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Field Trip to Bandhavgarh National Park

by Shirish Waghulde
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As our jeep climbed up from the Badi Goofa, a herd of chital, grazing around, scampered across the road. But this time it was not due to the mere disturbance caused by a tourist vehicle. Once across the road, every one of them was gazing intently towards a particular area; some of them started giving the bark-like alarm call and stamping the ground with their front foot. Our presence didn’t seem to matter at all. A lone male, who had not crossed the road, and who appeared to be the leader of the herd, also started to stamp the ground and giving the alarm call. A sure indication of a predator in the vicinity.

Our guide then noticed some movement on the hillock. And sure enough, we spotted a chital lying down with a leopard on top of it, holding the chital by the throat. The chital was still struggling, kicking around every now and then and trying to throw off the big cat. The leopard must have felled it just a few moments ago. After a struggle, which lasted nearly 4-5 minutes, the chital lay still and the leopard let go of its throat and sat erect. All was quiet. The alarm calls had stopped and the other chitals went about their business of grazing. All through, the leopard always managed to stay on the side away from the kicking feet of the chital. Tired from the hunt, it rested a while near the kill and then walked away some 8-0 m or so and sat on a rock, affording us a great view. Though we were watching it for more than 15 minutes, we just didn’t seem to get enough of the leopard. But it was getting near closing time of the park and we had to leave.

And sure enough, we spotted a chital lying down with a leopard on top of it, holding the chital by the throat.

This once-in-a-lifetime sighting was a fantastic bonus during our field trip to the Bandhavgarh National Park.

The Bandhavgarh National Park derives its name from the Bandhavgarh fort situated inside the park. Bandhavgarh means brother’s fort – the fort is supposed to have been a gift by Rama to his brother Laxman while they were returning from Lanka. The fort and the surrounding forests belonged to the erstwhile Maharaja of Rewa. Being their private game reserve, the maharajas ensured adequate protection to the forests and its denizens. The abundance of game can be gauged from the stone plaque in the forest which marks the place where the maharaja had killed his hundredth tiger! After independence the Government of India took over the forests. The park covers an area of nearly 1160 sq. km. and has been declared a Tiger Reserve under Project Tiger.

Bandhavgarh is situated in the Vindhya Hills of the Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh. Tourists are allowed to enter the park only from Tala, a village on the north-eastern boundary of the park. Katni, 92 km from Tala on the Jabalpur–Banaras line, is the convenient railhead, though Umaria, 32 km from Tala on the Katni-Bilaspur line, is the nearest station. Private buses and jeep taxis are available from both Katni and Umaria to reach Tala. Boarding and lodging facilities to suit every budget are available in Tala.

Visitors are allowed inside the park for two hours after sunrise and two hours before sunset. Private jeeps for moving inside the park can be engaged in Tala. Movement on foot inside the park is prohibited. Alternately, one can book the elephants of the forest department. Taking a guide along is also mandatory. The forest personnel scout the park and keep a track of the movement of tigers which is communicated over the wireless network and so the chances of sighting a tiger are quite high.

The park contains hilly regions, undulating forests as well as grasslands thus providing a rich habitat for a variety of flora and fauna. The good forest cover and the predominant sandstone rock soak in rainwater and then release it slowly so that there are as many as four perennial streams in the park and, even at the peak of summer, water can be found in most of the small ponds and waterholes.

The area is rich in mammals as well as birds. During our trips inside the park, we could easily sight herds of chital and sambar, packs of black-faced langur, and sounders of wild boar. We also spotted jackals and foxes and a couple of barking deer and nilgai. Droppings of the sloth bear and hyenas in many areas of the park indicated their presence but we were not lucky enough to see either. Common peafowl, red jungle fowl, blossom-headed parakeet, red-vented bulbul, white-breasted kingfisher, golden-backed woodpecker, green pigeon, jungle babbler, white-backed vulture, Indian roller, and green bee-eater were some of the commonly seen birds. Notable were the crested serpent eagle, stork-billed kingfisher, yellow-fronted pied woodpecker, adjutant stork, and the Malabar pied hornbill.

On the second morning of our stay in the park, a tigress with two cubs was reported to have been sighted in the Chakradhara grassland, just a few kilometers from the main gate and we headed that way. The tigers were in the grasses and we could not see them from the road. Around 7-8 jeeps had already converged at that point and we had to await our turn for getting onto an elephant and go into the grasses to take a close look at the big cats. They were so well camouflaged that an untrained eye would easily overlook their presence there. The elephants moved as close as 8-10 m from the tigers. The tigress was resting and the cubs generally playing around. It was an exciting and exhilarating sight. We were told that the cubs were 8-9 months old. They seemed oblivious to the elephants and their riders.But as word spread, more and more tourists landed up and the tigress decided that it was time to move. The elephants followed them till they crossed the road and moved on towards the hills. Some 8-10 jeeps were waiting on the road to watch them, leaving very little room for the tigers to pass and the cubs seemed a bit alarmed and hesitant to cross the road. Though the probability of sighting a tiger in Bandhavgarh is quite high, it’s always a matter of chance — a minute here or there makes a lot of difference — and our sighting of the leopard and that of another tigress and her two cubs drove home the point very strongly.

