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Heir to the Bandhavgargh Throne

10/02/2017
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He’s just four years old but strong and arrogant; he has hurt both the older B2 and Bokha in fierce battles and in recent months has attempted to dislodge them from the core area of the jungle. Though he hasn’t been given a name yet, his claim to fame - a direct descendant of the legendary first family of Bandhavgarh, Charger and Sita, he is the current heir to the Bandhavgarh throne.

If you haven’t realized by now, I’m talking about a very special family of tigers. The morning cold is brittle as it knife’s through the gap between my scarf and collar, sending a chill through my body. We pass the gates of the Tiger Reserve; thin mist steams up from the forest floor as the sun makes a feeble attempt to rise between the hills. But it isn’t long before shafts of light hit the tops of trees then descend gently upon a Cheetal stag, who gets on with the business of feeding, ignoring the purring jeep that rolls by. There was a feeling of anxiety mixed with much expectation but so far, this morning, all we’d seen were Sambur, Cheetal, rummaging wild boar, a primly dressed Peacock and give or take a dozen black faces of the common Langur. Pug marks criss-crossed the soft sand over tracks of vehicles like ours and Ram Singh the tracker had his ears cupped for sounds that indicated movement of a tiger. I was promised a sighting by the enthusiastic naturalist Jigmi and the tigers obliged. My first sighting was the previous evening; we had seen Jhurjhura crossing an open area between two batches of high grass fields by the edge of forest. This morning however we were keen on seeing her cubs, but in the jungle nothing comes on order. Bandhavgarh is everything, rocky, flat grasslands, deciduous wet forests and hills. Suddenly to the right of us an alarmed Sambur trumpeted a single loud horn. We waited and then again he sounded, the tiger was approaching the path in front of us. A minute later and it emerged from forest cover, and like a well trained child looked right then left before crossing. Like millions of other Indians, I’ve watched the saga of Charger and Sita unfold a hundred times on my television screen and now I stood face to face with one of their descendants. In fact this cub was part of Sita’s granddaughter Jhurjhura’s litter of three. This large female was only eighteen months old, yet she strolled confidently. Like all tiger sightings it lasted all of one minute. But that morning I was among the lucky ones. While driving back, just below the shoulder of a hill, I saw Bhitri quenching her thirst in a stream among the short ferns. Bhitri also traces her ancestry to Sita & Charger, her mother was Banvai who was the daughter of Bachi, in turn the daughter of Sita and Charger. This time however we had just missed her consort, the current dominant male and heir to the throne of Bandhavgarh. There are twenty five to twenty six tigers in the general area that’s almost two percent of the entire tiger population of India! “The family tree of the tigers in this forest is interesting. Almost all are in some way related to Charger and Sita”, says the dashing young Rajput, naturalist Yadunath Sen. It is a fascinating experience, identifying each animal and linking it up to the family tree. On an assignment for an international organisation I ended up sighting a number of tigers from the Sita and Charger family. It’s always best to read up on the animals in a park that you have selected to visit, the trip gets so much more meaningful. And if you are fortunate to have a previously identified family, like I did, it becomes an amazing experience. The Park is divided into three segments. Each allows a limited number of tourists into the area. The favourite is section “One”, as it has the best chance of a tiger sighting. In this section there are four possible routes your jeep can take. Your entry permit allows you to select only one, which you first need to complete and report to central point before you can check out any other area. Selecting the correct route therefore makes all the difference. Based on the day, temperature and the previous day’s tiger movement, it’s the naturalist who takes the call, so you better have a good man on the job! One is allowed to enter the jungles twice daily, once early morning and again the later part of the afternoon into early evening. Everyone who visits the Reserve doesn’t miss a single outing be it early morning or late evening. One evening we found ourselves hot on the trail of Jhurjhura’s mother Chakradhara who has her own litter of three cubs that are much younger, barely five months old. She keeps them hidden away in the rocky peaks close to the Bandhavgarh fort in the centre of the one hundred odd square kilometer core forest area.

Our search took us all the way up to the fort, an awesome sight. For those of you who have seen Angkor Watt, this is a mini version. Fantastic images of gnawing roots of ancient trees breaking through the roof of a gurukul, up ahead the Angkor-style single isolated temples bear witness to this ten century old man-made wonder. Only forty visitors are allowed up here per day, twenty at a time, so it’s desolate and the lone pujari at the top is a startling sight. But as you enter the temple of Laxman and Bharat, the brothers of Ram, the crackle of a ham radio is even more startling. Apparently every driver that goes up must report and be recorded at this one man check point. All the way up we could hear Chakradhara and monitor her movement through the jungle alarm calls. Once we even noticed she had crossed our tracks but kept firmly out of sight. I must warn you, the only time a tigress has killed in Bandhavgarh is when a local, stupidly, went too close while the cubs were around her. How close is close? That depends on the tigress. However noticing her reluctance to show herself we simply drove down without halting. It was disappointing but I was eventually lucky to see her, minus the cubs, on another day’s outing. For everything you ever want to see in a jungle nothing is of greater significance than sighting a dominant male tiger at close quarters. That was my pièce de résistance of the entire trip. Having spent a few days in search of the current dominant male in a jeep, I decided a change of strategy. The jeeps must follow the fixed routes, but if you hire an elephant you can go almost anywhere in the forest. And so, thanks to senior naturalist Chandra Vir Singh, it wasn’t long before we found him lolling in a ravine almost hidden by bamboo. A magnificent male in his prime, a specimen of an animal, the arrogance and distain with which he treated the elephant riders was a perfect example of male dominance. I shot more than 180 frames from my SLR before the mahout turned to allow the other two passengers a chance to fire. Then he rolled over once, stood up and swaggered into the undergrowth. My dream comes true, eventually…
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