Tadoba into the wilderness with the big cats
Under India’s Project Tiger directorate, this little-explored national park – with a healthy population of Bengal tigers – lies 150 km south of Nagpur. Less visited than most other forests in India, the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve is a place where you can get really up close with big cats without having to jostle past truckloads of shutter-happy tourists. The trade-off is that you may have to make do with basic amenities and lower comfort levels. The park remains open most of the year, even during the monsoons.
The Andhari River that meanders through the forest gives it part of its name. Tadoba is a holy place for the local Adivasis and is named after Lord Taruba’s shrine, worshipped deep inside the jungles of Tadoba, and consecrated to a village chief, Taru, who had killed many tigers and was finally killed in a violent encounter with one. He thus became venerated as a god and protector against wild beasts. Things were different then, tigers roamed the jungles freely and the man jungle conflict must have been fierce! It still exists today, as man and beast fight for space and survival in Tadoba’s jungles, which have shrunk drastically due to aforestation, and people have wiped out animals in quest for land. The Tadoba Andhara Reserve has ironically reversed its earlier reputation – from protection against fierce animals to their preservation! This instinct for preservation was beautifully demonstrated on one of our tiger sightings in Tadoba. It was 7.45 am and there were a sea of vehicles in front of us at. From a distance we assumed they were following the Panderpauni female tigress. We were among the last vehicles here so we couldn’t see the tigress clearly. What we got was only the fleeting glance of her being somewhere close. When the vehicles left we slowly moved towards the Tadoba Lake in the hope that we could spot the tiger. At around 8:45 am, there was some movement in a bush, and lo and behold! there was the Panderpauni tigress jumping and playing around. The initial conclusion was that she was prancing around alone till we saw a tiny little figure with her. You can imagine our surprise when we saw the tigress playing with a fawn! She was gently holding her by her neck, nudging it to run, and also sitting with the fawn. Seeing them playing around, we came to the initial conclusion that she would not eat the fawn. Thankfully we were right, as after 10 minutes she emerged from the bushes and went her way, and it was a delight to see that she had not killed the fawn after all. This fascinating spectacle restored our faith that most wild animals do not kill unless they are hungry!
Tadoba has predominantly bamboo vegetation and its vast, pristine stretches, with scenic lakes and gentle hills, is considered one of the best tracts of forestland, known as the jewel of Vidharba. The Gond kings once ruled these forests in the vicinity of the Chimur hills. Hunting was completely banned in 1935 and Tadoba, 3 hours from Nagpur, in Chandrapur District of Maharashtra, became one of the country’s oldest National Parks to be established in 1955. Nagpur is the main hub to get to parks like Maleghat, Pench, Tadoba, that are all in the Chandrapur district. Drive even further towards Madhya Pradesh and one can enter Bandhavgarh, and even further on, you get to Kanha National Park.
We chose to visit Tadoba as the papers that keep tabs of tiger sightings in the various National Parks, mentioned that among the recent sightings, Tadoba showed the most frequent close encounters with big cats. The ultimate wish of any wildlife enthusiasts and photographers is to see tigers up-close. The resort where we checked in near Morharli gate, which is the main gate to Tadoba park, was abuzz with news of the big Cats sighted at different posts recently, and tour guides were taking down details intently on the time of sighting and what the cats were up to. One guest took great pride in describing a kill by the tiger and how the carcass was pulled deep into the jungle and showed us photos as if it was his kill of the day! We even noticed some disgruntled guests, who, not having sighted any cats, asked the resort owner to refund some money as the guide was useless!
There are various entry gates around Tadoba, which are strictly monitored, with impressively built entrances. Jari Pangdi gate, Kutonda, Kulara , Navegaon gate and Moharli main gate are the most widely used entrances to Tadoba. The two-forested ranges of Tadoba and Andhari cover a vast terrain, measuring 623 sq kms. Dividing the reserve right across the middle is a second entry gate, where one can halt to use the restrooms and enter the next zone.
Tadoba is just not about big cats. Blessed with three lakes, Tadoba, Teliya and Kolsa, they add character and a soothing vibe to the undulating terrain of hills and meadows. At the heart of the reserve is Tadoba lake. A shrine dedicated to the God Taru now exists beneath a huge tree, on the banks of the lake. The temple is frequented by adivasis, especially during the fair held every year in the Hindu month of Pausha, between December and January. During summer, this lake has the maximum Tiger sightings. It offers a good habitat for Muggar crocodiles to thrive. The lake acts as a buffer between the park’s forest and the extensive farmlands which extend up to Irai water reservoir. Our drive into the park on the first day was like a military precision drill, we were very impressed with the orderly way the vehicles turned out in a queue and were checked, cameras declared, tickets produced for head count and we entered with a prayer chant from the guests that our tigers appear in their full glory.
The gentle hills loom large with thick deciduous forest, the grasslands are dotted with shrubs of Jamun, Bamboo, Arjun, Teak, Karoo or crocodile tree, and the impressive Ghost trees have their branches reaching towards each other in an eerie embrace. Palas or Flame of the Forest adds vibrant colour to the terrain. Black plum trees grow in the riparian habitat around the lakes. The climber Kach Kujali (velvet bean) found here is a medicinal plant used to treat Parkinson’s disease. The leaves of bheria are used as an insect repellant and bija is a medicinal gum. Beheda is also an important medicine found here. At the waterhole at Panchadhara, huge arjun trees are seen. The three lakes are great watering holes and the wetlands are breeding grounds for wildlife and aquatic birds alike, a great source of sustenance for raptors such as the grey sea eagle and serpent crested eagle. At Kolsa we saw the tranquil lake ripple with the outlines of two crocodiles as they hurried into deeper waters. Marsh birds and Whistling Teals looked unperturbed by the crocs’ presence. Curious tourists jeeps crowded round the lake to see the crocodiles, quite a change, as most of the 28 jeeps allowed twice a day at Tadoba only wander aimlessly in search of Tigers!
Aside from the keystone species Bengal tiger, Tadoba is home to many mammals, including Indian leopards, panthers, sloth bears, gaur, nilgai, dholes, striped hyena, bison, Indian Civet, jackals, jungle cats, wild boar, sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, chital, chausingha, langurs, etc. Counting the 65 tigers, 25 leopards, 120 bears, 150 wild dogs, for the census-takers at Tadoba it is a tough job indeed! Tadoba lake sustains the Marsh Crocodile, which were once common all over Maharashtra. Reptiles here include the endangered Indian python and the common Indian monitor. Terrapins, Indian star tortoise, Indian Cobra and Russel’s viper also live in Tadoba. The lake is an ornithologist’s paradise with a wide diversity of water birds, and raptors. 195 species of birds have been recorded, including three endangered species. The Grey-headed fish eagle, the Crested Serpent Eagle, and the Changeable Hawk-Eagle are some of the raptors. Other interesting species include the Orange-headed Thrush, Indian Pitta, Crested Treeswift, Stone Curlew, Crested Honey Buzzard, Paradise Flycatcher, Bronze-winged Jacana and Lesser Goldenbacked Woodpecker. Warblers and the black-naped blue flycatcher exist here and the call of the peacock may often be heard.