By the time I made my way to Tadoba for my first wildlife trip of the year, I had heard so much about Maya that I half expected her to pull a ‘meet and greet’ at the Nagpur airport, name placard in hand. Ever since she had given birth to three cubs before the last monsoon, Maya had earned cult status in and for Tadoba. And wildlife enthusiasts from all over the country had started making regular trips to this forest in the heart of India. I myself had a love-hate relationship with Maya, beginning from the time she turned mother and went into hiding with the newborns; longing for a glimpse but making sour grapes-y statements when she refused to show up. Through those six safaris around the end of the rains last year, I saw close to nothing in terms of wildlife in the Tadoba jungles. The worst was this photographer friend from Pune who dropped by every month to see how the kids were doing.
And living as we are in the age of ‘If it is not on Facebook, it did not happen’, I had the dubious pleasure of liking his ‘tiger mommy with cubs’ photographs regularly. To add insult to injury, there were the regular forest updates from Ranjit Mandal, the ever-optimistic manager at Svasara Jungle Lodge, where I had stayed on that maiden Tadoba trip. Ah well, this time around, I know things are going to be different. The kids are nearly eight months old now, big enough to play in the open but not old enough to wander around without their mother. And so I head to Tadoba with dreams of seeing the entire family together (sans dad, of course, who did his bit and went back into the shrubbery many moons ago). We reach Svasara for a late breakfast, having flown out of Bangalore at an ungodly hour. Things are a bit subdued there, the staff mourning the loss of their brilliant naturalist Chirag Roy to snakebite just a few days ago. Although I had not met Chirag on my earlier visit, I have heard guests speak highly of his knowledge and love for the forest, and can understand why he is so deeply missed.
But there are guests to attend to, safaris to prepare for and excursions to be arranged. So, Ranjit and his colleague Nandita manage to welcome us with their customary smiles and warm hugs. “Iss baar toh dhamaal hoga,” says Ranjit, promising me a memorable experience. And surely enough, guests who had gone out on the morning safari start trooping in, brimming with stories; experiences are compared, and photographs passed around. The spa at Svasara is still work-in-progress, and it is too hot to swim, so I curl up with a book and a tall glass of nimbu pani at the common lounge. I can barely wait for the afternoon safari to begin; our Pune friend has also turned up for the weekend with his son. Immediately after lunch, we all pile into the jeep towards Kolara Gate, chatting about the hottest feline stars of the season. Kolara Gate is practically next to the resort and we are there in a couple of minutes, way before the gates open for the evening. Maya is the name on everyone’s lips here, just as it was back at Svasara.
In a forest filled with macho males, with impressive names like Matkasur and Gabbar, I have to admire the way Maya has quietly acquired celebrity status. I begin to think of her as the Nirupa Roy of tigers, that peerless epitome of Indian motherhood. Oh yes indeed, according to this signboard near the Kolara gate: ‘MamtaKiChhaya, TadobaKi MaycC. “Is she going to stand in the local elections this summer?” I ask the driver, as he guffaws and gets off the jeep to relay the joke to the other drivers and forest guards. As we scour the jungle in search of wildlife—any wildlife, it soon becomes clear that the animals have retired into the shade. The forest is absolutely still, brown and stark, with not even the customary herd of chital in sight. Nothing, but for a large family of langurs on a tree, going about their, well, monkey business.
The young ones have just learned that it is great fun to swing mid-air, holding on to an adult’s tail, and they don’t intend to stop anytime soon. While it is an amusing spectacle, it is nowhere close to the wildlife encounter I have been hoping for. Well, at least the 10-year-old in our midst is entertained. When we return, Ranjit and Nandita are waiting for us at the entrance to the lodge; one look at my face and they know better than to ask me about the safari. I am a bit miffed at myself for turning into a tiger-chaser, ignoring the birds and the sambar that had begun to appear towards the end.
Sabhi Maya (everything is an illusion), I mutter under my breath, as I head for the cuppa that soothes. And I stay listless through the evening, even during a wildlife documentary screening at the new Teakhouse Pavilion. This gazebo, designed after the garden pavilions of the erstwhile Maratha kings, occupies pride of place in the middle of the property, and also serves as an outdoor bonfire and dinner space. The TadobaAndhari Tiger Reserve (TATR, commonly referred to as just Tadoba) was established as a National Park in 1995. With a core area of 625 square kilometres, it’s a part of Project Tiger. Over the last decade or so, there has been a rising interest in Tadoba because of its easy access via Nagpur and almost guaranteed tiger sightings, with the latest figure (May 2016) standing at 136 in the core and buffer zones combined.
The forest here is of the typical central Indian variety: a mixture of open meadows and dense woods, with dry deciduous trees like teak, bamboo, mahua and tendu. And apart from the tiger, Tadoba holds a variety of fauna, including leopards, sloth bear, chital, sambar, dhole and gaur. The next morning, we set off early with a prayer on the lips and everyone’s wishes ringingin our ears, as if we were off to war. A few hundred metres into the core area, we have our first big-cat encounter, a graceful leopard. Leopards are known for being shy creatures, zipping back into the bushes at the first sign of humans. But this one struts up and down for the cameras for a good couple of minutes before crossing the path. Turns out, this one is a collarwala— a big cat with a radio collar fitted on its neck for the purpose of monitoring its movement— and quite used to human presence.
After that auspicious beginning, we drive on, taking cues from animal calls and terse exchanges with humans on the other jeeps. We follow every suggestion we receive: ‘Jamunbodi ke pacts’; ‘suna Jamni talao par’; ‘udhar Chhoti Tara dikhi’… Unlike the earlier evening, the jungle is wide awake now, each species in search of breakfast. After some aimless roaming, the forest guard says, “Chal, Pandharpauni chaltey hain.” Most of these guards have the jungle in their veins, so we know better than to argue. It turns out to be a good decision, for when we reach the banks of the Pandharpauni Lake, there is a sizeable crowd waiting for action. Moments later, Maya appears, followed by her three cubs. “Bacche kitnebadey ho gaye, no?” a voice pipes up from the next jeep, clearly one of the Tadoba regulars. It’s a hot morning, and Maya knows that the lake is the perfect place to cool off.
The four of them take a quick dip in the water, before the kids step out to play hide and seek among the trees. Maya stays half immersed in the water, one eye on the cubs. Meanwhile, the crowd on the bank is going berserk, each tourist trying to spot the hiding cubs and taking a dozen photographs a minute. I too am hysterically happy; five safaris into TATR, I had had no luck with the major fauna, and now in a single morning, a leopard and four tigers together. I return to Svasara a happy wildlifer, bursting with my own Maya stories. This time, I greet Ranjit with a hug. “Finally!” he says. Finally, yes.