It started way back in November 2011: My love affair with the tiger. On my second-ever wildlife photography expedition, I had gone to Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand, India. Although Corbett is rich in avian biodiversity and is blessed with a breathtaking landscape, the lure of this forest is its striped cats. The tiger is always a heart-stopping sight – so I’d heard. But I was going to make up my own mind about it. So, for five days, we searched the woods, tracked pug marks and listened to alarm calls by spotted deer, sambar deer, and monkeys. Ironically, a more elusive big cat – the leopard – showed up with its midday meal – a spotted deer- hung up on a tree. It was a memorable (and rare) sighting. But the tiger continued to evade us.
On the last safari of the tour, luck finally seemed to favour us. While tracking the big cats, we zeroed in on the location of a tigress and her cubs. They were behind behind some bushes near a path aptly named ‘thandi sadak’ (cold street). On one side of this rugged path was the grassland abound with unsuspecting prey and on the other, the dense forest that hid our precious family of tigers. Tigers were known to cross this ‘sadak’ to get to their prime hunting grounds- the grassland. Cameras were mounted and aimed, test shots were fired to gauge the light, settings were put in place. We were locked and loaded.
The little ones’ hesitant footsteps on the dry leaf carpet, the monkeys’ frantic alarm calls and a paranoid jungle fowl’s shrieks only added to the anticipation of the big moment. We waited, and waited and waited. Meanwhile, I clicked every bird that flew by, UFO-shaped cobwebs, even the tourists waiting in anticipation. News about a potential tiger sighting spreads like wildfire among tiger-trackers; jeep after jeep comes roaring in to the spot; and the tiger, to no one’s surprise, often takes the first route out. This protective mother tigress knew the threat too well and receded back into the forest with her kids. The wildlife expedition was over. I hadn’t spotted a single tiger, let alone click it.
Fast forward 16 months, it was March 28, 2013. I was finally in the jungle again. This time in Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India. The national park flaunts the highest density of tigers in India. The tour promised a lot of tiger action and the subject in each safari was the striped cats, not landscapes or birds.
The first safari had me beaming, like a kid opening his long-awaited Christmas gift. By the end of it, i felt like one who hadn’t been in Santa’s good books that year. While most jeeps came back empty-handed, one had spotted a new bunch of cubs with their mom, and one had captured five different tigers. Five! Still optimistic, I pinned my hopes on the evening safari, trying to believe that i was perhaps destined for a ‘special’ first sighting.
The second safari of the day soon stripped me of all the excitement. None of the jeeps had seen anything remotely striped, the light was fast fading and it was almost time to exit the jungle. My optimism had turned sore. “There’s a nightjar sitting out in the open on a curve up ahead,” one of our mentors travelling in a different jeep told our driver when our vehicles crossed paths. He gave us directions and hence, a heading. Since we had already given up all hopes of seeing a tiger, we decided to take his word and make a frame of the nocturnal bird. Nightjars are beautiful creatures and i’ve captured them before, but i had been too excited about tigers to be craving nightjars.
As we swerved around a corner on a dusty path in the woods, the guide riding shotgun asked the driver to stop and reverse, in what i can only describe as a hushed scream. On the morning safari, i would have taken this as a clear tiger sign. But the cloud of pessimism loomed large over my head. “What? You saw the nightjar?” I asked him. He looked at me with disbelief and said the one word i had been dying to hear since the Corbett failure: “Tiger”.
I jumped up in the moving jeep, holding on to two cameras as the driver reversed. I do not remember longer seconds in my life. As we came to a screeching stop, the guide pointed. But I did not need directions. I could already see it: A magnificent tiger resting on a rock in a pool of fallen leaves.
My first instinct was to point the camera and click. I had just got through a frame-burst when i realized i hadn’t even clocked the settings into my DSLR for the low light in the frame. The pictures came out very,very dark. I set the numbers in as quickly as i could and went through another burst, with an average telephoto lens, then the bigger prime lens, attached to two different camera bodies. At some point, in the middle of all this, I heard someone say our creature of interest was a He – a 2.5-years-old male cub of a tigress called Banbahi. I asked for a name later in the day, but apparently, he didn’t have a territory yet, and hence hadn’t been named.
After the initial reflex had subsided and the first few mindless bursts of pictures fired, i really saw him. He wasn’t totally unobstructed; I could see his eyes pierce the foliage between us, and he stared right into my lens. It was at this moment that something held my finger back from pressing the shutter again, something that lowered my camera, something that made me look into the eyes of this innocuous yet intimidating and grossly misunderstood creature. I found myself in a dilemma i hadn’t been prepared for: to live the moment, or to capture it.
He did not stay there for long, just over a minute, during most of which he looked away, distracted by the sound of rustling leaves in the distance. But he looked our way just long enough for me to make one decent picture: a souvenir that will always remind me of my first tiger. For it was in this moment that i realized – any sighting of a tiger is special.
In the course of the next three days, we saw six more tigers- crossing our path in the golden light of dawn, stalking a prey, lazying around in the open and even leaping over a boundary wall! Bandhavgarh delivered all that it had promised, and more.
Some parting pictures from the land of the tiger: