In the tiger country 

Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd) on Bandhavgarh Game Reserve, which has the highest
density of tigers in the wilderness in India 

IN May 1951 an unknown forest-patch in Central India became the focus of attention of zoologists and wildlife enthusiasts, the world over. The reason behind this frenzy was quite special. The Maharaja of Rewa, hunting in the Bandhavgarh Shikargah (Game Reserve), noticed a sub-adult tiger with pale-brown stripes, over an off-white pelt and icy-blue eyes!

With such a thick density, a visitor has to be really unlucky not to encounter a tiger in Bandhavgar
With such a thick density, a visitor has to be really unlucky not to encounter a tiger in Bandhavgar

Changeable hawk eagle goes through a cycle of
Changeable hawk eagle goes through a cycle of
change in plumage colours from brown to almost
white once a year
Photos by the writer

The hunt was called off; instead, all resources were diverted to capture the freak tiger alive. And a few days hence the world would learn of the first captive white Royal Bengal Tiger, christened Mohan.

In due course in its third pairing in 1958, Mohan sired a litter of four cubs of which three were a spitting image of their father. Today, no one remembers Mohan at Bandhavgarh even as several progeny of his bloodline (all bread in captivity) are star-exhibits in many prestigious zoos the world over. In India Nandan Kanan zoological park, Bhubaneshwar, has the single largest congregation of white tigers.

Now 60 years later, Bandhavgarh has again staked its claim to fame for having the highest density of tigers in the wilderness . That means with such a thick density, a visitor has to be unlucky not to encounter a tiger there. In any case no visitor need to be disappointed, should he simply heed the tigerís greeting at the entry gate: "Dear friend, my sighting in the wild is a matter of chance. Single-minded quest may disappoint you... I request you to enjoy this park in its total wilderness." That was precisely our philosophy too.

In tiger land in India, the chital, sambar and kaakar (barking deer) constitute the basic food of the tiger. Of these the chital are comparatively prolific breeders, with dainty looks and having high visibility. We found most stags "in velvet" that is, their antlers encased in skin with velvet texture. Once the antler-rack attains its peak growth, the velvet peels off. And that coincides with their mating time when the stags use their antlers to win partners. This annual cycle of shedding and re-growth of antlers among the deer species is a fascinating natural phenomenon.

The sambar, the largest of our deer species, has a more regal appearance. Unlike the chital, he has a stout neck, carries the antlers upright and keeps his course in the jungle regardless of bamboo and bush in a magnificent display of muscle power. And he alone in the deer species loves a mud-wallow bath. We watched one stag close to 30 minutes, who was again and again turning on his back deep into the muddy paste of the wallow, and then kicking his legs straight up into the air for a good scrub!

Surprisingly we also spotted several lesser adjutant storks because the bird, which is on the Red-data list, was way outside its "home", the Brahamaputra Valley in Assam and the Nepalís terrai region. The grass meadows, though not expansive, hold a good deal of wild boar, some sounders going up to thirteen.

It was intriguing to find three sloth bear digging for and sucking termites (their favourite delicacy) unmindful of our close proximity and that of the grunting boars.

We heard a langoorís alarm call, the bark of chital and then a sambar "belled", and a Rehsus Macquac (red-bottomed money) "coughed" followed by the "cackle" of a peacock. Much as we tried, the tiger could not be spotted.

Just then, a bird flew past and perched on a saal tree, 20 paces away. It was a changeable hawk eagle in the wild, complete with his kingly plume. The bird goes through a cycle of change in plumage colurs from brown to almost white once a year.

Wherever there was shade and moisture, there was ample presence of butterflies; flitting and mud-pudding. Another remarkable feature was a large stand of saal trees, which was almost completely, over-run by gigantic lianas. Most of these woody-climbers had entwined five to six strands into a composite rope, weaving attractive geometric shapes on the ground and aerial ropeways above, from tree to tree. The squirrels used them as elevated racetracks and the monkeys used them to swing in the air like the trapeze performers. But they dare not leap to the next lest a misjudgement may land them into the open jaws of a leopard below.

The general landscape was dotted with the red blossoms of the simal and the flame of the forest trees. But the striking exception was provided by the blossoms of a solitary yellow simal, a rare species (the only tree in the entire park).

Of course two tigers were also sighted. But there were many more who simply posted a farewell message, at the exit gate of the park, to the effect: "Sorry if you could not spot me. But I saw you. Come again."