west,
The evening star does shine;
The birds are silent in their nest.
And I must seek for mine…
—William Blake, “Night”