(Edited Version of the below write-up was published in the Sanctuary Asia Feb. 2015 issue, the below encounter took place in November, 2014)
Dawn broke at the Churna FRH in the Satpura National Park, Madhya Pradesh. We were up and pretty excited already; in our time here, apart from the wealth of birdlife such as the Indian Eagle Owl, Scarlet Minivet, Yellow-footed Green Pigeon and mammals such as sloth bears, gaur, sambar, Indian giant and flying squirrels, we had been very lucky in getting a coveted sight of Satpura’s enigmatic tigers. It was barely for a few minutes the previous evening, in the process of waiting at a particular spot shown by our guide, Rameshwar (who on a previous day’s patrolling inside the forest, had seen a mother along with two cubs). After about half an hour, we had spied a cub deep within the lantana undergrowth.
The instant he saw us, he took a few quick sips of water, and disappeared again, keeping the ghostly reputation of Satpura’s tigers alive. Such an elusive sight was satisfying on its own; we had been further emboldened however; en-route Churna, we had come across the tracks of a big male, likely Sidhu, a tiger re-located from Bandhavgarh that had made the Churna range his home. Aly Rashid, Owner-Naturalist at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, had a quiet optimism about him that morning. As Rakesh, our driver, started the engine, my wife, Deepi and me pulled on our caps and wrapped our mufflers as the chill of a November morning welcomed us. Nearly an hour into the drive, to our surprise, we noticed Sidhu had actually used the same path late last night, headed in the same direction as us the previous evening.
As we drove away from Churna, and with no other signs or alarm calls, our hopes of seeing a tiger again that day started to melt with the day’s sun. A barking deer, a juvenile gaur, a lesser yellow nape and a brown-capped pygmy woodpecker were the only notable sightings thus far. As a last ditch effort, we once again reached and waited at the same spot we had seen the cub the previous evening. We were the lone jeep; this park allowed only 12 vehicles inside at a time, and not everyone went for the Churna excursion which was a fair bit longer than the safari in the Madhai area. Silence and no calls or pugmarks; nevertheless, we chanced our luck waiting, and to everyone’s excitement, after a few minutes we heard rustling deep within the undergrowth again. They were still here, as Deepi pointed out some quick movement, and Rakesh saw the cub sprint across behind the bushes. Aly and Rameshwar spotted the second cub as well moving about, and soon all of us for a few seconds, enjoyed the grand walk of the mother as she walked along an opposing ridge only to disappear again. Langur alarm calls started further up the hillside. They were going to walk away, we assumed. Aly then suggested an idea; why not get off the main road and just park around the bend. We’d still have a good idea of where the alarm calls were coming from, and the road would be empty if they wished for more accessible movement. Tigers, as most visitors to forests would know, tend to use forest roads quite a bit, especially for traversing long distances. The calls subsided, followed by silence. We waited and then 10 minutes later, again heard rustling, twigs breaking. And then a ‘thump’! Cautiously, we rolled around the bend and as we turned, I grabbed Aly’s arm in excitement. Because, big as life, there was the mother tigress sitting 15 metres from us bang on the road!
Aly and me clicked away, as the contented mother sat yawning in the late morning sun
Soon though from behind her, we saw movement, and the first cub popped its head behind her.
He walked boldly, came close and nuzzled his mother giving us a moment of pure delight as he crouched protectively around her.
Soon, the 2nd cub entered the scene and we smiled, happy that we had finally seen the whole family. Or had we? Rameshwar exclaimed excitedly ‘Teen hain!’ as he peered through the binoculars. No one, including the forest department, had heard of a 3rd cub. Our surprise quickly changed to alertness, as the mother raised herself from her comfortable lounging spot and started walking……towards us!
Rakesh had never been so close to a tiger before, and all of us, including Aly who has seen tigers elsewhere walk past the park gypsies nonchalantly, were unsure of her behavior as most tigers here were not as familiar with the jeeps, that too when she was with cubs. The decision was made to reverse the jeep, and give her the right of way, but there was a slight problem. We had braked on a slope when we first saw the tigress not wanting to disturb her by getting any closer, and now both, her and the cubs were walking towards us. So, as Rakesh attempted to go the other way, the jeep lurched forward, towards the tigress! Her demeanor changed, and suddenly her body was tense, in a half-crouch! All of us were suddenly a bit fearful, we wanted to give her way, but the opposite was happening. Thank the stars, Rakesh did not lose his cool and he wrestled with the jeep to get into 4-wheel drive mode to reverse the car, as we parked ourselves in the Jhinjhini mahal junction (the same spot around the bend we had parked earlier), leaving the main road open for her. The tigress relaxed, and she walked calmly past us, followed by her…wait, what?? 4 cubs! Rameshwar was beside himself with joy, and all of us stared in awe. No one in the park had any idea of 3, let alone 4 cubs. When was the last time anyone had seen 5 tigers together in Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve?
