The Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve located in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra, India is Maharashtra’s oldest and largest national park. The Reserve is home to around 65-70 tigers today spread across the forest area of 625 Sq. Kms. Apart from the Bengal Tiger, the reserve is also home to other mammals such as leopards, sloth bears, gaur, nilgai, dhole, striped hyena, small Indian civet, jungle cats, sambar, barking deer and chital. The core area of the reserve is divided into 3 zones – Tadoba Zone (via Kolara & Navegaon gates), Moharli Zone (via Moharli & Khutwanda Gates) and Kolsa Zone (via Zari & Pangadi gates). Apart from these core zones, the buffer zones can be accessed through 6 entry gates – Alizanza, Devada Adegaon, Agarzari, Junona, Kolara Buffer and Ramdegi Buffer.
Since the past few years, tourism has been on a peak in Tadoba due to the high possibilities of spotting a tiger in its natural environment. Being a wildlife enthusiast myself, I had been waiting for a long time to visit Tadoba to see the beautiful forest and the wildlife it houses. I got the opportunity this year through a photography tour organized by Bharath – Shreyas Photography. It was early in March that I happened to get in contact with Bharath. I had initially reached out to him to check if he could arrange for a safari tour to another beautiful forest in Karnataka – Kabini. During our conversations, I got to know that they would be arranging a photography tour to Tadoba in early June and without a second thought, I requested Bharath to add my name as part of the tour and with all formalities done, eagerly awaited for the tour to start.
The First Safari – A dream safari!
The tour started probably at the right time for me. I had just quit from my job a couple of days prior and the tour was probably the best break I could get before joining a new company. We set out for the tour on the morning of June 1st with a flight to Nagpur. Tadoba is roughly 150 Kms. / 3 hrs. from Nagpur. Transportation was already arranged for the tour participants from Nagpur to Tadoba. After having breakfast enroute, we reached Tadoba by around noon and the first thing that immediately struck us was the intense and sweltering summer heat. Staying in Bangalore, where the temperature hovers around 33 to 35 degrees Celsius, the 46 degree temperature in Nagpur seemed very intense and sickening. Our accommodation was arranged in the MTDC resort close to Moharli gate. Probably the first thing everyone did on reaching the resort was to gulp down some buttermilk to provide some respite from the heat.
Post lunch we had a quick introduction with the members of the tour. I must say that I was a bit surprised here as I was anticipating only the younger generation to be part of the tour. Instead, the tour had a good mix of both senior citizens and youngsters. On this tour, we were about 16 members and were split up into groups of 4 each for the safari.
The first safari started off to the Moharli Zone through the Moharli Gate which was located just about 1 km from our resort. The gates for noon safari open at 3.00 PM and as can be expected, there was already quite a bit of safari jeeps lined up at the gate. Post the ID verification, we entered the gate and our experience in the forest truly began. The first popular territory we came across was Telia, home to the resident female tigress Sonam. Sonam, along with her sisters from the same litter – Mona, Geeta and Lara – had been featured in the Discovery Channel documentary “Tiger Sisters of Telia”. The four sisters were the offspring of the power couple of Tadoba – Madhuri who now lives in the Agarzari buffer zone and Scarface (also called Waghdoh), one of the largest male tigers found in the wild and who now lives in the Devada-Adegaon buffer zone. Among the four sisters, Sonam was the most aggressive and dominant one. She has now chased away her three sisters and mother from Telia. While the mother has shifted to the buffer area, the three sisters have marked Mudholi, Junona and Devada-Adegaon as their individual territories.
As we reached one of the waterholes where Sonam is frequently spotted, we were presently surprised to see both a prey and predator drinking water there – Sambhar, the largest amongst the deer family and Dholes or the wild dogs. This scene rekindles the fact that unlike humans, the animals do not kill for sport but only when they are hungry. With the presence of these two species at the waterhole, Sonam for sure would not be around and so we proceeded further to the territory of Choti Tara. Choti Tara owns the Jamunbodi and Khatoda grasslands territory of Moharli Zone and is the first radio-collared tigress in Tadoba. We reached the lake in Jamunbodi around 3.30 and saw quite a bit of jeeps already crowded there. Choti Tara apparently resting in the shade of a tree near the lake. With some difficulty we could spot only a part of her perfectly camouflaged in the shade. We had to now wait it out for her to come out to the lake for a drink. Since it was extremely hot at 47 degrees Celsius, she wouldn’t come out till the temperature dropped down. It was an extremely torturous wait in the heat for next hour during which one of our friends in neighboring jeep almost had a heat stroke. As the clock neared 5 PM, the heat rather seemed to disappear all of a sudden as the tigress decided to break out and have a dip in the water. She walked ever so graciously to the lake, had few sips of the water, had a look around of her surroundings and then sat down in the lake to cool off her body from the heat. She gave us a fantastic sighting of around 15-20 mins before heading back to the shade of the tree. Seeing her, all the people sure would have forgotten the extreme heat we had been through.
Satisfied with seeing her, we proceeded further to try and spot the most famous tigress of Tadoba – Maya and her cubs in the Panderpauni area of the Moharli Zone. Maya is one of the most loved and photographed tigress in Tadoba and forest department has built statues of her and her cubs at the entrance near Moharli gate. As we reached Panderpauni, we saw some work being done by the forest officials near the waterhole which meant Maya or her cubs wouldn’t be around. Even as we moved on with disappointment, it all disappeared within the next few mins. Hardly a km from the waterhole, we were privileged to see the handsome male tiger – Matkasur. I have seen the wild cats in other forests but they all had been females and the sheer size of the male tiger Matkasur left me speechless for few mins. He chose to cross the road right in front of us, climb over a small mound of hard mud and walk graciously beside our safari jeep hardly 10 ft. away. Just a lunge and he could have easily reached our jeep. I can possibly say that it was a sighting of a lifetime, for it is not common that you get to experience one of the largest male tigers walk so close to us in the wild.
