FLYING SOUTH OVER THE DECCAN, fields grew smaller, areas of deciduous woodland more frequent with the odd rocky outcrop here and there. Once at Jabalpur our Innovas made short work of the road transfer to our first destination, Bandhavgarh, except for the last stretch of the road into the park, which is now getting resurfaced (surprising as we were previously told that it was neglected deliberately to discourage speeding in the park’s buffer zone). For the next four days we stuck to a routine of an early morning jeep safari in the 437 sq km national park, lasting until lunchtime followed by a break and then another safari in the afternoon until dusk. Although travelling around the park in jeeps still feels a little like the ‘whacky races’, Bandhavgarh maintains a reputation of being one of the most reliable reserves to produce a tiger sighting and that is pretty much what everyone is here for.
We could have done with more luck here, with all but one of our jeeps scoring a mediocre tiger sighting, although the first time one sets eyes on one of the most beautiful creatures on the planet is always a special moment whatever the quality of the view! Our luck was still ahead of our birding friends with one encounter from 12 jeep safaris but significantly behind one chap and his partner who breezed in to our resort and scored three sightings totalling six tigers on his first outing!!! Again we had some rain at Bandhavgarh, in fact it hammered down, with thunder and lightning one night. The cool wet weather hampered our tiger prospects as they tend to stay under bamboo cover in such conditions. Well at least the air was cleared of dust for a while and was nice for photos. We had hedged our bets between the picturesque Tala zone and the bamboo thickets of the adjacent Maghdi zone for our jeep safaris this time and whilst we were pleased to find that tiger activity was good in Maghdi we heard there had been around 10 tiger encounters in Tala since October, gulp! We still enjoyed the delightful forests and meadows below Tala’s 2000 years old fort and a couple of us even got off the mark here quickly with a rare sighting of an animal, which had apparently ‘tree-ed’ a Leopard, however, Tala was mostly otherwise quiet, except for its usual interesting bird residents such as Red-headed and Indian Vultures, Brown Fish Owl, Stork-billed Kingfisher and Orange-headed Ground Thrush. Malabar Hornbill was again obliging for some on our first drive but there was no Sloth Bear or Leopard for us this time.
One of our jeeps also got off the mark with a tiger that strayed briefly into one of the peacock lekking grounds just before closing time but a few of us would have to wait until Kanha this time. It is worth remembering that although tiger reserves are mostly far from wilderness experiences their inhabitants are now a little more difficult to see now following the cessation of elephant-back ‘tiger shows’. This restriction is also likely to further impact on tiger tourism as a generation of tigers grows up more wary, without the habituation of almost ever-present tourists around them. Foreign visitor numbers were apparently 60% down at Bandhavgarh this year, although probably mostly as a result of the new 120 day booking limit for jeep safaris so the park was pleasantly quieter than I have ever seen it before.
Something that is on the up at Bandhavgarh is Gaur (or Indian Bison). Following their reintroduction in 2012 they appear to be flourishing and we are now seeing these photogenic large animals without unsightly collars, as well as the original collared stock. They are a most welcome addition to Bandhavgarh’s attractions. Other wildlife photographed included: Lesser Adjutant Stork; Red Junglefowl, Wild Boar, Indian Muntjac (or Barking Deer) and Sambar as well as the ubiquitous Spotted Deer and Northern Plains (or Hanuman) Grey Langur monkeys. However, as always, Bandhavgarh was mostly about tiger anticipation.