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Pune/ India, Irvine/ CA, now Boulder/ CO
Welcome to my blog! I'm Hrishi from Pune, India. I am an earth system scientist currently working as a postdoctoral research associate at Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at CU-Boulder. These blogs are mostly about my travels, landscape photography, scientific computing, book and film reviews, fitness, cooking, and science communication. Feel free to navigate based on the labels below. My website: hrishikeshac.wix.com/hchandan


Sunday, June 6, 2010

TATR Experience

Note: I must mention here that I retain the copyright of all the images posted here. I am usually quite lenient with other's use of my images. This time, however, owing to bitter experiences of many a wildlife photographers, esp. in context to tiger images, I prohibit posting of these images on any other site on the internet, whether for commercial, promotional or academic purpose. After taking my permission, one can download these images (click on the images for larger view) for personal viewing. The resolution of these images is decent enough to make a 4x6 inch print.  Also note that this is not a TATR Travel Guide, simply because I am not aware of all the options available at TATR. Google TATR to find ample information for accommodation and travelling.  

I had the opportunity to go to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) during the 1st week of June. I went with a few of my MSc course colleauges. Two of our colleagues, Daya and Madhura, have been working at TATR on behalf of Wildlife Institute of India, and it was Madhura’s birthday on 4th June. So my classmates came up with this plan of celebrating her birthday at TATR. I was excited because this would be my first opportunity to get a tiger photo. Personally, I am not in awe of the big cats. But in India, its an unsaid rule to have good tiger photos if you are to claim being a wildlife photographer, hence the effort.(I don't claim to be one, but may be in future...) Anyways, we boarded a direct Volvo bus (from Pune) to Chandrapur. The bus was conditioned, but it wasn’t comfortable at all. Especially, my birth was leaking with the cold water from the conditioned top. Thank god I had a sleeping bag with me; it saved the night for me. Madhura had arranged for a pickup at Chandrapur station. The road to TATR went through dusty coal mines. To say it was hot is an understatement. And it was dry too (except for the sweat of course!).

The Indian Rollar was pretty common in the Mohurli area. I guess it is a common bird all over TATR. 

TATR has been divided into 3 ranges, Mohurli, Kolsa and Tadoba. We stayed at MTDC guestrooms at Mohurli. I was again unlucky with the accommodation. Though the room was nice and spacious,  the water supply system wasn’t working well. The toilet tap’s water looked suspiciously liked mixed with sewage water!! (My friend Kalpesh who has experience of working on ETPs can give testimony to this). Also, at night, the electricity supply used to get shut down due to voltage trip. My roommates and me had a painful sleepless night. Classmates staying in other rooms didn't share our nightmare and had no issues with their rooms. The food at MTDC was decent. One can order a particular food item in advance. Be sure to check the size and capacity of the plate in which the item is served though, or else you are likely to order far more than you can eat, or else, sleep hungry.  There are a few field guides available, however, I noticed that majority  of people referred to the Atul Dhamankar’s book on Tadoba fauna. It is a nice, compact book giving all essential information on the species along with a species photograph. Atul is a very good photographer and this book is a proof of it. So birders and  mammal lovers (ain’t we all?), this book is adequate for you. As for entomologists, you can either sulk at the lack of a field guide or take this as an opportunity and write one!

A Red-wattled Lapwing

Another common sighting.

Safari in TATR take place twice, between 6-11am and between 3-6pm. Gypsies to be hired cost about INR 1200 per safari and accommodate 6 tourists + 1 Guide + Driver. (One can contact Mr. Shalik Jogwe for any information regarding travelling and staying at TATR). I was plain lucky in my very first safari. Barely 5 minutes after entering the forest, a Guide of one of the gypsies made, in my initial opinion, an impossible sighting of an extremely well camouflaged tiger. I usually pride my ability to spot well hidden birds and animals in dense forests but this was unbelievable. The Tiger was a male, named Yeda Anna aka Circuit aka Tedi poonch. All these fancy bollywood names warn about him:  Don’t mess with him, because he is unpredictable. He was sitting patiently in the dry thicket near one of the waterholes along the road (one beautiful thing about my native language is  that living things, at least the higher ones, are referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ rather than ‘it’, hence I am taking a few liberties with English. If I am unsure of the sex, I'll still refer it as 'he'. Feminists, better call me 'sexist' than tag me for 'obsession with females!').

