My first Safari for the year 2016 was to India for more encounters with the largest big cat in the wild on planet Earth, the Tiger.  The National Park I visited most during the last 15 years in search of this magnificent cat was the Ranthambhore National Park (RNP) in the state of Rajasthan.

Before, we went to Ranthambhore, Lilani and I spent 4 nights in Bandhavgarh in the state of Madhya Pradesh from 21st January. My visit to Bandhavgarh National Park (BNP) was after 14 years and I was pleased to note many changes at this park towards better management of the tiger reserve. The park has been divided into 3 zones and there is a limit to the number of vehicles entering each zone. The idea is to protect the fauna and flora of the forest. It gives more freedom to the animals and the visitors too have the opportunity of observing wild life without disturbance. Unfortunately, no such steps have been taken at Sri Lankan National Parks, resulting in large numbers of vehicles entering popular parks, especially the Yala National Park, where there is a real risk of serious damage to the delicate eco system due to heavy vehicular traffic.

Tiger sightings at BNP were not to my expectations on this visit. We had two sightings, one a male and the other a female on two separate occasions. But, we had a good view of a Sloth Bear and a Wild Cat. On the 25th evening we took an overnight train from Katni to Sawai Madhopur, the nearest train station to Ranthambhore NP.

Since 2002, I have been a frequent visitor to RNP to photograph the icon of RNP, the tigress Machali, and her three generations of her offspring.  Hence, my main interest during the current visit to the park was T19 (Krishna – daughter from the third litter of Machali) and her second litter of three 2 year old grown up cubs; two females and a male.

I planned eight game drives for this visit, the first of which was on the 26th afternoon. Visitors are allowed only to a section of the park and it is divided into 5 zones. My favorite area is zone 3 since it covers the territory where T19 and the cubs usually live. But, we were not able to locate or even find any signs of the family in the zone. Later, we drove towards the adjoining zone 2 of the park. This was a good decision. We came across 2 of the cubs, the male and a female. Although the cubs were not fully grown, they were now able to manage and live without the mother.

After a while, the female moved towards zone 3. In the meantime, suddenly the male cub ran towards a nearby rocky hill and disappeared from our sight. A guide from another vehicle called out that there was a leopard up a tree. This was about 100 meters away in the direction where the male tiger moved. We realized that the tiger had seen the leopard and had run to confront it while the leopard had climbed the tree to avoid the stronger adversary. The leopard was on the tree even at the time we came out from the park after sunset, and possibly the tiger was under the tree even though we could not see it.

I had taken some good shots of the two tigers as well as the leopard up the tree. After studying the photos of the two tigers, I noticed that this pair was always together in the past as well while the other female was with the mother or stayed alone. During my previous visit  to the park in June last year, I had photographed  the two females in a fight which was a sign that one  was  pushing the other out of the territory. It is a known fact that no two grown up females share a territory.

Following morning and afternoon safaris were not successful. This is not unusual since tigers are generally not seen every day. But on the 27th morning, while we were on our way out of Zone 4 of RNP, unexpectedly we heard an alarm call of a spotted deer. What excitement when a tiger appeared in front of our jeep from the bushes on the side of the road! We had to reverse our jeep since the tiger was walking towards us on the road. It was the female tiger from the second litter of  T19 that stayed alone. Apparently, the tigress had moved away from its mother’s territory. During the afternoon safari, the same cat was seen at the Malik Talao (meaning “lake”) and her eyes were focused on prey that came to the lake for water. Generally, it would take 3 to 4 years from birth for a tiger to be an experienced hunter.

During the late afternoon, we had a sighting of the other female in zone 3 at the Rajbagh Lake when she ran to catch a samber deer, but without success. According to the forest guard who accompanied us, this female tiger is very active for her age since there were occasions when she  hunted successfully two times a day. Apparently she has also chased her sister from zone 3.  In the future, she may chase her mother too from the current territory. Due to her hyper active behaviour, the park officials have named her the Aero-Head of RNP, drawing an analogy to a function of a jet engine.

On the 28th morning, we were the first to enter zone 3 of the park and our driver and the forest guard noticed the pug marks of a female tiger. We followed the pug marks all the way towards uphill boundary of zone 3, when we spotted the female tiger we were tracking but she quickly moved in to the woods and disappeared from sight. Subsequently, our  driver  spotted pug marks of a young male. For our luck, the tiger came out of the woods and I was busy with my camera for a few minutes. According to the forest guard, this particular male is only 18 months old and its mother T30 had died a few weeks back due to natural causes. If not, the cub would have stayed with the mother for at least two years. Thereafter, we drove towards Lahpur valley expecting to see the male cub of T30 again, but instead we came across the Aero-Head of RNP. We followed the tigress for at least 30 minutes before turning back to zone 3.

It was a rare opportunity to take pictures of Aero-Head with the background of Lahpur Valley and the images that I took were good to be enlarged for a wall-hung picture. I could recall the last time I visited Lahpur Valley in 2012 when I sighted T19 together with her first litter of three cubs that were then living in the Lahpur Valley, while T17, the sister of T19 that disappeared from the RNP in 2013, was in control of the zone 3 at that time.

During the afternoon safari, once again we saw Aero-Head back in her territory of Zone 3 at the Rajbagh Lake. Incredibly, she had travelled almost 5 kilometers since the morning sighting.

On the 29th, after the morning safari we went by road to Delhi and returned to Sri Lanka the evening of the following day. I plan to visit RNP in May/June this year to see the progress of the T19 family, especially the Aero-Head. .

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