Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Collar Wali

The past few days have been miserable. While I was in Nagpur collecting my Tadoba group, the weather changed and the park's tigers all but disappeared. The week before I had been seeing tigers at least on every other drive, but suddenly there was nothing to see. One of my two Tadoba jeeps saw one tiger, briefly, once in six drives. The other saw no tiger. The week before it had been hard not to see a tiger. To make things worse, the jeep which saw the tiger promptly saw a remarkable leopard. The tigerless jeep, needless to say, did not.

In these situations my clients, kindly to a woman and man, either pretend they are not utterly crestfallen (those who have seen nothing) or feel guilty (the luckier ones) and work hard not to appear smug. As little control as my fantastic Indian colleagues and I have over the behaviour of wild tigers, we ourselves feel responsible and low. The situation makes for a difficult tour.

So it was with a leaden heart that I arrived in Pench to meet the four new members of our group arriving for the main tour. I'll let you into a little secret (in the hope that no-one from Naturetrek is reading this). I have seen tigers all over the north, northeast and centre of India. I have seen many tigers and have seen them doing most things it is possible to see tigers doing. However, in seven previous visits to Pench, I have never seen a tiger here. My past clients have seen very good tigers here, from other jeeps, but I have seen none. You can understand why today I was not over-brimming with confidence for the unlucky Tadoba jeep and the four newcomers.

This morning there were chital, langurs, rhesus macaques, peafowl and nilgai. There always are. There were plentiful chestnut-shouldered petronias and rufous treepies, there were greater racquet-tailed drongos and there were golden jackals. Then there was news of a tiger crossing a road. There was an alarm call from a sambar. I've heard it all so many times before in Pench. The tiger disappears into the rocky hills or into dense lantana. And it is never seen again.

We had breakfast, to the sound of plum-headed parakeets and white-naped woodpeckers. As we drove on, we met a jeep which had seen the tiger. It had moved again. So we sped to the spot and met half-a-dozen jeeps. The front jeep on the road was my unlucky jeep - the people whose experience of Tadoba had been so difficult - and casually wandering along the road in front of them was a tiger. I was with the four newcomers so, in a stroke, all twelve of my clients had seen a tiger!

I thought at first, by the tiger's size and gait from the rear, that it was a male. It soon became clear however that it was lacking in relevant anatomy. A female? But so heavy? So ponderous? She turned to one side, showing her handsome face and revealing herself to be a stately matron; and that she was radio-collared. I thought from her sagging belly and her swollen teats that she had recently given birth. Anil, our park guide, put me right: she is very soon expecting a litter, surely the last in the life of this veteran tiger of thirteen years.

She walked ahead of us for some fifteen minutes, with more jeeps, including my lucky jeep from Tadoba, gathering in her train. Finally she walked left from the road, setting rhesus and chital shrieking in alarm, and, as every Pench tiger I've ever sought has done before, she disappeared into the lantana and the rocky ground.

Now though my whole group has seen a tiger and my one-hundred percent client-tiger success rate is maintained. I have seen a Pench tiger too, after seven years of trying. All thanks to the grande dame of Pench, a tigress whose name is Collar Wali, the collared one.

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   3
jungle cat Felis chaus                               1
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                          6
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                2

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