WildZests: Kabini Magic - Not once, not twice but three times lucky!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Kabini Magic - Not once, not twice but three times lucky!

Winding Roads

Finding time to do hobby stuff is becoming increasingly difficult these days, especially with newer things getting added to my to do list. Earlier it used to be bike rides, long distance tours and photography on my mind, but since November last year, a lot of time is being consumed on the Jeep. It was the end of April 2013 that I realized I hadn't done even a single trip to the jungles since November 2012. Not that I didn't want to do a trip, but given the work schedules and the list of things to do over the weekend, it just never happened. And when I did have the time to go out for a weekend, it was the finances that never worked out (the jeep has sucked a lot of moolah ever since it arrived in my garage!)

Having missed all the action at Tadoba in the last season I was very keen on visiting the jungles on central India once again, but the plan wasn't materializing. Then one fine day Charles and Shalu casually mentioned that they wanted to go to Kabini or Bandipur for a weekend. I volunteered to join them or let's say I just shamelessly tagged along even though their original idea may have been to spend time together. And so it all started...

Trip #1: Bandipur and Kabini with 4les and Shalu


Our search for places started with Kabini which was fully booked as usual so we searched for other options and found one room available at Bandipur for Friday. So Bandipur it was going to be, the room was promptly booked else it would have been sold out too. Given that it was a weekday and Gozu wasn't coming, Pozu was going to join me for the trip. The Safari was due for a service which meant the Jeep had to be taken for this trip, not the best highway runner but we had no choice.

We reached Bandipur at about lunch time and were off to the jungle for the evening safari in no time. The jungle looked a lot greener due to the recent rains and I'm sure that the animals were feeling a lot relieved after surviving through an almost drought-like situation. There was hardly any big cat movement to be noticed  that day although sightings were quite frequent until the week prior. We returned back with the hope of having a better morning ride.

Monitor Lizard Changeable Hawk Eagle

The morning safari was equally quiet with absolutely no big cat movements, but we had some interesting encounter with a small family of elephants at a water hole. A mother with a young calf and another sub-adult arrived at the water hole only to be shooed away by a few egrets and storks that had taken control of the place. It was funny to see the big beast get scared and agitated by the egrets that kept flying low over the water. The mother and the young calf stayed away while the sub-adult female tried to run after those birds.

Elephant chasing birds at waterhole

End of the morning safari, we all were left wanting for more. I knew that this wasn't how it was supposed to end, especially since it was my first trip after 6 whole months. There were a couple of alternatives in front of us, either we wait for the evening safari at Bandipur or try our luck at Kabini instead. Staying back at Bandipur wasn't making strong sense as the chances of sightings looked pretty low given the mood in the jungle during the morning safari. I called the Kabini JLR and was pleasantly surprised to find a tent available on the basis of a cancellation for that day. That sealed the conversation on what should we do next, we were headed to Kabini right away.

Serpent Eagle with Snake Kill

Now, Kabini was rocking at that time with a good number of sightings each day and the tiger movements had been very high as well. I guess this season was one of the best at Kabini with respect to tiger sightings. Right as we entered the jungle for the evening safari, a few jeeps had spotted a leopard perched on a tree. It was a little difficult to spot it though and getting a picture was almost impossible so we decided to move on. We we had almost finished our safari and were exiting out of the gate when we noticed that there were some jeeps parked on the main road right next to the water hole. A quick dash to the location revealed a young male tiger cooling off at the water hole. Soon the crowding on the road increased and some impatient drivers started honking which made the tiger walk inside to find another peaceful spot to rest. My day was done, all the running around from Bandipur to Kabini now made perfect sense. This was the first tiger sighting for Charles and Shalu so they were all smiles too.

Tiger cooling off at waterhole

The next day morning ride was pretty uneventful, but we had nothing to complain about after the wonderful  sighting on the previous evening. Soon we were back home in the evening and life was back to the normal routine.

Trip #2: Kabini with Pozu (yet again!)

Sunkadakatte Forest Guest House

My plan to visit Tadoba was still not moving ahead of the planning stage, mainly because I had nobody for company and managing Pozu single-handedly on such a long trip would have been difficult. Finally, one day I decided to give up on that idea and spend the time and money on a familiar and nearby place like Kabini where Pozu and I can manage without hassles. I managed to get a 4 day booking at Kabini through the last week of May and set off on yet another father-daughter adventure trip.

We were on the first safari of the trip and it will be my most memorable leopard sighting ever. It was raining pretty heavy that day and even though all the cameras we nicely tucked inside to avoid the water, we were tracking a few alarm calls which signaled movement of the predator. Our driver was very quick in spotting this huge male leopard resting on a tree and preening itself as the rain had reduced to a light drizzle. Given that we had spotted the cat before anyone else, we had the liberty of finding a nice spot to park so that everyone can fire off with their cameras in tandem.