As more and more gypsies (5-6) joined us I began to realize things. IN this terrible heat, as water was available only at the waterhole, it was obvious that the tiger would come to drink it. (so much so for being impressed with the guide for the tiger sighting!). The gypsies were stationed beyond the Laxam rekha (read Ramayan!) or simply, the lines beyond which the gypsies should not go as they would be intruding the animal's privacy and largely jeopardize the chances of the animal crossing the road in order to go to the waterhole. (These lines can be somewhat compared to the ‘Flight or Fight’ line, an imaginary line marking the approachable distance towards a bird or animal. Going any closer would likely result in the bird/animal flying/running away, or come forward and attack you. However, the lines drawn at TATR, are so close that if I were a bird, I would be long gone before letting someone come so close!) . In spite of  waiting for 15-20mins, much to the tourists frustration and to the relief of the Langoors and the Sambars, Yedda anna didn’t surface. Well, patience of the tourists is a very amusing thing. When a group of tourists see a gypsy standing still, they know that it is upto something and they’ll speed to it. Thus, usually, 5-6 such gypsies end up at the Laxman rekhas waiting for the tiger. However, depending on how their individual day has proceeded, typically one or two gypsies lose patience and leave after barely waiting for 5 mins. All the efforts by other gypsies go in vain. Familiar crys like ‘If that idiot had waited for 5mins, we would have him cross the road’ always break the not so consistent silence. Anyways, coming back to my safari, after 3-4 of the gypsies decided to move on, we agreed to do the same and went further inside. Just after 5 mins, we reached on Waterhole #2 and within minutes, I witnessed my 1st ever proper tiger sighting. We witnessed a tigress lazily crossing the road, showing nothing but utter indifference towards us. She drank a little water, then sat in the waterhole. After 2-3 minutes, she stood up and went inside the thicket near the waterhole. Though it was my 1st tiger sighting ever, and my 1st attempt for tiger photos, I still didn’t feel ‘the kick’.  That feeling of empty stomach, that adrenaline rush, which I experienced when I spotted a leopard in the light from a friends cell-phone in the Himalaya, was completely lacking over here. Thankfully, it enabled me to concentrate on taking good photos. I tried to join my friends in their excited exclamations, and we moved further. After spending some time contemplating where to go (indeed, 1/4th of the time and the entire output of the safari is spend on this decision), we decided to give Yeda anna a second chance to reveal himself to us. 

Long live the queen...

We went back to Waterhole #1, only to find a faithful gypsy waiting for him. It seemed that the group wanted to see Yeda anna at all costs. It had been several hours and numerous disturbing gypsies earlier that Yedda anna had water, and according to local experts, he would come out of the thicket and head for the waterhole at any moment. Soon enough, he obliged us. But this experience was much different than that of watching the tigress cross. He stepped out, directly looking at us. As he walke cross the road, his eyes followed us. There was an unmistakable threat in that gaze, and was very evident in his body language. It was an open challange. Very alarming, ominous, just like starting four notes of Beethoven’s 5th!. Again, I got a few decent shots, but getting steady shots had become challenging due to lack of adequate light, and the tiger was too slow for any chance of panning shots. After he had sat and drunk water, he walked, in his slow, indolent, deliberate manner back to his place in the thicket in the other side of the road. There was one thing everyone noticed: he was salivating with sticky saliva. According to our Guide, this was because he hadn’t drink for hours. Indeed it is our guilt that brings such a magnificent creature to this condition. It hasn’t dented it pride though. Our guide didn’t help saying that all guides expect him to charge at a gypsy one day. If that happens, it would certainly not be good for him.
Yeda anna:

Yep, there he is..Don't ask me how I got the composition..it was the only one possible :)

Yeda anna, out in the open...