We had a fantastic photoshoot of the tiger. It was close to 5.30 PM by now and we were nearing the safari end time, so we headed back to the exit gate. However, we were in for more excitement. Just as we reached near the Telia waterhole, Sonam walked in full glory right across the road posing for the stunned people in the safari jeeps. She walked across the road taking a moment or two to look around for the jeeps before disappearing briefly into the shrubs. A few minutes later she returned, albeit this time with her 4 young cubs and led them back across the road to the cover of the shrubs on the other side of the road from where she had emerged first. She was probably taking her cubs to the Telia Lake nearby or to feed them on a kill.
Soon she disappeared along with her cubs, and we headed back to the exit gate to end our safari. It was a fantastic safari with a sighting of 7 tigers! – Something one can only dream of on a single safari.
The second safari – the queen herself!
Our second safari was to the buffer zone of Agarzari. Even though this is a buffer zone, it is quite popular amongst wildlife enthusiasts because it is home to Madhuri one of the most popular tigress of Tadoba and mother to Sonam and her sisters. Madhuri is also quite popular because of the fact that she has given birth to 20 offspring thus far in the wild and stands third on this count after Collarwali from Pench Tiger Reserve and the legendary tigress Machhli from Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. After being driven out by her own daughter Sonam in Telia, Madhuri now has made the most of the Agarzari zone as her territory. The farther end of the zone, the territory is owned by Sharmili and her cubs.
On entering the zone, the guide told us that Sharmili and her cubs had moved to edges of the zone and would be difficult to spot but we were in with a good chance of spotting Madhuri and her latest litter. With anticipation thus we started scouting for her sight. We were first greeted by huge herd of Gaur, a group of about 30-40 maybe. After photographing them for some time, we proceeded further and soon enough in a narrow road passage, covered on both sides by thick shrub, we saw 3-4 other jeeps stationed and on enquiring they pointed us to a certain spot in the undergrowth. On straining our eyes a bit, we could see the beautifully camouflaged Madhuri resting. After a few minutes, she let out a small growl which we realized was a call to her cubs. Certainly enough within the next 2-3 minutes, one by one, the four young cubs sprinted across the narrow path over to the place where their mother had called from. Our guide felt that this was an opportune moment to see Madhuri. Having secured a safe spot in the shrubs, she would head out possibly to make a kill or to drink water from nearby waterholes. The guides from other safari jeeps felt so too and everyone headed out in different directions. About 30 minutes later, about a km from the main entrance gate, we reached a wide path where Madhuri broke her cover and came out to full view of the audience. With her age and experience, she was possibly used to hogging the limelight of the safari jeeps. She marked her territory as she walked, spraying her urine on the trees, proudly glancing at the safari jeeps and continued her walk right next to us for the next 30-40 mins.
Then came a moment which left me very disappointed. The tigress seemed to be wanting to cross the road, however the safari jeeps hardly made way for her. This was disappointing to see, because no matter whether we get a good sighting or not, a good photograph or not, the forest is tiger’s home and one should respect that by giving them the space to freely wander. The jeeps in front of us were not moving as the people wanted to get good headshot photographs of the tigress. They finally moved after people from the other jeeps started scolding them. Once they moved, the tigress crossed the road happily and a few minutes later disappeared in the thick cover of the shrubs. We wouldn’t see her for the rest of the time on the safari and after exploring the other routes in the zone, we headed back to the gate to end our safari.
The third and fourth safaris – near dry safaris
After the Agarzari buffer zone safari in the morning, we were back to Moharli Zone for our third safari and with high anticipation of sighting tigress Maya and her cubs. She was very likely to visit the lake in Panderpauni. However, as we reached near the lake, we saw a no entry board. The forest department had put up that board so that they could clear a fallen tree on the road. Ruing our missed chance, we had no option other than try sighting Matkasur or Choti Tara again. Surprising though for almost the entire safari, the forest was extremely quiet, there were no alarm calls or any slightest indication of a movement of a big cat. We spent the safari exploring almost each and every area under the zone but to no avail. There was absolutely no wild animal to be seen apart from a small herd of gaur. Disappointed, we headed to Telia where we hoped to see Sonam and her cubs again. Luckily, her presence was confirmed by the 10-15 jeeps that were there. We could see her and her 4 cubs in a distant waterhole. There was no way however, that we could get closer, so we had to be satisfied in seeing them from a fairly far off spot. They were quite far off to even photograph with a fairly large 600mm telephoto lens. After a fairly satisfied time at the spot, we headed back to exit gates to end our safari.
The next day, we were to have our 4th and final safari of our tour in the Agarzari buffer zone. Nothing much to write about on this safari as we had our first dry safari of the tour with no sighting of the big cats or any other large mammal. We spotted few good birds though and with just a forest drive through for 3 hours, we returned back to the resort to pack up and head back home. Overall, it was a hugely successful photography tour with a sighting of 12 tigers and 4 wild dogs, large herd of gaurs apart from the regular herds of Sambhar and spotted deer. I would surely thank Bharath – Shreyas Photography for arranging this fantastic tour and am sure will go on many more tours with them.