Royal Bengal Tigers in Raw Nature
Life in the Land of the Tiger
The Formative Years of 4 Tigresses
Debashish Dutta, a Natural History Photographer, has been featured extensively on mainstream national media like CEO India, Asian Age, DNA, Indian Express Indulge and Fever 104 FM Radio.
Join Debashish here at joanmatsuitravelwriter.com every month as he shares his extraordinary photographs and stories from his travels. Follow his journey as he continues his quest to shine a light on Royal Bengal Tigers and other animals.
A good photograph speaks a thousand words and has the power to awaken the latent love for nature innate in every human being.Debashish Dutta
The forest was quiet. And it was dusty. Fine red dust formed a thin layer all over my vehicle, equipment bag and face. At almost 50°Celsius, it was incredibly hot, and the sun was beating down the soil mercilessly. The ground in return was reflecting back the heat in equal measure. Years of scanning forests during the peak of summers had taught me many lessons. Hence, I had the upper part of the body well covered by fine white cotton “dupatta” – a sort of Stole ladies use as an accessory in India. The garment exposed just my face to ensure my eyes were ready to catch any movement anywhere around me. That tactic is a key jungle craft developed over time.
When you think the forest is calm and the denizens have retired to cooler areas – caves, thickets, undergrowth, burrows, and watering holes, you might be surprised. If you’re alert, you might catch a sudden movement of an animal. Sipping water supplemented with essential salts helps to avoid dehydration. In the meantime, my driver and I rolled along towards a water hole we knew was frequented by a family of Royal Bengal Tigers. I, too, felt at home even though the forest was a veritable oven.
Such is the hold of nature and wilderness on those who are blessed by its magnanimity. Where else can a soul find such bliss, peace and the company of those who live life so meaningfully?
My eyes scanned the forest for the “Telia Sisters” who were growing up around the Telia lake region of the Mohurli Zone of Tadoba. The area is an extraordinary gift of nature to humans who, regrettably, are hell-bent on destroying every region of solitude on the only planet we call home. The intelligence I had was credible because the folks from the BBC were in the forest as well to film the formative years of the girls. Tracking wild animals, especially the very elusive big cats in the dense forests of India, is a game of patience that’s quite often under trying circumstances. I learnt this from the time I was a kid pouring over every book written by Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson. Those books are timeless classics that are a treasure trove of lessons on animal behaviour and jungle craft. No classroom can teach them.
In my own ways; I have always tried applying them when I am in the jungle. And after 12 years of meandering across forests of India and of late Africa; some degree of jungle tuning has been achieved. Another key lesson being – drive slowly. Thus, the emissions of a series of low growls and scratching sounds did not miss my alert ears. The Mohurli range of Tadoba is dotted with Bamboo forests – thickets of Bamboo interspersed with bits and pieces of open areas. In some of these open patches; the forest department had dug large holes that would be replenished with water regularly to help the jungle dwellers quench their thirst. Such a coping strategy is employed during years with relatively low rainfall.
If you go to Tadoba today; those water holes would not be visible as they were abandoned after heavy rainfall over the last few years. The jungle took charge quickly and covered them up with wild finery. But back in May 2013; the man-made watering holes were an absolute must. Extreme heat and low rainfall meant the jungle’s own stock of water was running dry. Slowing down the vehicle even further; the four eyes at our disposal peered at the Bamboo thicket earnestly. The low growls were at times replaced by snarls and I could gauge that they were not all coming from the same area. It was evident that the family was in the bamboo thickets to my left and lounging around liberally. They had no space constraint and it also seemed probable that the sisters were trying to play around a bit as well.
Knowing this was where we had to stay put; my driver aligned the vehicle along the edge of the forest fire line in a manner that would enable me to get the right shot. It was still morning when unexpectedly, a slight breeze wafted towards us from the Telia lakeside, thereby bringing to our not so capable noses that unique smell of raw meat in the jungle. Shortly, the sound of the crunching of bones followed. My eyes popped out as I now knew that the sisters had a kill inside the Bamboo thicket and all those growls and snarls resulted from the feeding frenzy. Per eyewitnesses; the girls were very much with their mother, Madhuri, at this stage of their lives. That discovery prompted me to assess the animal I guessed was slain to feed such a big family. It was quite possibly the Indian Gaur – also called the Indian Bison, the largest extant bovine native to South and Southeast Asia and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List since 1986. Had we been herbivores; we would have known the presence of a dead animal a long time ago.