Leopard on Tree

After about 10-15 minutes, the leopard decided to walk down the tree and perched on a mound right next to the road. We were extremely lucky to have the guy pose for us for those few seconds before it decided to climb down.

Leopard - Male

Next up, he put up a good show by crossing in front of our jeep a couple of times before heading out into the backwater area. Even while he exited, he tried to sneak up on a Sambar deer but ended up getting chased by a full grown Gaur. Those 20 minutes, the only sound you could hear the shutters going click-click-click in our jeep and for the rest of the safari, everyone had a nice "content" smile on their faces.

Leopard - Eye to Eye

As if that wasn't enough for the day, we had another sighting of a female leopard resting peacfully on a tree. But this one was not so easy to photograph and we could only make some record shots. After waiting about 10-15 minutes, we decided to move on and circle back after a little while. When we returned, she was gone!


The next day morning safari was pretty uneventful while the evening safari had us excited with the news of another leopard perched on the tree. However, in the end it turned out to be a very difficult sighting as the leopard was sitting right inside a thick cover of branches. We did manage some really nice peacock photographs as it obliged by staying put on the tree stump for a while.

Perched Peacock White Bellied Woodpecker

It was already halfway through the trip and the morning safari yielded a few shots of the white-bellied woodpecker, not the very best I could get, but  better than just record shots.

While we came to the Gol Ghar for lunch, I noticed the former Indian skipper, Rahul Dravid had arrived with his family. There was a bit of an euphoria among everyone at the venue and a few ladies desperately wanted to go get their picture taken with him. I'm sure he must have come to spend some quiet family time with his wife and kids but he wasn't going to be spared.

Spotted Deer

In the evening, as we came to the grouping point for the safari, I was informed about a change of vehicle. We had been riding with a group of wildlife enthusiasts and serious photographers for the last four safaris and Pozu was very well settled with the group. She didn't really approve of the change in plan at the start, but given that she had some like-minded company in the other jeep, she settled down quickly. We were scheduled with the Dravid family, this came with a bit of a surprise initially since I thought he'd get a special safari jeep given his celebrity status.

Here's our favorite naturalist Prasanna standing with the wall for a profile picture.
Dravid with Prasanna (Kabini Naturalist)

Our ride started with a bang! A langur frantically giving out alarm calls while sitting right next to the safari track. There was a lot of excitement about what we're going to see emerging from the bushes, but soon the langur became quiet and whatever it had spotted had either changed directions or settled down to rest. Just then we got lucky with a juvenile Changeable Hawk Eagle that was sitting on a nearby tree with a myna kill in its claws. This was my first time watching this magnificent predator with a kill, but the light wasn't in my favor.

Backlit Langur A29Y4431

As we drove through the jungle, we had a lot of conversation about the forests and conservation etc. Apparently, Dravid had been visiting these forests quite regularly until a few years back. The two junior Dravids were very keen observers and had a lot of questions to ask. I guess it was their first time in the wild and they were pretty excited to see all the wildlife around them. The former skipper talked about how he wanted this break after the long IPL season which had just gotten over. Now, cricket and me don't really go well together. I didn't really remember anything apart from the fact that he captained the Rajasthan Royals team so I wisely chose to keep the cricket topic away from our conversations. Moreover, I'm sure he must have also felt relieved that we didn't discuss the game, given all the controversial match-fixing incidents that were being discussed at that time. Overall, based on our interactions through the three hours in the jeep, I must admit that he is a true gentleman and even his family was very warm and accommodating.


During the initial half of the safari, Pozu had dozed off nicely and Mrs Dravid was very surprised on her ability to sleep so cozily in the jeep as it moved through the bumpy forest tracks. Finally my little tigress woke up and I knew there were some hopes of a sighting now that she was up. True to her reputation, it wasn't even 5 minutes after she woke up, we got lucky to spot on the male tiger cubs resting on the opposite bank of the Bisalwadi lake. Now, this was a far away encounter and you could only see the cat with the help of binoculars, but nevertheless it was exciting for the Dravid family who were witnessing their first striped cat in the wild. After making sure that everyone had their share of viewing the big cat, we decided to move on.

Mamma Wild Dog

As we turned back from Bisalwadi, there was another good news for us! One of the jeeps had spotted a pack of seven wild dogs resting by the jeep track on the temple road. Soon we were at the location and were very happy to see a nice and content pack of dholes relaxing right in front of our jeep. We spent the next few minutes in watching and photographing their behaviors as the 4 pups played around. Soon it was time to head back to the resort after the wonderful 3 hours in the jungle.

