”Tiger sighting has been really good so far this summer.” So I was informed by my team in Corbett. There is no doubt that wildlife photography is something that is addictive for me as is the case with many other professional or even amateur photographers. To be honest, being in the midst of the action of photographing any wild animal or bird in itself is very exciting. My favorite subject to photograph – elephants. Photographing elephants demands a lot of caution as they tend to be aggressive when they feel threatened and they do charge without fear. However, the size of the pachyderms and the advantage of having short or long telephoto lenses do help out a lot as telephoto lenses allow photographing elephants from a relatively safe distance. I love spending time in a jungle photographing wildlife - big or small. Yet, the excitement of sighting and photographing the big cat is something that I’m sure no one is able hide. Seeing a tiger on any trip for me is like seeing the big cat for the first time.
Irfan, the driver/guide was assigned to spend the next 4 days to help me locate wildlife and assist me in getting the best shots of the denizens of Corbett. We were heading towards Corbett’s Dhikala range when Irfan told me that he had spent the morning tracking a tiger and how another photographer he was assisting till that morning was able to get great shots of the big cat as the tiger was relaxing near a watering hole. Of course this was in the Bijrani range. My trip to Bijrani was to come couple of days later. I could sense the enthusiasm and excitement in Irfan’s voice. Irfan guaranteed that I would photograph a tiger before I left Corbett. However, I told Irfan that I’m not hell bent on seeing a tiger cause then I would end up wasting a lot of time missing out on all the other wonderful wildlife that Corbett has to offer. Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t care to see a tiger. In my heart I was always hoping that Irfan’s luck of tracking and sighting the big cat will continue – with me on board his jeep.
The felines whether they are tigers, leopards, or the small cats such as jungle cat, caracal, fishing cat are always difficult to locate. The primary reasons being that most cats in the wild are nocturnal, solitary, territorial, and of course shy – which makes them elusive. Moreover, unlike the African Savannah where tracking wildlife especially the big cats such as lions, cheetah and leopards is relatively easy, tracking the wild cats in the Indian forests and then getting a decent photograph is much more challenging because of the thick forest cover and the poor light that trickles through the forest canopy, which allows many of these animals to camouflage well. Having said that, Corbett does have a healthy tiger and leopard population. In fact, according to the latest tiger census released in 2011, the park and its nearby forests have between 190-239 tigers – the highest tiger numbers compared to any park in the world. However, because of the large size of the park and the hilly terrain, at times it isn’t that easy to sight one unlike sighting the tigers in Ranthambhore or Bandhavgarh. Nevertheless, one can feel the presence of the big cats on almost every trip to Corbett. Even if you can’t see the tiger, chances are that the tiger is watching you.
Early one morning, Irfan suddenly stopped the jeep, and slowly reversed the vehicle. Then, we saw fresh pug marks of a tiger on the dirt road. The imprint was clear and we were certain that the tiger had crossed that path minutes or even seconds before we got there. Irfan started figuring out the direction to which the feline had gone. Then we waited, and waited, and waited for quite sometime. Except for the occasional whistle of a bird, it was dead silence. Of course, on a couple of occasions we did get startled by the sudden movement in the bushes, the dry grass and the leaves – with the perpetrator being a large monitor lizard on one occasion and a mongoose on the other. Unfortunately, without any luck of sighting and photographing the big cat that morning, we headed towards Dhikala Forest Rest House for breakfast. There I met another photographer who happened to spot a tiger crossing the river that morning. However, even with his 600mm lens, the photographer couldn’t get a decent image of the big cat as it was rather far. That interaction with the fellow shutterbug confirmed one thing – Irfan’s hunch was right on. Based on the time the other photographer mentioned and the direction the tiger had headed towards, it was the same tiger. The tiger was there, possibly looking at us, but we couldn’t locate it hiding in the tall grass.