We were parallel to the water hole that lay next to the bamboo thicket at a distance of about 30 feet sheltering the Tiger family. A straight line drawn perpendicular to the water hole would have reached us in about 18 feet. This description is intended to give you a mental picture of the distances between the three parties involved – the Tigers, the water hole, and me. It was now a game of waiting and watching. The presence of the Telia Sisters – Sonam, Lara, Geeta, and Mona, along with their mother Madhuri, was likely going by the number of growls and snarls we heard. The question was when and if at all they would step out of the thicket? They were daughters of the legendary and massive Tadoba male Tiger called Wagdoh. Although the time was around 8:30 a.m.; the sun was blazing away and the light already harsh. Those days I was armed with the still very capable Nikon D600 and the ever-reliable and effective Nikkor 200mm-400mm/F4/VRII.
In my assessment and per my experience; Tigers cannot do without a cool pool in peak summers. I was certain they would not resist the inviting water hole that had been replenished sometime earlier in the day. The fresh tire marks of a heavy vehicle were evident. My driver, on the other hand, decided to snooze. He knew this would be a long vigil while I kept peering at the water hole and the thickets surrounding the banks. The magnificence of the Royal Bengal Tiger has held the humankind in its sway since eternity. Deplorably, that fascination has led to the murder of a massive number of this magnificent beast. As a result, today we are grappling with the real danger of losing it forever. As I rested my chin on my DSLR that was sitting snug on a fat and stable bean bag; I wondered what the girls must be doing inside the thicket and why they weren’t stepping out. They led me to believe they had fallen asleep after a hearty meal and might not step out after all. I whispered my concern to my trusted driver who said we could not afford to desert this spot. And how right he was!
His belief reinforced my will to stay put and the experience I was rewarded with will stay etched in my memories forever. The jungle was still. The early morning bird songs were over. There was an eerie calm all around when clear rustling sounds – caused by the movement of heavy bodies – came from the undergrowth directly opposite me. Thickly padded feet were landing on dry leaves and twigs causing them to crackle. The Tigers were on the move. The signs were obvious. And then came the moment – two heads broke through the Bamboo thicket on the left bank of the water hole. And they looked straight at me. The adolescent girls were tentative and curious. Albeit gingerly; one girl headed for the water hole while the other for the other bank and straight into the Bamboo thicket.
Finding a Tiger in the wilderness is difficult and here I was in the company of two! Soon enough more Tigers emerged – from the left and the right. They added up to five. My mouth was a gaping hole! It was a scene like I had never encountered. Five Tigresses in one frame! That I was overwhelmed would be a gross understatement. Each Tigress noticed my presence – the miserable human. No one else was in the vicinity. I was greeted with glares, snarls, and growls but I felt no fear for unlike humans; animals have no malice and mean no harm to us unless we breach their circle of fear which compels them to respond in self – defense.
In time, the ladies settled down for a day out in the pool in big-cat style. What an incredible show nature was putting up for me and I couldn’t have been thankful enough! The girls were free and empowered souls. They were indulging in fun and frolic without a care compelling me to compare their society to ours where women are always concerned about their safety. How ironic! A forest and its dwellers present a perfect example of disciplined and harmonious living. No one crosses the line nature has established. For three hours I watched Madhuri and her daughters enjoy their pool party – a perfect girl’s day out and shot over 2,000 frames capturing their many moods and moments. And they allowed me to enjoy their company as they didn’t take long to notice my complete love and admiration for them. The girls were so playful – splashing and spraying water on each other, gamboling and jumping around under the watchful eye of their mother.
They were too young then to have any inkling that both their home and their ilk were struggling to retain their rightful place on this planet. And there I was with a mind that was convincing me to wonder how long humans would allow such Gardens of Eden to survive! That is a fear I live with every day. Over the last 6 years; Sonam and Lara have grown into dominant Tigresses while not much is known about Geeta and Mona. I am back in Tadoba later this month with tracking Geeta and Mona being a key objective. Come to Tadoba for a tête-à-tête with Royal Bengal Tigers in raw nature. Hope this story provides the inspiration.
Debashish Dutta was also a senior banker with 20 years of core corporate experience across global banks like HSBC, ABN AMRO, Royal Bank of Scotland, Credit Suisse and State Street Bank & Trust Company.
Debashish is putting a whole new thrust on conservation and promoting visuals straight from the jungles. Voices combine together to form a movement and that is what Debashish is striving to achieve through his photography and a brand-new conservation project called Return to the Jungles. It is a two-pronged strategy – stir peoples’ hearts with evocative wildlife photographs and then leverage those emotions to motivate people to work for afforestation at individual levels.
Recognized by both BBC Earth and Nikon Asia; Debashish shoots extensively in the jungles of India and Africa. He has multiple exhibitions to his credit and is focusing on awakening and nurturing a love for nature, wilderness, and wildlife amongst school children as he believes that a significant onus of conservation is now on GenNext. His beautiful Natural History Photography portfolios are presented on his website www.fromdawntodusk.in. His premium wood-framed photographs are retailed under the brand name From Dawn to Dusk.
Royal Bengal Tigers are one of the many species of animals Debashish has photographed and you’ll be charmed by his stories and photographs in the coming months.
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