India 6-14th March 2019

April 27, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

I had long wanted to see a tiger in the wild. My wife and I made several attempts to see them whilst living in Nepal, but unfortunately none of them were successful (for tigers at least). In fact, it doesn't require too much research before you realise that, nowadays, the only real chance to see one is by going to India. India therefore rapidly climbed to the top of my bucket list and I decided I would go there during my end of term holidays in March.

I decided that independent travel probably wasn't going to work for this trip, mainly due to the permit system in operation in India's tiger reserves. Word is that the permits often sell out within hours of becoming available, and go up for sale long before their date. During my initial planning I emailed several tour operators and got some (fairly eye-watering) quotes for the trip. In the end, I went with a company called Nature Safari India (naturesafariindia.com). They were helpful, communicative, and the price - though still high by my standards - was more reasonable than the others. If you go on a tiger safari in India it seems you have to be prepared to stump up a fair amount of cash, particularly if you are a solo traveller like I was.

I flew to New Delhi via Singapore and spent a night in the city. I didn't see much of New Delhi as I stayed in a hotel in the airport area. The bit that I saw was very modern and very different from the other parts of India that I visited. The next day I took an internal flight to Jabalpur before transferring overland to Bandhavgarh national park where I stayed at 'Tiger's Den'. It is a wonderful lodge with attentive staff and superb food. My guide and driver Sanjay was friendly and a great spotter of wildlife.

Bandhavgarh national park has one of (if not the) highest densities of tigers in India, so it is considered a good place to see them. It definitely did not disappoint, and in the 5 safaris I did I saw a total of 7 different individuals! Here are a few photos of them:

Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)

Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)

One of the challenges that I encountered with taking photos on this trip was the difficulty/inability to get at eye-level with the animals, which is one of the best ways to make a wildlife photograph compelling. You are (quite sensibly) forbidden from dismounting the jeeps within the parks so all photos are taken from 2-3m above ground. Sometimes the animals are on an incline so it's ok, but often they are not. The tiger in the first photo was actually in a ditch so I had no choice but to 'shoot' downhill.

The second major challenge was (and I hesitate to say it but)...other people! Bandhavgarh was truly swarming with jeeps. Apparently it was particularly bad when I was there because one of the zones was closed (apparently due to a herd of wild elephants). This meant that all the 'traffic' from that zone was forced into the others, increasing the density of jeeps in each zone. Wherever there was a tiger...there were literally dozens of other jeeps, with everyone jostling for the best spot. I'd be lying if I said it didn't detract from the experience...but I suppose I contributed to it as much as everyone else...

(Note - Kanha was much more civilised so maybe it's just Bandhavgarh).

Other mammal life in Bandhavgarh included many chital / spotted deer (Axis axis):

Chital (Axis axis)Chital (Axis axis)

Chital (Axis axis) and black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus)Chital (Axis axis) and black drongo (Dicrurus macrocercus)

Chital (Axis axis)Chital (Axis axis)

There was the occasional sambar (Rusa unicolor) - the males were particularly impressive but always in deep and dark forest cover:

Sambar (Rusa unicolor) - adult female and juvenilesSambar (Rusa unicolor) - adult female and juveniles

Sambar (Rusa unicolor) - maleSambar (Rusa unicolor) - male - a very high ISO image!

I also saw a few nilgai / blue bull antelope (Boselaphus tragocamelus) in Bandhavgarh. Like the sambar, the males are particularly large and impressive. This is a young male - adult males have much darker fur and are more stocky:

Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus)Nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus)

I saw a few Indian muntjac / barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak)- generally a very shy species that's difficult to get close to:

Indian muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak)Indian muntjac (Muntiacus muntjak)

An unexpected but very pleasant encounter was a very distant sighting of an Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), lying in a tree:

Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca)Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca)

Throughout the national park were northern plains gray langurs (Semnopithecus entellus) which tended to hang around in quite large groups:

Northern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus)Northern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus)

Bird life in Bandhavgarh was plentiful. These jungle babblers (Argya striata) kept us company wherever we were:

Jungle babbler (Argya striata)Jungle babbler (Argya striata)

I also saw many of these cute little green bee-eaters (Merops orientalis) throughout my trip:

Green bee-eater (Merops orientalis)Green bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

Red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) were often sighted, though they are very shy and were a challenge to photograph. This species is the ancestor of the domestic chicken:

Red junglefowl (Gallus gallus)Red junglefowl (Gallus gallus)

Whilst staking out a possible tiger location one day, we were pleased to see quite a large family of these cute jungle bush-quails (Perdicula asiatica) appear from out of the grass where they had been completely hidden:

Jungle bush quail (Perdicula asiatica)Jungle bush quail (Perdicula asiatica)

The most frequently sighted birds of prey (I hate the word 'common' - nothing is 'common' in the modern world!) were crested serpent eagles (Spilornis cheela) like this one, surveying its kingdom:

Crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela)Crested serpent eagle (Spilornis cheela)

After Bandhavgarh I transferred to Kanha national park, also in the state of Madhya Pradesh but about 4 hours away by road. In Kanha I stayed at 'Chitvan Jungle Lodge' where, just like at Tiger's Den, I was well-fed and looked after. My guide (also called Sanjay) was brilliant - dedicated, knowledgable and good at spotting wildlife.