The tigress was resting and the cubs generally playing around.

A misunderstanding with the jeep driver actually helped us spot the other tigress with two cubs at Ghodademon. The tigress with her cubs was sighted in the morning in that area. In the evening, we asked our driver to take us to the same area. But somehow he thought that we wanted to go in the opposite direction and took us towards Mehman Pond. On realising the error, we retraced our path and moved towards Ghodademon. It was getting late and we crossed jeeps which were returning from Ghodademon disappointed that the tigers did not come out in the open. We carried on all the same and just as we reached Ghodademon, the tigress decided to make an appearance and moved out of the bushes and crossed over an exposed hillock to disappear into a depression below. We were also lucky to see her two cubs moving around some distance away. The cubs seemed more like fully grown tigers and we were told that they were nearly two years old and might leave their mother’s side soon. If we had directly come there without taking the detour, we might have left with the other jeeps and missed the tigress and her cubs.

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Stretching our luck further, we moved down the road to see if we could sight the tigress again. To our great joy, as we turned a bend, we saw the tigress climbing up from the depression. She came up and casually sat on a rock about 10 m from the road giving us an unobstructed view. There she sat preening herself, ignoring us completely. She did not even bother to turn her head as our driver opened and shut the door of the jeep making quite some noise. But then a sambar gave out an alarm call and instantly the tigress turned her head in that direction. Most probably she wasn’t in search of a prey and apart from generally scanning the area, she did not stir and went back to her preening. We watched her for nearly 15 minutes and then had to reluctantly leave to make it to the main gate in time.

We trekked up the fort one day. The climb begins from Shesh Shaiya —  a stone idol of Vishnu reclining on the serpent Shesh. Due to the heat, the going was slow and it took us nearly an hour to reach the temple at the top of the fort. All along the way to the top of the fort are stone idols of Vishnu in his various incarnations. There are a number of caves with inscriptions and pictures which are said to belong to the Mauryan period. The temple is quite picturesque and is devoted to Ram, Laxman, and Sita.

But then a sambar gave out an alarm call and instantly the tigress turned her head in that direction.

Beside the lake near the temple, there are two small lakes on the fort. These attract a lot of wildlife including tigers. The Raja ka Machaa is a stone seat on one of the outcrops of the fort and one can get a beautiful view of the forests below from this point. The guide claimed that from that point, during winter, tigers can be seen moving around in the forests below. We saw tiger pug marks and droppings on the fort as well. The fort also has a good bird life and we saw half a dozen Malabar Pied hornbills on a single tree. On the cliffs of the fort we could spot a couple of nests of the long-billed vultures with juveniles in it. We spent the day on the fort and climbed down in time for the evening jeep ride.

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This ride too had its share of confusion, but turned out to be the most eventful one when we saw the leopard on the kill. From the fort we drove to Badi Goofa but there the driver turned around and started moving in the direction of Sehra. While on the way to Sehra, some of us got the feeling that it wasn’t such a good idea and that we should go back towards Badi Goofa and beyond and we compelled the driver to turn back. That hunch turned out to be very fruitful and we reached Badi Goofa just in time to watch the leopard throttle the chital.

We had our share of disappointments too when our jeep broke down in the middle of the forest. On the road were tiger pugmarks which seemed quite recent and while the jeep was being repaired, we heard the alarm call of a sambar followed by the roar of a tiger which seemed not too far away. By the time we got the jeep started, it was getting dark and we had to rush back to make it to the main gate before the deadline.

We spent a morning at the Bamera Dam in the Panpatha Sanctuary, about 12 km from Tala. A nature trail is being set up in the area and birdwatching along the trail was quite rewarding; notable sighting being that of the stork-billed kingfisher. Besides spotting a herd of chital, we saw droppings of leopard, bear, and hyena. A long swim in the cool waters of the reservoir was a great pleasure in the scorching heat.

Shirish Waghulde
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1 comment

Sudhir Sharma August 23, 2015 - 9:42 pm

Hi Shirish, I enjoyed your account of the trip to Bandhavgarh National Park. Your party was very lucky to see two tigresses with their cubs, a leopard catching its prey, a chital, and variety of other wild life including all kinds of birds. Though you recount some mild disappointments, I think you had a very successful trip. I wish my trip to the park a few years back was half as successful as yours!! LOL.. The photos of tigress are great and I hope you will show us some more photos of other wild life in you next article. The park is very beautiful with abundant wild life but I hope authorities will pave road leading to the park(the last 8 km, I have seen worse roads than this a few more places in India) to make driving to the park more comfortable, unless that happens I won’t venture to go back there again!

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