It was 6am on 2nd April 2005, Ientered the gate of Bandhavgarh National Park, sitting with my driver cum naturalist Sanjay in a 4X4 wheel drive open Suzuki vehicle. Along with me were Ms Lanis Petrik, from Brookfield Zoo, Chicago Zoological Society, and her photographer husband, Thomas Petrik.
We had gone only about 300 meters when we saw a couple of Jeeps standing close to a forest Elephant. It signified that a Tiger had been located close to the road. I spoke to the Mahout and he signaled towards the area where the Tigress was sleeping in the tall grass. It was about 15 meters from the road. Within minutes couple of other Jeeps also closed in. I learned from Sanjay that this Tigress was pregnant, and would deliver in another 2 weeks probably. He also mentioned that she will now get up and cross the road in front of us from left to the right, as it is there that there are a couple of dens where she might deliver her litter. I asked him why was he sure that she will cross. He said the sun is becoming stronger and the disturbance from the vehicles will encourage her to move towards her den.
Then began a long wait, an anxious wait, soon I saw there were about6-7 vehicles around and no sign of the Tigress thinking of changing her temporary residence from the tall grass to the safer dens close by. Every second seemed like an hour and every minute like a day. But isn't that what Tiger Safari is all about. Exhilarating experience.
Something in me said not to wait there and instead go for Challenger, the big male on the western side of the park. Somehow my previous experiences with Challenger have been very satiating as far Tiger Photography is concerned. He is a young male of about 4 years, strong shoulders, has gone on his father B2 who is the dominant male of the entire tourism zone of about 105 sq kms. Challenger had a territorial dispute with his father and lost a part of his left ear to his father. Ever since he was named Challenger. The urge to see him again after a gap of one month was very strong. So I asked Sanjay to move towards Mahammen Pond area. Sanjay did not quite like the idea, coz to leave a Tiger so close who can be up any moment to go in search for someone whom you know not much about was not a great idea. I insisted and Sanjay reluctantly agreed.
We left to go for Mahammen. En route we met Tirath (another very capablenaturalist cum dirver of Tiger Den Resort, Sanjay also works for the same resort). Tirath said that he has noticed pugmarks of a big male in area about 3kms from Mahammen pond. The pugmarks had left the road and then no clue whatsoever. We moved on. Took a complete round of the area of about 10kms and came next to the Mahammen Pond area.
No pug marks, no alarm calls. We stopped, sun had come out, it was about 8am. No sign yet. Day was warming up. A Jeep came in, exchanged notes. It is a very nice channel of communication, when the drivers ask each other of any signs of His Highness. The other Jeep told us that they saw the Tigress, which was sleeping. She had got up after about 20 minutes and crossed the road in front. Sanjay looked at me with the expression "I told you, she will", but he said nothing. I was not hassled at all to have missed the Tigress. We waited for some more time. Looked at our watches it was about 9am. In the meanwhile Thomas Petrik and I were discussing what made me leave a very comfortable career with the Taj Group of Hotels and start on my own in Wildlife.
Then Sanjay said, "Sir we have waited for one hour now, max we can wait for 15 more minutes as the park gates close at 10am, and the drive from here till the gate is about 45mts". I said fine. My eyes were incisive, penetrating the surrounding bushes. At times a distant movement of a spotted deer would also seem as if it was the King of the Jungle. My ears were getting edgy, and fervent to hear some alarm call of the majestic predator. In the meanwhile Tirath had also come and stood in his Jeep close to us.
Suddenly we heard an alarm call of a spotted deer. My heart missed a beat. The call repeated. I stood up on my seat. So did Sanjay. I looked at him and he had a smirk on his face. The alarm call recurred another 4-5 times. Now we were certain the King was up and about to give Darshan (sighting).
Looking through the tall Sal trees and some Bamboo bushes I saw some movement. I pointed in the direction, and yes, it was none else but his majesty. Sanjay and Tirath have exceptional skills to menouver their vehicles when the big cat is around. I told them not to start the vehicles till he emerges on the road. Now he was clearly visible between the 2 trees approaching us. I clicked and the focus of the shot went on the trees and a pale shadow of the robust male came.
I was not disappointed, I knew I am close to a Goldmine of shots. Within seconds Challenger crossed in front of us. He went to the pool, ignoring us royally. For him we never existed on this planet. He entered the pool of water, and started to drink, while enjoying the attention that he received from us. I simply freaked, and soon I realized it was a good decision to have two cards of 1 GB each with me and another 512MB card in my digital camera. He enjoyed the water for about 15 minutes. ( See Photo 2 )
Finally when he emerged from water, I noticed his belly to be full. He had been enjoying a hearty meal of some denizen of the Jungle. He looked away from us and walked to the near by tree to catch if there was any other smell of any new Tiger in his territory. Then he looked at us, sprayed on the low tree branches and started to walk towards us with his tail at 90 degrees up.( See Photo 3 )
Never before on my numerous Tiger Safaris in Bandhavgarh have i seen a big male do this. He came about 4 metres from our vehicle and turned left, paused looked towards his right shoulder as if telling us lesser mortals, that you now have been given permission to walk behind me. We followed his command. We kept a distance of about 4 meters and cruised behind him. He simply wasn't bothered at all. Those magnificent black stripes on the Golden yellow fur were simply mesmerizing. My camera was clicking faster then my heart. For once it seemed eternity was right here. ( See Photo 4 )
He looked back once again but continued his casual walk in front of us. In between he went aside and yet again marked his territory by smelling and then spraying on the tree. Sanjay reminded me it was 9.30am, and we need to go back to the gate. How rude it would be to leave such a wonderful creation of God and go back. But I had to leave, we turned, but he did not. I looked back at him and some more shots. Sanjay started our journey back to the gate.I looked at Sanjay and he said "Thank You Sir, this was better then the sleeping Tigress
It was now that Lanis Petrik finally said, "Sharad we never thought we will see a Tiger in the Wilds, so near, so close and for so long. Thank You"