Kids at Play

The next few safaris were nice, but devoid of any big cat sightings. One of the rides we had a female elephant charging at our jeep pretty aggressively. It always serves as a reminder that you're an outsider in the jungle and not everyone welcomes your presence. It's always exciting to have an elephant charge at you since no matter how confident you are that it is only a mock charge, deep down you also know that it may prove you wrong!

And She Charges!

On the last safari, I had switched over to the wide angle lens and focused my energy on capturing the beauty of the forest rather than looking for the elusive cats. The common notion is that you need a long lens for wildlife photography and that only close-up shots look beautiful. But on the contrary, the longer lens can be quite limiting at times and the wider lenses can do wonders to highlight the habitat and it's relevance to the subject in question.

Standing Tall

Deep down in my mind, I was trying to answer the question - what makes the forest so special?

  • It's not only the tiger or leopard which are good health indicators of the ecosystem and the most sought after animals with respect to sightings. They'd be struggling to survive if the prey population wasn't healthy.
  • It's not just the animals that form the prey base - they wouldn't have survived if there were no trees. 
  • It's not only the trees since they'd not be able to propagate without the help of animals, birds and insects. 
  • It is the natural equilibrium of all the above elements that make the forest special. 

The Woods

The interdependence of plants and animals and the prey-predator relationships are quite complex by design, but they're equally interesting as well. It's amusing to see how the prey population is controlled via natural predators while the predator population is mainly balanced based on area available in the jungles. Habitat destruction is a bigger evil than poaching that affects the conservation of our forests and the growth of tiger population in our country. If we continue to squeeze the forest reserves and don't give the animals enough space to live, just by providing them protection we can only delay the extinction process but not reverse it. 

Elephant Scape

Anyway, this was definitely one of the special trips of recent times and the inability to visit Tadoba was all forgotten at the end of it.

Trip #3: Kabini with the whole gang!

Surprisingly, the trip with Pozu wasn't going to be my last trip to Kabini for the season, a couple of weeks down the line our whole group decided to spend a weekend at the place. This was not my regular photography trip, but more of a get-together with a close group of friends. Everyone was pretty excited about the trip and were hoping to get lucky with the sightings as well.


Our convoy started from Bangalore pretty much on time that morning and this was the first time both the Safari and Thar were going on an outstation trip together. We reached just around lunch time and soon it was time for our evening safari. Given the size of our group, we were assigned the mini bus instead of the regular safari jeeps. I wasn't complaining since I firmly believe that sightings are a matter of luck more than anything else. The mini bus was actually quite a comfortable ride as compared to the jeeps where everyone is pretty much restrained due to lack of space. The downsides were that the mini bus wasn't a 4x4 so we had to stick to the easier routes rather than the slushy trails that a 4x4 could conquer quite easily, also the angle of shooting was much higher than the jeeps. But given that this was more of a enjoy together type of a trip, it was a good idea for all of us to be seeing and experiencing the same things.


The evening safari turned out to be a good one with a lazy leopard sighting on the tree. It looked like a sub-adult who chose to rest peacefully on the tree while we moved back and forth in our van to get a clear view. The raised view from the van actually helped us get a better view to watch the leopard and there was a rush of excitement running amongst everyone. It was the first safari experience for a few and the leopard sighting made it extra special.


The next day morning started pretty quiet, but soon we noticed a female leopard hastily crossing the road in front of our van. There was another group waiting in anticipation of her sighting and our van had actually made the leopard disappear inside faster than it would normally do. But all wasn't lost, we could retrace her again a little ahead and what followed next was a complete entertaining drama for about 5-10 minutes with the leopard crossing in front of our jeep and then leaping over to the other side of the track and disappearing in the bushes. We slowly moved in the direction where the leopard had gone but on a parallel track and were lucky to spot mother-cub leopard duo on a tree. They were situated a little too far from the jeep track and though we could see them using binoculars, there was no clear view to photograph them both. Nevertheless, it was a beautiful sighting anyways and everyone in the jeep were super excited to have witnessed so much of action in just two safaris.


The return journey was mostly filled with conversations about how such sightings make you come back for more. What was planned to be a leisurely get-together, turned out to be an exciting encounter with the spotted cat. Overall, during the 6 days I spent at Kabini through the season, there were 7 leopard and 2 tiger sightings - a much higher hit ratio than any of my earlier trips so far. And to add to this, the other sightings have been pretty good too with peacocks dancing, elephants charging etc.


For now, thats the end of my update until my next travel to the jungles or some other interesting event comes up.

Jungle Tracks