The journey from Khajuraho to Bandhavgarh was intermittent with quickly fleeting village scenery. The last leg of the journey was probably the worst part of the ride. We had dust flying everywhere and the driver struggled to chug his vehicle over the unfinished road. As with most parks in India, a village resides in close proximity of the main park entrance and even inside the marked zones of the park. The skirmish between man and tiger is inevitable.
Bandhavgarh National Park boasts of the highest density of tigers. And technically speaking that would make it practically impossible to not spot a tiger here. Probably, that’s why we chose to explore this park as opposed to Kanha and Pench. We had planned three safaris – over a period of three days – covering three main zones. Two safaris in the morning and one in the evening. It seemed to be a perfect, fool proof plan to spot one of the most magnificent beasts on this planet. Our excitement was palpable.
Day 1 : Zone 3- Khitauli ; Time: 15:00 – 17:30
By the time we reached Bandhavgarh it was shortly before 3 pm. We had little time to settle in our guest house as we had a safari scheduled for 3 pm. Now, here’s the deal with the forest, no matter how many times you visit it, it looks different every time. I won’t kid you. We were crazy excited. We could see a tiger today. If not we had two more days. Our safari car was open and that was a little scary. It’s hard to predict animal behaviour, although, the rules are pretty simple. Our forest officer guide (without a gun) explained to us that the tigers of Bandhavgarh aren’t particularly aggressive and tend to avoid humans. We saw some forest personnel working bare armed along the dirt tracks. Ah! We spotted some tiger poop. Unlike the common house cat, there it was in plain sight, on the middle of the road, almost as if to say, “I don’t care if you find me!”. From there onwards began a chase. To find the animal who seeded ownership to that poop. Never mind, if we scared everything in the process; who knows even the beast who had terrible potty manners. Babblers flew past (they seemed to be everywhere), we managed to stop for spotted deer, hog deer, and langurs. Somewhere in the forest, we heard a sound. We waited for a while to see if that turned out to be a tiger. Other safari vehicals passed by with reports of no sightings. We headed a little further and decided to return to the main gate. We were a tad disappointed, but there were two more days ahead of us.
Day 2: Zone 2- Maghdi Zone ; Time: 06:00 – 10:20
The alarm rang at 4:00 am. It was time to get dressed and head for our early morning safari. In the forest the temperature dips considerably and when your driver thinks he’s Schumacher; you hoped you brought along more woolies. So the previous day, we had’t seen the elusive beast. As we waited for our turn in the park, the line of vehicles waited patiently. We began with some small talk with our guide. Since tigers are nocturnal, the best time is to see them before 9:00 am. That would mean that all cars would scurry to see anything striped. We saw a paw print, a big pug mark. They said it could be a male tiger. But later on thought it was female. Thus, began our chase. We circled the route and went through a longer part of the forest – away from the other Jeeps. This part of the forest was ethereal. It had hair pin curves and blind turns with lunging valleys and roller coaster bumps. I didn’t want to see a tiger here. Add to it, the story of a forest ranger being attacked by a startled tiger at one of the blind curves. After our wild goose chase we joined the other cars and heard that one of them had seen a tail. We decided to slow down. We didn’t want to miss the beauty of being in the forest. We stopped to appreciate the first rays of sunlight through the trees. The forest is always alive with sounds and it’s hard to escape the feeling of being watched. After 9:00 am we knew we had missed our chance. We had a small break for breakfast. We saw forest elephants and parakeets and an eagle perched on tree tops. Our guide was disappointed, almost as if his judgement had failed us. But, we were happy, to explore the true forest as one might call it. We saw a similar number of birds and deer as the previous day. The rest of the day was spent resting in our forest lodge and shopping in the village market for souvenirs.
Day 3: Zone 1 – Tala ; Time: 06:00 – 10:20
Today, was our last chance at spotting the tiger. But we were pretty clear, we didn’t want to hurry to see it and miss out on the other things in the forest. This zone was different from the other zones. It was the original forest and had some amazing trees. We saw the Indian Bison (Gaur) and Nilgai deer. The forest was eerily silent and dense. Up ahead the forest opened into vast grasslands. Deer and langurs shared a symbiotic relationship. Each warning the other of a predator. In the distance, we could see the Bandhavgarh hill. Incidentally, the park gets its name from this fort, believed to have been given by Lord Ram to his brother Lakshman. We heard alarm calls. In the dead silence of the afternoon, the alarm calls seemed deafeningly loud. Everything seemed still, except for the few grazing deer who eventually scampered to safety. We waited and watched and secretly hoped for a National Geographic moment. It was fantastic. The experience of seeing it all. But, luckily for the deer and sadly for us, the moment had passed. We had to get back before the end time of our safari. On our way out we saw rhesus monkeys cross the dirt road and a sign that said it all.
Final Observations: Contradictory to our dismal sighting, the tiger conservation programme has proved to be a huge success in Bandhavgarh. We did ask our guides for the reason for our poor sightings. Few years back, tiger conservationists appealed to the courts to permit only pre-designated routes of the park for tourists. So, although the density of tigers is high, the animals would quite naturally prefer to stick to the tranquil paths – that aren’t frequented by humans. In fact, the success of the programme has resulted in some tigers injuring one another over territory. In hindsight, it’s probably better to visit in the hotter months (the heat might be excruciating) as the cats come out to drink water. The tiger conservation programme and the livelihood of the local village guides depend on tourists. That’s why, it’s all the more important to appreciate the forest for what it is, what it holds, rather than making it about spotting the tiger.