Leopards of wild are ghosts to me. I have been going to jungle regularly for last 5 years and haven’t seen one. Leopards are stealthy and super shy hence very elusive. Earlier I have written blogs on how I missed them by whiskers. How I felt their presence but could never see them. I felt I was jinxed. Trust me it is disappointing. But wild spirits kept calling me back and my recent trip to Tadoba tiger reserve, finally broke the jinx.
I was in Tadoba for 4 safaris during last few days of May 2019. Temperature were soaring at 47 to 48 degrees. Such high temperature meant threat of getting sun stroke. However the temptation to see the legendary tigress Maya and cubs was much more rewarding experience. I was also expecting turf war between Matkasur and his cub for territory. With so much chaos and water drying out, probability of sighting them was extremely high.
Three first timers had tagged along with me for this expedition. With receding water levels and beginners along I knew this trip would be etched in my memory for lifetime because first timers always bring luck of tiger sighting. But this time I got more than what I had bargained for.
I had planned 4 core zone safaris. In our first safari we saw huge crocodile on banks of Tadoba lake. Little ahead we saw Maya’s cub resting along banks of lake, while Maya along with other cub was resting in water at other end of lake. What a sight it was!! The deer’s played mating game along the banks while sambars peacocks and wild boars grazed merrily in presence of tigers. She along with cub were just siting in water. The deer walked past them from few feet and no action no charge. I was shocked to see the laziness! Maya was least interested due to heat I assume.
During second safari we reached place called Panchdhara. Langur were continuously giving alarm calls. But undergrowth at Panchdhara was so thick nothing could be seen what is inside. Weather was dull, overcast and sultry. Heat was unbearable. After waiting for almost 35-40 mins we decided to head towards forest colony.Forest colony is located on small hill lock. Forest colony was once place for forest employees to stay. It once had a forest guest house and museum too. I have walked freely in this colony decades ago. With coming of NTCA regulations, it now lies abandoned and used only as resting place by patrolling team of forest department. On western edge of forest colony is Tadoba lake and on eastern side are shallow ravine called Panchdhara. This place on eastern side is perennial source of water and frequented by all animals alike. Water availability also means this place has dense thickets with green canopy.
We moved few hundred metres up the hill towards forest colony. The tadoba lake was gleaming in all it’s glory. As soon as we reached the forest colony my guide spotted movement at other end of lake. Maya was swimming with her cubs on other side of lake and was heading towards forest colony. I was super excited, I was going to see her with cubs head on. But my excitment soon crashed. The three tigers climbed the hill to forest colony but instead of walking towards us decided to get into Panchdhara and disappeared. We could see slight movement of cubs noting great to press the camera shutter. By now all gypsy were parked along the road from Panchdhara to Tadoba lake. We were one of them. Every guide and driver was trying to get to sweetest spot for their guest to see Maya and cubs. We went bit away from chaos to get undisturbed shot.
As we were waiting for Maya and cubs, I suddenly saw the leopard climbing a tree. It was right there! It ran for life fearing Maya and cubs. In two leaps it was on top of tree 50 to 60 feet above ground. It was standing on branch and looking at them. I informed my guests that the langur calls we heard earlier was for this leopard who sitting in thickets of Panchdhara. My jinx was finally broke. It was my first wild leopard sighting in wild. I was on cloud number 9. My joy knew no bound. My guests were thrilled too. They too couldn’t believe their luck. We were all enjoying chaos.
As usual, I messed up my first few shots. My hands were shaking out of excitement. My angle wasn’t great for leopard shot because we were setup for Maya. Moreover the leopard was very far for my 400 mm lens and shot had too many distractions. I couldn’t decide whom to shoot – Maya and cubs on ground or the leopard on tree. My guide suggested we go for Maya and cubs as leopard wouldn’t move in presence of Maya. I heeded his advise. I got great shots of Maya and cubs.
Once done, we moved back to leopard sight cause I didn’t have memorable shot. By now all vehicles were behind Maya and cubs. When we reached the spot only one professional photographer was clicking leopard. My nerves had calmed down and heart beats normalised. So was the leopard. Leopard was now sitting peacefully on branch and looking at all chaos. I got some of my most memorable shots of ghost, leopard of Panchdhara.
I felt I was blessed by Taru lord once again. More so because the reigning spirit of Tadoba, Maya decided to do cat walk in every safari along shores of Tadoba lake. Maya lived to her name as show stopper of Tadoba but for me it was leopard who made the trip memorable.
I’m truly blessed by spirits of wild!