In March 2021 when a lot of us thought that India had seen the last of covid and were travelling extensively after being locked up at home for the whole of 2020, I decided to explore Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Although the trip was to be another search for a more elusive cat than the tiger – the caracal, it did eventually become a tiger oriented photography tour. However, all was not in vain as I got to witness a behaviour which we are all aware of and know about, but it was the first time that I actually saw an invisible boundary!
March is a month when the forest begins to dry up and waterbodies begin shrinking. From the second half of this month exploring different water bodies and staking out waterbodies is usually quite fruitful in finding numerous species that inhabit the deciduous forests of India. Temperatures towards the end of March are already about to touch 40 degrees (weather patterns have been changing each year with climate change). So, in the few days that I spent in the park, I was exploring different water bodies and waterholes in the zones that were allocated to me.
Waterbodies such as Padam Lake and Malik Talao were packed with tourists who were getting regular sightings of Tigress Arrowhead and her subadult cubs Riddhi and Siddhi. For those of you who do not know the park well these lakes lie in zones 3 & 4 – one of the most scenic and sort after zones of Ranthambhore. Since I was more keen to find a caracal, I was seeking various grassland areas where different guides and friends of mine had in the past few years sighted the caracal. This took me to the upper reaches of zone 4, zone 6, Soorwal Lake outside the park amongst other places. Although we were traversing through zone 4 I did have amazing sightings of the big cats mentioned above the more interesting sighting I had was in Zone 6 where I was able to see behaviour which I had never witnessed before.
On this trip I was on full-day safaris thus had access to the park for the full day – usually, morning safari ends by 9.30 am and then guests re-enter at 3 pm. Although I could be inside the park all day there were restrictions. The time after the morning safari ends, I was restricted to zones 6-10 till 3 pm. So as the morning drive ended, we reached the exit/entry gate of zone 1 where we got the information the tigers were heard just across zone 1 in zone 6 (these are connected zones and while on a full day drive, we can cross over from 1 to 6. There is a beautiful water body at the end of zone 1 where I had in the past photographed the grand old lady of this area – Tigress Noor. This is a hilly rocky area with thickly forested valleys where water can be found around the year. It is a cool area for tigers to rest and cool down in warmer months.
Noor is an old tigress who has lost most of her territory and is nowadays found at the end of zone 1 & at end of zone 6 (where they meet). Most of her territory which was zone 1, parts of zone 2 and parts of zone 6 is now more or less restricted to this small area. I had photographed her last in 2018 when I along with my friends had taken a full day safari and were lucky to find her in one of her favourite spots at the end of zone 1. The remainder of her territory has today been taken over by her daughters.
I was excited as we drove through zone 1 making our way towards zone 6. I hadn’t seen Noor since 2018 and I wasn’t sure how many years she had left. In 2018 itself she had lost one of her lower canines and I could only assume her health would have deteriorated further. Zone 1 is a relatively smaller zone with only one or two branching roads accessible to tourists. We reached the waterbody relatively quickly, but she was nowhere to be found. We did, however, find another species that is often found at this location – the painted spurfowl a very colourful bird that I personally find interesting to photograph.
We continued onwards to zone 6, to a region known as ‘Kundi’ (not sure why it is called that. To those who do not understand Hindi – Kundi is a door bolt. There is a waterhole up here which is quite popular with tigers as well as leopards in the region as it lies towards the end of the zone where fewer guests explore. It is also an area with just one track thus disturbance from tourists is lower (that’s just my personal opinion of the region 😉). I have been lucky to find tigers on many occasions by this waterhole and once have encountered a leopard here as well. We didn’t find the tiger here, however, we must have waited about 20min when we heard a roar echoing from the hill across the tracks. We quickly moved ahead closer to where we thought the sound came from and found another jeep waiting – we were told that there was not one but two tigers – a mating pair!
The guide in the other jeep told us that Noor and a relatively younger male known as T-101 were in mating for the last couple of days in the region. The roaring continued at intervals and every now and then you would catch a swishing tail or a tiger’s head through the bush. They were still quite deep into the thicket. We decided to spread out and wait. Almost 3hrs went by with roars in intervals and neither tiger showing themselves. Since we had entered the park early, we didn’t carry our lunch with us and had instructed the hotel to drop it at the zone 6 entry gate. It was now time to collect the same, but none of us wanted to leave in case the pair walked over to the waterbody (the only source of water in the region). We decided to wait another hour with no luck. Finally, my friend Mirtunjoy pointed out that the poor fellow who carried our lunch must be waiting at the entry gate, so we decided to make a dash to the gate, all the time hoping we do not miss the tigers. It would be quite shameful to miss the sighting because of some parathas. We found our man taking a nap under a tree fed up with waiting for us. He seemed quite cross with us and rightly so. Spending an hour and a half in the sweltering summer sun was not how he thought he would be spending his afternoon.
After a quick bite, we returned to the location and the tigers had not moved an inch. We waited till the afternoon safari jeeps turned up at the location as news of ‘tigers’ had spread within the guide and forest department. As crowds build-up, we moved away returning to our
Search in other locations.
Afternoons in Indian jungles are quite often not very fruitful as most animals try and find shade move into thicker forest areas. There is some activity of birds and herbivores are waterbodies and on lucky occasions, one might find a tiger lounging in the waterbody.
The next afternoon we decided to head back to the same location to find Noor. Mating pairs rarely move a lot as long as they have water and food nearby. We thought we might find the pair closer to the waterbody today as there was no news of them crossing over the day before. Clearly, they might have ventured to it in the night but I’m doubtful that they would have returned to the same location where we found them the day before – as news from morning drive reached us that the tigers had not yet crossed over. We drove past the Kundi waterhole and over two bridges over a dry stream but couldn’t find any tracks of the big cats.
We thought it might be good to drive on to a check-post nearby and get news on tiger movement from the rangers there. When we arrived, there were 2 more jeeps there and the ranger told us that the tigers were sitting under the bridge in the shade. All three jeeps returned. We were the last to reach and found the other two jeeps next to the waterhole. Thinking that they would have checked the bridge we didn’t check and continued to the water hole. But there were no tigers. I immediately asked my driver to return to the bridge and check from the bend in the road as far as we can see under the bridge. Sure, enough we found one sitting at the edge of the opening under the bridge.
I was amused at the thought of the tigers’ perspective of jeeps driving by without noticing two 200-220kg felines. We positioned the vehicle on the bridge as the other two vehicles caught up. Having been spotted bot cats came out in the open and the next few hours was amazing with the two cats lying nearby. Since the other vehicles were on a half-day safari they left soon, and we were left alone with the felines. Though for most of the time they just lazed around there were occasions when they fought, and I realized that Noor wanted to mate with T-101 but he didn’t want to at the same time he didn’t want her to leave which caused friction and bouts.
The next few hours were photography bliss as we were the only jeeps, but the news spread
through the forest guards and the first to arrive were some VIPs and their entourage. Taking advantage of the male’s distraction with new vehicles arriving Noor made a quick getaway and although T-101 did follow her slowly and he did try and stop her by blocking her path, there came a point where within a few steps she relaxed and sat down, and he never took another step towards her. You could quite clearly see in his eyes that she had moved into another tiger’s territory where he could not follow as he didn’t feel confident to take on the more experienced and older T-58. She soon continued onwards calling out to the next male and T-101 turned around and made his way back to the waterhole dejected. He walked along the road marking for the next few kilometres before he arrived at the waterhole at Kundi. He took a dip into the water to cool down before disappearing into a thick valley inaccessible to tourists. This brought to an end a few days of excitement around this quaint waterbody.
Even though I had read about and seen animals mark their territories, this was the first time that I actually witness an invisible boundary and wondered how we humans have become so alienated with our senses that we have developed a need to create physical boundaries. Even though we may consider ourselves to be on the top of the evolution ladder we must stop, and introspect is this only our perspective? Are we not the only species to negatively impact our landscape and environment? Are we the only ones that do not have self-discipline? With technology and engineering can we even be considered to evolve abiding by the concept of ‘survival of the fittest?
Lots of questions came to mind – but a memorable experience, nevertheless. Though photographing during the middle of the day is never great it was experiencing the invisible boundary which fascinated me more.