Where Wild Tigers Roam
I have always dreamt about photographing wild tigers in their habitat. Unfortunately, not many places remain to do so. The largest cat used to roam all over Asia, from Turkey to Russia, but these days, there are few places left that offer the habitat tigers need in order to survive. Unfortunately, the main reason for its demise have been loss of habitat, ensuing conflicts with humans and poaching. The Siberian tiger (whatever is left of it) is extremely difficult to find in the wild and while there are some Zoo-like parks in China and Russia where you can photograph them in packs of 5-10 tigers and feed them live chickens for the photo op, I did not want to support this practice. The Sumatran tiger is probably extinct by now. If not, it will be very soon with any remaining habitat being destroyed for palm oil plantations. So I was pretty much left with the Royal Bengal Tiger. While it is possible to get gorgeous shots of this animal in South Africa (the habitat there is well suited for photography), I wanted to photograph it in its natural habitat in India, even if that meant that I may not get any good tiger images.
Supposedly, less than 2000 wild tigers remain, though “the wild” is not as wild as it should be. About ¾ of the remaining wild tigers live in reserves like Ranthambhore, Corbett, etc. where they are used to humans and literally chased daily by tourists hoping to photograph them with smart phones. I decided to give Ranthambhore National Park in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan a try as I had read that it was still quite wild and not like Bandhavgarh where they do “Tiger shows” (basically, a tiger is located and then all tourists are taken to see it in short intervals so as to maximize tiger sightings).
My first safari started on Monday Feb 17th 2014. Unfortunately, my plan to lure in tigers with fresh blood by hitting my nose really hard on the Maruti jeep’s roll-over bar did not work – we saw no tigers that day. My first safari was in Zone 4 and I really enjoyed the beautiful habitat which was especially beautiful in the early morning fog.
Tuesday Feb 18th we saw no tigers in the morning, but the evening should prove that tigers did in fact exist at Ranthambhore. We had been assigned Zone 5 and after reading pug marks and searching for tigers in the lower part without success, we decided to return to a spot close to the exit where we had heard alarm calls on the drive in. After a while Machli appeared at the top of the hill across a creek and proceeded towards us where she came to rest in the road. Machli is probably the most famous tiger alive in India. Her mother (the original Machli) had a mark resembling a fish on her head which gained her the name (Machli=fish in Hindi – sometimes written Machali). After the original Machli perished, her daughter T16 was given the same name. Machli is now over 17 years old, a respectable age for a wild tiger. Despite her old age, she is still a majestic creature. Unfortunately, Machli has lost her canines making it difficult for her to make kills. The forest department therefore decided to feed her live bait whenever they know of her whereabouts. In my opinion, no animals should be fed in a wildlife reserve. If nature claims Machli, so let it be. Feeding her not only changes her behavior, it also changes the behavior of other animals. The image below shows that Machli has wounds on both her front legs. The one by the joint could possibly be a tiger bite. I would not be surprised if she got wounded fighting with another tiger who was lured in by her easy meal delivered by the forest department. After all, a live buffalo calf, or whatever was used, makes noise which draws in other predators.
Incidentally, Machli had been missing for 2 weeks and many thought her final days may have finally come. My guide was the first to spot Machli and so we were positioned on the road ahead of her and were able to take a few pictures before the hordes of other jeeps and canters in the area caught up to us on their way out of the park . Interestingly enough, as is so often the case with media, the story in the local news differs from my experience: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Why-Ranthambores-queen-Machli-went-missing-Fear-of-other-tigers/articleshow/29921135.cms
I find the following sentence especially disturbing:
“A massive hunt by the forest department managed to retrace the most photographed tigress of the world at Polikia nullah in Kachida Valley on Tuesday”.
In my opinion, a massive hunt for a tiger in a reserve should be avoided (I do not know if it actually took place, but the way it is written indicates that it is an acceptable and possibly common practice).
