Catching glimpse of tiger largely matter of luck. With preparation and planning you can only improve chances of seeing the apex predator. I had done my preparation and planning two months in advance for my visit to Tadoba in February 2020. Honestly Tadoba is not place where you will not see a tiger unless your luck is not favoring you. My first safari of 2020 in Tadoba core from Moharli had gone dry. Dry means no tiger sighting. However I was expecting this since I was not receiving any updates of regular sighting from core areas. The regular tigers in tourism area had went off the radar 10 days before my visit for reasons unknown to humans. It seemed all my planning had failed but then that is what makes wildlife safaris interesting. It makes one realize, that we have no control over nature.
But let me tell you, I am eternal optimist. I was hoping to recover my tiger count in my second safari. With lot of hopes we started morning along perimeter of Teliya lake in Moharli range. The lake mesmerized me. As temperature increased the mist rising upwards from lake surface enveloped the entire lake. It had a poetic feel difficult to describe.
Half way along edge of lake, we heard roar from deep inside the bushes. “It is too far” my guide said. So we left spot after waiting for few minutes and headed to check other popular places in Moharli and Tadoba range. FYI, the park is divided in three ranges – Moharli, Tadoba and Kolsa. I had started from Moharli range and explored Tadoba range as well. Time just flied by. Before I could know I had covered both connected ranges, Moharli and Tadoba, with no tiger luck. We were on our way back from second safari since our permitted time was getting over. It was dry spell, no tigers and we were running late. I could not believe two safari’s no great luck with predator.
On our way back, we noticed gypsy and canter waiting on side of safari road. Too many vehciles at one place could mean some action is happening or expected. We can expect some action here finally, I said to myself. Tiger I supposed. When inquired the gypsy driver told us that a leopard cub wanting to cross the road has back tracked when he saw the gypsy coming. He was hiding behind a termite mount in bamboo thickets. He was well camouflaged and out of sight. It was same place where I had seen leopard kill kept on tree. Same place. I was sure it was the resident female and her cub.
Leopard cub alone! My heart was racing. This was bigger bonus than tiger. I had many thoughts running. Knowing the shyness of leopards I thought to myself, cub might never come out. But then I said to myself “If its cub, it can’t be alone his mumma must be around”. He tried to cross earlier to go to his mumma. His mumma was surely on other side of road. If that’s case I knew he will make a dash for it. Unlike tigers, leopards don’t give a road show. Sighting can get over even before you blink your eyes. It was going to be challenge shooting leopard cub who is running. I knew he will come out as soon as silence falls. Driver parked our vehicle in such a way that if he comes out I should be able to get clear shot.
Question was from where will the cub come out? How do I shoot him? How much time will I get?
I anticipated that the cub will cross the road at curve which was lowest point that leads to small nullah on left. So I started getting my camera ready. I placed my bean bag and camera on section of gypsy connecting B pillars and started to pre-visualize the shot. I kept my 100-400 lens to 400mm to get the close up of cub. However I realized if I zoomed in to shoot moving leopard, my probability to get him in frame would be reduced due to leopards agility and speed. Moreover at 400mm, any blur would get magnified and spoil the entire image. The fact I had not seen where the cub was hiding made the matter complicated. I was dependent on information given by other gypsy guy. I knew it was cub and that was tempting enough to zoom in but I knew I could lose the entire shot. So I decided not to zoom and instead try to get cub with habitat – The greens, the tar road (typical of Tadoba) and the gypsy. My guide whispered, “Sir I saw him, Can you see it? I will tell you when he makes a move towards road. Keep camera ready. He is crouched on ground in athlete’s position and he is accessing the vehicles on road, he will come out and run” My guide tried to show me the cub but I couldn’t see it. I said to my guide, “Never mind, I will frame him on road”
I could hear my heart beats thundering as the excitement was at it’s zenith. In past, this excitement has caused problems while framing moving animals. The problem is blur images. I am always thrilled and excited to see predators on move. And just like all of us when excited, my heart beats faster which results in heavy breathing. These heavy breaths can cause micro-shakes resulting in blurred images. So I was telling myself to calm down. While I was calming myself, my guide exclaimed, “Sir be ready to shoot, the cub is moving”!
Guide said “Sir, shoot! he is moving out” and my camera went berserk when I saw him in my view finder and it was over! If you have heard how how machine guns fire, that is exactly what happens with my camera at 7 frames per second. The sighting was over just like that. Sighting that lasted maybe a 1 second! Out of 7 to 8 shots I could capture, one of them is worth posting here.
It was over within a second. The wild spirit presence was felt by each one of us who was present. We all were excited and hoping to see it. We all took risk of holding on for another minute in hope to see it. It is here the lesson from wild-spirit was to be read. The little cub taught us to be hopeful, even if your plans fail and hold on just a bit longer to enjoy the results of your patience. After all we can never know what surprises are in store for us.