Yeda anna, quenching his thirst, yet all alert..

As we still had some time left, we entered a grassland habitat. The clear blue sky, the all dried grasses sidelight with the setting sunrays which were getting warmer and warmer with each passing moment gave an overwhelming feeling. Ketki spotted a Barking deer, which was already moving away from us. Just when I decided to take its photo, it stopped and started peeing. Now there, a few seconds went in internal debate over ethics and animal rights, but still, the scientific, educational side overcame, and finally I captured it in the act!
Indian Rollar again..

Racquet-Tailed Drongo

We then came over two beautiful bisons, called Gaur in India. It is a very handsome herbivore, a quiet animal which is better not messed it. I’ve seen documentaries showing even tigers respecting it. As they were right on our path, they stopped their act, looked up lazily at us, and stepped aside. Their gaze was more like that of a rhino than a cow, and had ounces of curiosity in it. Further inside, we came across a shocking site: we saw 2 two-wheelers roaming around inside the reserve. The riders were kids/ teens, were riding ridiculously inefficient bikes (which were gearless) and were riding tripsy (3 people on one bike, a nice experience, especially in rural areas). Not only was this not allowed, it was highly risky too. I won’t write about what we learnt about them, but just know that such sites can be witnessed. We roamed about Telia lake where our guide, skilfully showed us crocodiles basking on the banks. Again, I was initially impressed.
After a late dinner, we quietly celebrated Madhura’s birthday.  There was disappointment in the air, though nobody showed it: My enthusiastic colleagues had made a film for Madhura and had brought a CD featuring this film. However, such was the heat that the ink of the CD marker melted and destroyed the CD. Thus, we were unable to show her the best present we had brought for her. (Actually, by ‘we’ I mean my classmates. My involvement in this was, if any, counterproductive for the film directors!). Among our group, Rohan is a star gazer, and he understands it too (while I simply gaze!:)). He, Kalpesh and myself had a very nice, romantic chat about the cosmos. He is highly proficient in this and I do intend to spend another session of star gazing with him.

