When it comes to the Sri Lankan New Year holidays in April, while most of the nationals, especially the ones in Colombo visit Nuwaraelliya for their vacation; I visited Ranthambore National Park (RNP) in the State of Rajasthan in India together with my wife. We have been doing this for the last 12 years regularly; on some occasions twice a year.
However, this April, a few friends and relations joined us on our six -day safari to see the world’s largest cat- none other the tiger. As planned on the 11th early morning at around 5 am, we arrived in Sawai Madhopur, the closest city to RNP from Delhi by train. It was a fifteen-minute drive from the station to the Tiger Den Resort, a kilometer to the entrance of the park. Since the park opens at 6am, on arrival at the lodge, we hurriedly checked in and were ready by 6.15am for the morning Safari. Since only six tourists are allowed per jeep, we had to hire two jeeps.
Morning safari was focused on the T17, three cubs which I did not see during my last visit. Hence we visited Zone 5, where the cubs had been sighted regularly. It was during the month of April last year that the park authorities found that the T17 was missing. She is one of the three daughters of the fourth litter of Machali (the famous tigress of RNP); and the other two, T18 (moved to Sariska NP) while the T19 had occupied the territory of Machali, the zone three. I was the first to notice the disappearance of T17 although her three cubs, now two years old, survived. My jeep driver and the naturalist tried their best to locate the cubs, but there was no success. In the afternoon safari T19 was sighted just outside the entrance of the Zone 5 at around 6pm. It was the first time for Hiranthi, Priyantha Talwatte and his family to sight and photograph a tiger in wild.
On the 12th morning we decided to visit zone 3 since T19 had given birth to four cubs in March this year and apparently the cubs were living in the land surrounded by the Raj bagh lake in Zone 3. There was no access to this land for tourists. This was her second litter while the first had three cubs, two males and one female in 2011. I had photographed them when the cubs were almost one year and, subsequently when they were two years old. It was around 8.45am that we had the luck to sight T19 that came down the hill from the boarder of zone3/4, later she crossed the road in front of us into the Island where her cubs were kept. My intention was to somehow see the cubs during my stay in Ranthambhore. However, in the afternoon safari, we decided to try once again our luck on the T17 cubs in zone 5. Although we entered the park at 3pm, it was around 5pm we sighted one of the cubs, a male, near a stream in the zone 5 where the cubs are usually sighted. Later, we had a glimpse of the other male in the same area.
The Following morning, while others went on safari, I went to see the Director of the park, but in the afternoon I went again to the zone 5. During this safari we managed to sight the two male tigers but not the female. The female appears to be shy and not often sighted. The two tigers we sighted were in excellent condition as per the photograph taken by me. It was the first time, I photographed the cubs of T17 since during the last two trips in December 2012 and April 2013, I failed to see them.
The rest of the days we planned to concentrate on the Zone three for the cubs of T19. On the 14th afternoon, we had a sighting of a male lying inside the covered grass in the Raj bagh lake and it was identified as the male of the T19’s first litter. Possibly to the guard his newborn cousins! Later it was aiming at catching a spotted dear that came to drink water, but when the deer sighted the tiger they ran for their life. Later the male came out of the grass bushes and rested on the ground facing the lake. Most of the tourists had the chance of taking good pictures.
On the 15th morning, we were quite early to enter the zone 3 of the park; It was around 730 am, when we sighted a tiger resting inside the old building on the island of the Raj bagh lake. That is the usual place where the tigers rest when they are in the Raj bagh island. Although it was too far to take a clear image of the tiger, I found from the images I had taken that the tiger was the male tiger known as the “Star Male”(T28) since it had marking on it face that resembled a star. This also confirms that it is the father of the cubs.
After the morning drive, I organized a chanting ceremony at the Ganesh temple, located adjacent to the park facing zone 3 entrance for the blessing of the tigress, Machali, who is now almost 18 years old, currently living in Zone 5.
During the afternoon drive, We sighted once again the male tiger of the T19’s previous litter at the same location that was sighted the previous day, on the back of the old building in the island, lying on grass. Suddenly, we noticed a tiger crossing water on the other side at the far end and we rushed there. It was the father of the cubs. It crossed from the Raj bagh island to the small island adjoining the mainland. It looked like there were 7 tigers including the cubs in the Raj bagh island. Subsequently, T28 went back to the main Island while T19 greeted him in water at the usual entrance to the island. She came out from water and went back to the grass bushes.what a surprise? We saw the movement of the tiny little cubs playing on the island but covered by the tall grass while the mother was lying down. Later, the four cubs came out from the bushes to drink water from the lake.
It was a thrilling and exciting sight to watch the cubs playing with the mother. This was the first time I sighted such tiny cubs of a tiger that was similar in size to a grown up domestic cat. I used my Nikon D4 body together with Nikon 400mm, 2.8, with a 1.4 converter to take the pictures. My original plan was to go to Jaipur on the following morning after the morning safari, but with the sighting of the cubs, I extended the stay for further two nights at the Tiger Den Lodge.
On the 16th morning, Lilani and I went to the park while the rest went to Delhi to take the flight back to Colombo. The cubs were at the same location where we sighted them on the previous evening. The mother was feeding the cubs. Later, she walked all the way from the Raj bagh lake to Padam lake(closer to the gate-3) while keeping the cubs in the island. She killed a samber deer inside the bushes at the Padam lake and it was her third kill for the week. When we came back in the afternoon, she had brought her cubs to the same location from Raj bagh lake. It’s quite a long walk for the cubs. Hope all were safe. We waited at the stream closer to the bushes where the mother and the cubs were hiding with the carcass of the samber deer, but taking pictures were impossible.
It was on the 17th morning that the mother came to the stream from the bushes, drank water and rested in water while the cubs came subsequently to greet the mother. We sighted only three cubs, but the other was missing. This was confirmed when the mother went back to Raj bagh lake during our afternoon safari in search of the missing cub, but it returned empty handed. On the following morning, my last safari for the tour was not that promising. No sighting of cubs, only the father of the cubs, T28 sighted at the same area where its family was sighted previous day. Hope the missing cub is safe?
In conclusion, T19 can be called the “Queen of Ranthambhore”, a proud mother of seven; Three from her first litter and four from her second litter.
I have launched a coffee table book titled “Odyssey into the Wild” on the 8th of May 2014 based on my fifty years of wildlife photography including my expeditions to the North and South poles. A Photo Exhibition will be held at the Colombo Art Gallery from 29th May to 1st June from 10am to 6pm. The book as well as the photographs displayed will be sold at the exhibition. All proceeds from the sale of book and photos will be utilized for the construction of the New Operating Theatre complex at the Homagama Base Hospital. The book is priced at Rs7800/- and pictures (30inx 20in) priced starting from Rs5000/-. All are welcome.