Unfazed by the excitement, the tigress casually spray-marked on the trees as she walked past us. The 4 tiny tots (maybe not so tiny, by Aly’s estimate, they were around 10 months, close to the size of an adult leopard) followed in behind her. She walked on ahead, and gave a bit of a turn back to look at us, and that was the opportunity for me, Aly and Rameshwar to freeze into a frame one of the most amazing sightings ever here at Satpura, and which would prove to be a valuable record for the forest department.
On our return journey, Rakesh was so dazed with our sighting, he did not speak a word all the way back, even when we saw three wild dogs zip across the road. In contrast, Rameshwar was glowing with glee, while Aly’s face had relaxed into a wide smile. Deepi was grinning everytime she looked at me, and I still could not believe what I had seen. The mood was joyous on our return to the Madhai camp as well, once we shared the news with the forest department members. You could tell that all those invested in the protection of this park, celebrated this event with nearly as much vigour, as a newborn in their household. Based on our pictures, we would be informed a few days later that this was a resident tigress, born in Satpura who 2 years earlier had been seen mating with another male here. It was likely she hadn’t conceived then, but she had more than made up with this baby boom.
There is a good deal of debate on tourism pressures in many of the renowned parks, some of the viewpoints are often not entirely unjustified. But if lady luck is present, as she was on that day, there comes a time when both tourists and the forest department can help in spreading a message. Give tigers their space, they need nothing else 😀
A Quick Guide:
Satpura National Park is part of the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve, a true ambassador of the beautiful forests of the central Indian landscape. For the wildlife enthusiast, sightings of megafauna are plentiful, and the park is known more in the past few years for its sightings of sloth bears and leopards. Tiger sightings are generally rare, but on the rise due to the relocation of several individuals from Bandhavgarh. The central Indian or southern Barasingha now also calls Satpura its home, a small population from Kanha was shifted here recently, and the exercise will be ongoing.
The Dhoopgarh peak, the tallest of Madhya Pradesh, inside the national park area is a unique habitat, that of the central Indian Sub-Tropical Hill Forest, the only one of its kind, complete with a mix of tree species of mixed deciduous forests and a healthy growth of evergreen species as well.
Birders are going to have their hands full, with over 250 reported species. Apart from the Chambal sanctuary, this is one of the few places in India where visitors can get sightings of the Indian skimmer, classified Vulnerable by the IUCN, but which is witnessing serious decline due to disappearing habitat. The best time to see them on most occasions is the end of February-March. Butterfly species are plentiful, as are reptiles and a few species of amphibians.
How to get there:
Satpura National Park is accessible via road from Bhopal (on average a 4-4.5 hour drive) which is the nearest airport. The best accessible railheads are Itarsi and Hoshangabad, the drive to the Madhai gate in regular traffic conditions would be just over an hour.
Where to stay:
We stayed at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge so will certainly vouch for it being one of the best wildlife lodges in India, they have been an award-winning property many times in the past. It is a luxurious property, but everything here is dedicated to maintaining an ecological balance with the surroundings. The buffer forest in Sohagpur around Reni Pani is also rich in biodiversity. Rusty Spotted Cats, Leopard Geckos have been seen in the lodge grounds, and leopards, sloth bears, and even a tiger have been within the radius of a few km of the property. The naturalists in the lodge are top-of-the-line, a warehouse of natural history and photography knowledge including the owner, Aly Rashid, himself.
Similar options which are also well known are the Forsyth Lodge and the newly opened Denwa Backwaters. For more budget-friendly options, a few properties such as Tawa Resort and Madhai Resort are available. Another great option is to stay at the Madhai or Churna Forest Rest-houses, Madhai has a fantastic view and Churna will take you deeper into Satpura’s wilds. These can be booked by getting in touch with the forest department. It’s always recommended to book safaris beforehand due to limited vehicles here, which can be booked via the MP tourism site. Visitors can also explore the park via speedboat, canoe, jeep and on foot as well!
Equipment used: Nikon D5300, Sigma 70-300 APO 4-5.6 DG