Though the ecology of Kanha is similar to Bandhavgarh, the look of the terrain and the way in which it is managed is completely different. It is much more open, with sweeping grasslands and, from my experience, a rather more laid-back approach to tiger sightings. Bandhavgarh was a bit tiger-crazy!

Kanha was, however, still excellent for tiger sightings. I saw 3 individuals in my 6 safaris there. Though I saw fewer than at Bandhavgarh, the sightings were much more intimate - for example this one (note I didn't have time to change lenses and my main lens, being a prime lens, does not zoom out!):

Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)

We had another very close encounter for which I was, again, unprepared! I didn't get a shot of this one until it had settled down for a nice cool bath though:

Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris)

I had seen golden jackals (Canis aureus) at Bandhavgarh but at Kanha I had some wonderfully close encounters with these beautiful wild canids:

Golden jackal (Canis aureus)Golden jackal (Canis aureus)

Golden jackal (Canis aureus)Golden jackal (Canis aureus)

Like Bandhavgarh (and much of the Indian subcontinent) the most frequently encountered species of deer in Kanha was the chital / spotted deer (Axis axis) (with bonus cattle egrets Bubulcus ibis):

Chital (Axis axis)Chital (Axis axis)

There were Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa) throughout both parks as well. The first photo shows a lone male and the second shows an them 'hanging out' with a chital and a jackal!:

Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa)Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa)

Chital (Axis axis), Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa) and golden jackal (Canis aureus)Chital (Axis axis), Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa) and golden jackal (Canis aureus)

Kanha is particularly famous as the stronghold of the hard-ground barasingha / southern swamp deer (Rucervus duvaucelli branderi), an impressive subspecies of swamp deer that we saw numerous times in the grasslands:

Hard ground barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii  branderi)Hard ground barasingha (Rucervus duvaucelii branderi)

Kanha also has a small population of blackbuck antelope (Antilope cervicapra), though we only saw one male and one female from a long distance away (the photos are heavily cropped):

Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) - maleBlackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) - male

Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) - femaleBlackbuck (Antilope cervicapra) - female

One of the most impressive species that I saw in both national parks was the gaur / Indian bison (Bos gaurus). These animals are the largest extant bovine and they are built like tanks!:

Gaur (Bos gaurus)Gaur (Bos gaurus)

The birdlife in Kanha was as good, if not better, than at Bandhavgarh. I saw most of the species already mentioned and a few more, including this red-naped ibis (Pseudibis papillosa), braving (and possibly feeding on) a large swarm of bees:

Red-naped ibis (Pseudibis papillosa)Red-naped ibis (Pseudibis papillosa)

We encountered at least half a dozen shikra (Accipiter badius), a pretty little bird of prey. Only this one stayed still long enough for a photo - its red iris suggests that it is a male:

Shikra (Accipiter badius)Shikra (Accipiter badius)

Sleeping peacefully in a tree at one point was a pair of Indian scops owls (Otus bakkamoena):

Indian scops owl (Otus bakkamoena)Indian scops owl (Otus bakkamoena)

Sleeping peacefully in a different tree was a pair of spotted owlets (Athena brama), a species that we are familiar with from Nepal - a pair used to sit outside our house, calling at night!:

Spotted owlet (Athene brama)Spotted owlet (Athene brama)

There were a few little cormorants (Microcarbo niger), sat near bodies of water, such as this one:

Little cormorant (Microcarbo niger)Little cormorant (Microcarbo niger)

Last but certainly not least, there were Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus, peacocks to most people!) throughout both national parks. These conspicuous birds are pretty hard to miss! I was delighted that on my last day in Kanha a male was displaying close enough to the track that I could get a photo. An amazing spectacle:

Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus)Indian peafowl (Pavo cristatus)

After departing from Kanha I then transferred to Raipur airport and flew to New Delhi to spend another night near the airport. The next day I flew onwards to Sri Lanka to meet up with my family and start the second part of my trip - report on that trip to come!

So that about rounds up my trip to India, an amazing place and I'll definitely be back some day. The only significant sighting that I've not mentioned is that of two sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) which I saw on my last day in Bandhavgarh. Unfortunately, it was way too dark and the only photo that I managed is so dreadfully blurry and noisy that there is no point in posting! Still - it was great to get face-to-face with Baloo!

Cheers!

Robin.


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