Irfan suggested that we head towards the Sultan FRH area early next morning. However, we nixed that plan as our agenda for the morning was to photograph elephants. And sure enough, in the Ram Singh Road area we were able to get great shots of the elephants. My group on the photo tour was happy and so was I. After observing and photographing the majestic elephants, we went back to Dhikala FRH for breakfast. After breakfast, Irfan who had been chatting with other guides and drivers told us that another group had sighted a tiger near Sultan FRH that morning. He further added ”if only we also had driven to that area as planned we could have located and photographed the big cat.” I told Irfan – “No regrets mate.” Having been photographing wild animals for some years now, I have gotten used to the fact that locating wildlife is a matter of luck and spotting a tiger involves an incredible amount of patience, perseverance and a huge amount of luck.
Bijrani range had terrific tiger sightings. The Bijrani FRH was where we were put up for the night. On our evening safari, we looked for fresh pug marks. We found none. It was very hot that evening, and we looked around all the watering holes hoping to sight the star of Corbett, but it continued to elude us. However, a ray of hope came in the form of finding pug marks and a distinct pattern on the dirt road. Upon close inspection it was obvious that a tiger had been sitting right in the middle of the dirt road; the pug mark, the body imprint on the sand, and the tail imprint were distinctly clear and couldn’t be mistaken for any other animal’s. That afternoon and evening went very quietly. We were hoping for the alarm call of a chital or a sambhar deer, but it seemed that the extreme heat that particular day made the big cat lazy and it was possibly relaxing or sleeping somewhere. Deer usually set off their alarm calls whenever a tiger is on the move. However, in case the tiger is relaxing or sleeping, then they too become relaxed. Later in the evening at the Bijrani FRH, I met a mahout who informed me that the Bijrani range had tiger sightings for 17 straight days until that day. He said that the extreme heat that particular day could have been the reason for no tiger movement and sighting.
Next morning, we were up early and on the trail of the big cat again. An hour or so later Irfan spotted fresh pug marks of a male tiger followed by alarms calls of chital. It was a good sign. We followed the calls of chital deer coming from nearby. We waited patiently. Then, all went quiet. 45 minutes of wait and the big cat decided to take a nap it seemed. We decided to head towards another area. Half an hour later the alarm calls started with the chital as well as the sambhar deer taking turns in sending their SOS. By this time most of the day trippers were gone. 4 jeeps were left with visitors who were put up in the Bijrani and Malani FRHs who had permission of utilizing the jeep safari till 11am. However, the occupants of 2 of the jeeps couldn’t bear the morning Sun and seemed to have lost their patience and left that area. Irfan was excited as he was sure that this time a tiger was on the move. His confidence also grew because of the sambhar’s call. Sambhar the largest deer in India, is a favorite on the tiger’s menu and whenever a sambhar raises an alarm, it is a sure sign that a tiger is nearby and on the move. After we had located the area the call was coming from, we headed in that direction. Suddenly, calls started coming from two directions. The other jeep stayed put while we decided to follow the sound of the alarm call coming from behind a nearby hill. Bijrani range has excellent link roads and that certainly makes getting from one area to another much quicker and hence locating a tiger becomes that much easier. But then again, one can imagine how difficult and challenging it is to locate the big cat. The sambhar’s call suddenly got loud and it was clear that this animal was in distress, and then all was quiet. We were sure the alarm call we had followed ended with the tiger making a kill. We went back to the area from where the initial call of the chital and sambhar had come. This time, the chital which were in the forest, started coming out in the open and suddenly their calls grew louder. Most of them were restless and gazing in a particular direction. Suddenly, Irfan shouted “tiger, tiger” and sure enough – at a distance appeared the majestic Bengal tiger. Walking steadily and gracefully, it was coming in our direction. The feeling and the emotion of seeing one of the 1700 Bengal tigers left in the wild in India was something which is hard to express. The ruler of India’s jungles relaxed under a tree for a few minutes, then proceeded again nonchalantly, possibly towards a watering hole. The contrast of heavy shadows and bright sunlight did pose a challenge from a photography perspective but we were glad to have come across one of the most perfect predators roaming our planet. Upon closer look, we found out that it was a tigress. She marked her territory and continued on her journey. We maintained a safe distance making sure that the tigress didn’t get distressed or annoyed by our presence. We got some great shots along the way. Irfan seemed to be the happiest camper, as he was able to fulfill his promise of showing me a tiger before this trip of mine inside Corbett was over. And so we succeeded in Tracking the Big Cat.