On a morning from a Bogart movie,
In a country where they turn back time.
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre,
Contemplating a crime.
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running,
Like a watercolor in the rain.
Don’t bother asking for explanations,
She’ll just tell you that she came.
She doesn’t give you time for questions,
As she locks up your eyes in hers.
And you follow ’till your sense of which direction,
While she looks at you so cooly,
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea.
She comes in incense and patchouli,
So you take her, to find what’s waiting inside.
In the year of the cat.
(Adapted from Al Stewarts’ Year of the Cat)
When we had planned for a trip to Gir for the Christmas break in 2014, it never really occurred to me that I would, during the next 365 days, see (and photograph) three of the big cats. My love for photography and wildlife has been a recent one, all of 36 months in the making. And it has, so far, been the birds for me. Something about the unfettered freedom that flight connotes still fascinates me – like it does any little kid.
My dalliance with photography as a hobby did actually begin with my daughter and I chasing a Purple Sunbird around the resort we were staying in Jaisalmer a couple of years back. Since then, it seems to have grown into a serious hobby very focussed on birds. Serious, if you consider that I spent 36 days travelling (either on my own or with family) during 2015 to places with birding & photography high on the agenda. Ok, I did sign up for a Bandhavgarh tour – but the main draw for me was the birds I could add to my list and the experience of a full-day safari. Hobby because it is nowhere near helping put food on the table – and I don’t think that it ever will.
I am unable to recollect when and why we decided on Gir for the family vacation last year. Maybe it was because we could swing by one of the sites of the Harappan civilisation at Lothal. Or that we could do a trip to Sarnath. Or maybe it was just to see the Panthera leo persica in its only home in India. Whatever the reason was the die was cast and we were lucky to get some great sightings on that trip – 23 in all over 7 safaris.
Early in July last year I decided to sign up for a 3-day dawn-to-dusk tour of Bandhavgarh – drawn by the fact that a 12-hour no zone-resticted safari could mean lots of opportunities for birding in a part of the country that I had never really explored. And a month later, while we were planning our annual year-end trip, my wife was smitten by the Jawai Leopard Camp – that and the chance to spot a leopard and we were sold.
Having now seen 3 of the big cats over the last 12 months, I am taking a stab at comparing these experiences. This is a personal view based on the trips that I have made and may not really reflect what you may feel or have experienced on your journeys.
The trip to Gir is memorable for several reasons. I am not really sure if the Asiatic Lion makes the top 3 though. Don’t get me wrong, the Asiatic Lion is a magnificent animal. Majestic for sure, but there is a languid air around the beast. Centuries of coexistence with humans have made the Gir Lion blasé with all the human activity around them and they casually stroll across the park completely oblivious to everything around them. Spotting them was extremely easy and they were usually lazing around in the sun which meant that one is guaranteed some great photo-ops and a lot of time with the animal. Maybe, that was a statement made in hind-sight but the only time we were worried was the first 75-80 minutes on our first safari when there was hardly any activity in the forest – keep in mind that it was an early 6:30am start and things do start happening only when the sun makes its presence felt.
The experience with the tigers at Bandhavgarh last November was on a different plane. We spent a good part of the first 3 hours of the first day just seeing a lot of pug-marks, swapping intelligence with other vehicles and hoping that someone stumbles across a tiger. Much harder work and a lot of driving around. Finally, about 9 hours after we entered the forest, we got lucky. And how. Two separate 15-minute sightings, just when we had just lost all hope of a sighting, injected a huge dose of life into all of us in the vehicle. Day 2 was more of the same – a lot of hard work on tracking, listening to alarm-calls, being patient and driving around a lot – and we were rewarded with a 15 minute sighting of a 3rd individual. Day 3 began with an early morning sighting, quite some distance away though, of a male tiger in the Rajbehra grasslands and nothing much else for the rest of the day. Over 36 hours of safari I was lucky to have clocked a massive 52 minutes of sightings. To put that in context, about 4-5 people in our group of about 18 didn’t see the tiger during the 3-day tour. The experience of the sighting was on a completely different level as well. The tiger is an extremely active cat and is constantly on the move. Getting a tiger sitting down or having sufficient time to gather ones wits after the first sight to get good and sharp photographs doesn’t really happen all the time. And while the Lion is a majestic beast, the panther tigris has a ‘don’t you dare mess with me’ attitude.
We just got back from our trip to Jawai where we were lucky to spot 3 different individuals over 4 safaris. Maybe it is the recency of it all or maybe I am just plain prejudiced. Spotting a leopard in the surreal, rocky topography of Jawai is very challenging. The cat blends in with the background and even after the guide point one out to you it takes some doing just to see them. To add to the difficulty, they are extremely stealthy creatures and are known to prefer hunting at night. Which makes the first hour after day-break and the hour before dusk the most crucial and productive. They are also known to sense the presence of humans and steer clear of any contact. In summary, the sightings are at a distance and in extremely low light conditions which makes photography tough. Maybe, in places like Kabini, where they prefer climbing up trees and resting during the day, the experience could be different. Easier, I reckon not.
From my limited personal experience, I would rate seeing the panthera pardus right on top. Somewhere between nirvana and my first sight of the falcon (peregrine, red-necked or laggar doesn’t really matter).