Back to Tuesday afternoon. Machli was positioned in the road and so the other jeeps and canters from Zone 5 could not pass. All of a sudden, we spotted another tiger approaching behind us on the road. I managed to take a few images before the tiger left the road and crossed the creek. My guide told me that it was Krishna (T19) one of Machli’s daughters. Once Krishna saw Machli her body language changed and she wanted to chase after the tigress. I was ready with my 400mm and the light was perfect. I was finally going to get a great tiger shot as the look in T19’s eyes was fierce. Unfortunately, just as T19 was about to come out of the creek, one of those large canter jeeps pulled up noisily cutting between our jeep and the tiger, thereby completely cutting off T19 and any chance to get the shot I had hoped for. This was not only extremely rude of the driver, but he should never have driven so close to the tiger and should definitely not have cut her off. The large jeep had seized the opportunity to move up as soon as Machli got up and started running away when she realized T19 had seen her thus freeing the road. So now all the jeeps and canters were buzzing around trying to get their noisy contents close to the tiger so they could get a shot with their smart phones. As you can imagine, this was a very noisy endeavor with engines revving, everyone shouting, drivers cursing each other and people making excited noises. Our driver was trying to reposition me so I could get a shot of Noor, but with all the commotion it was almost impossible to hold the 400mm. I did manage to get a few shots of Noor, who had recently given birth to some cubs. Her belly was still enlarged and her nipples wet from suckling cubs. Once Noor chased after Machli, she left the road and the whole commotion behind. Thankfully, vehicles are not allowed off-road in Ranthambhore (but then again laws in India are not always enforced – more on that later).
Wildlife photography is a frustrating endeavor. There are so many variables that decide whether you get the shot and just seeing a tiger does not mean you will be lucky enough to catch it in good light, the right position, with a good background, and so forth. I had read about the aggressive way in which drivers chase tigers around in India and it had previously kept me from coming to India for wildlife photography. I much prefer the approach I experienced in Africa where the animals remain at a distance and at least in my experience drivers, spotters and guides keep quiet and ask their clients to do so as well. The thing that was most frustrating to me was the fact that you had to be out of the park by 6:00 PM which meant that you had to start driving back at 5:30 PM just as the tigers were starting to move. When we saw T64 in the grass by the lake, he crossed to the other side which was off-limits to vehicles and started to look for game. As we were leaving to make it back by 6:00, I spotted two vehicles on the other side in proximity to the tiger. I asked my guide how come these vehicles were on the off-limits side and was informed that they were vehicles of the forest department & the park director and they were allowed to go there as well as stay past 6:00 PM. It was obvious that the people in the jeeps were “guests” who had probably paid for the privilege or were otherwise connected. This seemed to be common practice at the park as we saw this behavior on other safaris as well and as can be seen in the image below, the park directors vehicle does not care about the rules, they were too close to the tiger cub which caused the cub to hiss at the vehicle and move away and they made more noise than anyone else. Really not the best way to set an example for the other visitors…
Despite these frustrating incidents, my time at Ranthambhore park was enjoyable. I stayed six days at the Ranthambhore Bagh where I met some wonderful Indian visitors who were very knowledgeable about the local wildlife and avid photographers themselves. The food was especially good and I enjoyed watching some of the birds at lunch. I was there during the wedding season and there were quite a few wedding gardens in the neighborhood. At times it felt as if the Bollywood music was in my room, but I liked it most the time and it was usually over by 11:30 or midnight. I wish I could have joined the wedding party as it sure sounded like a lot of fun.
In the end, despite my excellent guide, and the fact that I saw 6 wild tigers (T16 Machli, T19 Krishna, T39 Noor, T24 Ustad, T64 Akash, Cub), I did not get the tiger cover shot I had hoped for, but I believe I did get some nice images and I will definitely have to try again in the future.
I am convinced that tigers will be extinct soon. I feel lucky that I got to see wild tigers and I truly hope that I am proven wrong.
“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”. – Dr. Seuss
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