Crested Serpent Eagle

 Next day we went to the Kolsa range. No luck with tiger, we saw a few birds, spotted deer, gaurs and sambars. I was able to get my 1st ever photo of Crested Serpent Eagle. Beside the stream and the trees where the Eagle  perched, we saw a dead tree pie, a victim of heat wave. Indeed, heat in that area was incredible.  During the evening safari, I  was a little  uninterested, as we were treading the same area again and again, and were about to see the same tigers, same behaviour, similar tourists. Indeed,  I was surprised at myself how sooner I got  bored of this. It was here that I learnt an important lesson. For the previous two safaris, the Lowepro computrekker bag which housed the sigma 150-500, was kept at my feet. It made me uncomfortable because it obstructed my movement in the gypsy. Hence, this time i decided to keep it in the room and carried only the big lens and the camera. Now, when we were waiting for the tigress to come out of the thicket and cross the road (yes, the same routine!!), suddenly, the camera went dead. No response what so ever. Just before the start of the safari, I had checked the battery, the indicator said it was fully charged. What really freaked me out was the viewfinder went dark.  Now this had never happened before. I was to realize later that as  the camera was on when the battery died, the shutter had been left open, and was blocking the view. Anyways, soon, the tigeress arrived. I wan’t too interested, still I sulked at the thought what if this was my 1st ever tiger sighting? You have a SLR, a lens capable of producing 750mm equivalent focal length, sufficient light, a patient tigress, and still all you can do is watch it pass..he he. The spare battery was in the Lowpro which I had left at the room. Still, worst was yet to come. We roamed about the Telia lake. We witnessed crocodiles  which even I could spot easily. (So much for being impressed the earlier day!!). We also witnessed a sloth bear enjoying itself in the lake water. As another gypsy came to know about the bear sighting, it accelerated, overtook us, and turned around, all with the bear being just feets away from the road. It was an act of plain stupidity and anyone would have given a jerk-knee reaction. However, this Bhaloo (as the bear is known in Hindi, and fondly called in the Jungle Book),  didn’t even flinch. He continued to walk right until he crossed the road and disappeared into the thickets. This incidence did move me. There was unmistakable sadness in his whole act. A resigned feeling. My mind keeps on replaying it. While returning, we came across a flock of bush quails, who thankfully looked  very cheerful. They were so busy in their own world that they were totally oblivious of our presence. It was plain joy to watch such merry birds, as if watching an animated Disney cartoon.  Just when we were about the reach waterhole #2 for another possible sighting of the tigress, it started raining.  The rain, literally came out of nowhere. The sky above was clear. It was obvious that the wind from the adjoining clouds had brought rain with it. Within seconds, we all were drenched in rain. I was beyond panic because I was holding a naked camera!! In an desperate attempt to save it, I tried to cover it with my lycra T shirt, as if it would help. A friend lent me her scarf, which proved to be useful to a certain extent. Our gypsy driver, grasping the situation, made a sprint of his life towards the exit of the reserve. The moment we were outside, it stopped raining as suddenly as it had begun.  Indeed, never ever will I leave the camera bag behind!

Spotted Deer on the banks of Taili lake

A Sambar..

The third day,  we didn’t go for safari because we couldn’t book the Tadoba safari, and the Mohurli safari had become, well, too familiar. Also, we had to vacate the rooms by 12pm. During my return journey, we boarded the same direct bus to Pune. Unlike the earlier bus, this bus had television sets which actually worked. But soon, we realized that we had this painful choice of watching either ‘The Hero’ or ‘The Indian’ or ‘Farz’. And even more painful was the realization that the TVs could not be switched off!! Indeed, another night in that MIDC room would have been relatively pleasant! The bus dropped us safely in Pune, but right on the middle of a flyover!! Such is the symbiosis of these bus walas and Auto rickshaw walas, that within seconds we were flocked by at least a dozen of ricks. Most of the passangers, knowing fully well how difficult would be the effort of climbing down the flyover with luggage, obliged to the ricks. I preferred to treat them like the Mohurli tigress had treated us, and walked down with all the luggage.

A Spotted Owlet

 As I recall the trip, I would say that it was certainly a memorable one. What? Adventurous? Well, I believe adventures happen when planning fails, when the system fails. Climbing down yamunotri under a cellphone torch was indeed adventurous. Finding yourself at crease when your team is 9 wickets down and half a match remaining is indeed adventurous. As such, this trip certainly wasn’t adventurous. But I am aware that wonderful things happen at TATR. Every now and then you watch some exciting video of a sambar being chased by two tigers or something read of some breathtaking incidence. Infact just after my 3rd safari, Mr Jogwe, who was hardly 5 minutes ahead of us, was able to capture an unfortunate yet phenomenal image of a bear being chased by domestic dogs outside the reserve limits. Indeed such things do happen. But often, you need something more than luck to witness them. It needs love, passion towards the area, it needs one to be soaked  in the surrounding, have limitless patience and yet have very little expectation. It is then that nature reveals itself to you. TATR has done that to people like Atul and Shalik. It won’t certainly do it to a guy, however lucky he may be, who spends not more than 11 hours at TATR and writes not less than 11 pages about it! As for the animals, I am sure that all the animals we saw, except perhaps the merry quails, would have only one way to describe tourists, “Jerks”. 

Last, my favourite tiger photo of the tour..simply ominous..

stay around..