When we started work in Tadoba more than 27 people had been killed by tigers. Not a comforting piece of information considering I had to spend the next 50 days following them.
I couldn't help feeling this tingling sense of vulnerability as I sat on top of a tree-machan. I was ten feet above the ground. Everyone assured me it was safe. I had recently seen footage of a tigress pouncing on a mahout sitting on top of an elephant. It struck his hands and face. He must have been at least thirteen feet above the ground...
It was forty-five degrees of baking heat and not a leaf moved for want of breeze- I swore!
Sweat bees buzzed all around me, crawl on my skin, into my ears and eyes. The salt in my sweat was like a rare gourmet meal for them. I stared down into a tiny pool of water and watched a small group of langurs drink. They were extremely nervous, hardly drinking and ever vigilant. They had every reason to be alert. I was waiting here since morning to film a tigress. She had four little cubs. This little pool of water was her favourite. A tigress with cubs is wary and suspicious, if she even sensed that there was a fidgety cameraman waiting on top of a tree for her, she might not even show up. But then a tigress with cubs is also extremely protective.
Our film was set in the magnificent deciduous forests of Tadoba; a wildlife park with breath-taking landscapes and a very visible tiger population. National Geographic had approached us for a 3 part series on Indian wildlife. They wanted one of the episodes to be on the tiger. After carefully weighing our options about filming elsewhere in central India, we decided to come to Tadoba. The series was called "Secrets of wild India" and it was being narrated by Sir David Attenborough. I couldn't be more excited.
Scar face of Telia lake
The prime territory in Tadoba was a huge reservoir called `Telia’ with enough water to see through the worst of summers. This was patrolled by a massive male tiger we called `scar face’ ( but we later got to know that the locals called him the wagdoh male).. He was a middle aged male, big to the point of looking obese. His face was all torn from the numerous battles and his right eyelid was so damaged that it looked like he had just one eye. He wasn’t the handsome tiger one can imagine a dominant male would be, but he was unquestionably the king with an easy way with the females.
Over the time that we followed him, we observed many traits that gave him a character. For instance, every time he entered water he would bare his canines and snarl, just like we would shrivel when cold water hits us for the first time during a bath. I found this so intriguing, so human like. He also liked to get into the water backside first (other tigers do that too). He had his favorite sleeping spots and our first routine of the day was to drive around checking all his places to get his location.
Tigers are strange. In spite of having access to many large water bodies in Tadoba, they always chose to cool themselves in small forest pools; most of them no bigger than a bath tub. The quality of water didn’t matter either. In most cases it was dirty, brown with silt and full of dead leaves. They loved the coolness and privacy these pools offered over the luxury of large clean water bodies that forced them into the open. . As the summer progressed and water became more and more scarce, we started observing a pattern. Every pool of water that was suitable was claimed by a tiger and suddenly their movements and sightings became predictable. We knew where we could locate a specific tiger at a specific set of places. This made life a lot easier. The next step was of course to wait for them to show up.
A summer that kills.
As the summer moved on, we began to see how beautifully adapted the animals were to beating the heat. Frogs began to dig into the soft wet mud to escape drying out. Wild boars did a daily slush-bath ritual, covering themselves with wet clay which when dried kept them cool and acted as sunscreen. But there was also death that followed the rising heat. As water holes began to dry up, fish had no means of escaping. What was a pool buzzing with life became a dry pan the next week. Pond herons and other water birds feasted as they moved from one pool to the next, picking off fish stuck in the mud. With water holes drying, there was also increased intolerance when animals came together to drink. There were conflicts between members of the same species, jostling for the best drinking positions or chasing away other species from precious water.
I was awoken from my tree top trance by the alarm call of a spotted deer. The drinking langurs scooted and took to their safe perches. They also began to alarm call. Within a few minutes two little eyes peered out from behind the bamboo. After a quick check the first cub plodded out and went straight to the water. It was as big as a Labrador pup, its oversized paws kicking up dust from the dry sand. Warily it put its first leg into the water. Happy with everything, it slid in completely. Then the second cub came and then the third. Finally the mother and the last cub. The mother looked up and saw me. It was the moment I dreaded. What was she going to do? She stared for a second and walked on and got into the water with her four little cubs.
To lock eyes with a tiger is a moment in time that freezes. I couldn’t help myself as my hand shivered, I was groping for the camera switch. What I saw in front of me and filmed that day will stay with me forever. The tigress and her cubs playing in the water, relaxed in the knowledge I was there, left me feeling privileged. They had let me into their lives for that moment and to me that was a gift. After spending two hard months in the blistering heat of central India, to come away with such a memory somehow justified all our moments of hardship.
Watch this short "Behind the Scenes" video of how Tiger jungles - Secrets of wild India was shot.
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