We caught her off guard. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. and we had had our second sighting of Tadoba’s grand dame. Madhuri was all sprawled out on her back. Her right side was flat on the ground. Only the tigress’ left paw bounced in the air. It swatted flies and then came to rest on a nearby tree for an assisted tummy stretch. “Looks like she just ate,” confirmed Hans Dalal, whispering from across the Gypsy’s bucket seats. That morning, everyone—the guide, driver and tiger conservationist—in the open-air jeep knew that our chance of seeing a full-grown tiger was bright. Especially after the local guide Dalal booked the previous evening had spied some telltale paw marks within 10 minutes of our entering Tadoba’s Moharli gate. The guide’s description of the morning’s ‘darshan’ was brief, though—“Big and female.”
Tadoba is often referred to as “the jewel of Vidarbha,” and I had taken the train here with Dalal, a sound engineer turned wildlife conservationist. Launched in 1955, tucked away in the northeastern part of Maharashtra, just off-centre from the centre of the country, the state’s oldest national park was exhilarating to enter. “The park merged with the neighbouring Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary in 1995 to become a Project Tiger reserve,” Dalal explained as we entered the gates.
I spent the evening listening to the 38-year-old conservationist describe the region’s distinctive topography and history. “Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve combines three forest ranges. Tadoba National Park covers the Chimur Hills, while Andhari Sanctuary stretches over both the Moharli and Kolsa ranges. Two lakes, one river, innumerable pastures and streams—all render it one of India’s most biodiverse forested ecosystems,” he said. This micro universe, overflowing with a multitude of tree, plant and wildlife species, makes neighbours of tigers, panthers, sloth bears, hyenas, jackals, wild dogs (dhole), bison (gaur), barking deer, nilgai, sambar, spotted deer, changeable hawk eagles and oriental honey buzzards. Then, of course, there are the aquatic birds, reptiles, turtles and even Indian marsh crocodiles.
Born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects both movement and speech, Dalal is used to people giving him the wide berth. Many folks hear his booming voice much before they actually see a bearded man, usually dressed in a t-shirt and cargos. I, for one, saw eager smirks, a twinkle of mischief and a slight bodily restraint. “For the first eight years of my working life, I ran a studio and recorded with musicians like Trilok Gurtu, Sidd Coutto, Ankur Tewari and even director duo, Vishal and Shekhar. But that was before my first tiger encounter in Kanha,” he recalls, speaking of 2007. After that first enocunter, Dalal shut down his studio. He studied tiger conservation under the tutelage of Tiger Watch’s Fateh Singh Rathore, and toured over 15 of India’s tiger reserves. He went to Ranthambore 19 times in three years. He later volunteered at two NGOs and taught himself photography and filming. “Thank you YouTube,” he quips. He recorded a music album with tiger poachers and filmed a documentary called With a Little Help. In the last five years he’s worked as a naturalist and has been invited to speak at TED (a few times). He has moved to Tadoba, worked with local rangers to help resolve conflict issues. He monitored tiger movements, conducted camera trapping workshops and started an NGO called PROWL, with his wife Avantika, which aims to rehabilitate poachers and reduce man-animal conflict.
Apart from knowing the language, one of Dalal’s prime reasons for living in this reserve over any other, was the belief that something enchanted happens under its forested cover: “Nature and lore collide.” Tadoba was christened after a local village chief, Taru Baba. He was killed in an encounter with a tiger. A shrine dedicated to him lies beneath an enormous Arjuna tree on the banks of the Tadoba lake. The local population here comprises largely of the Gond community, who speak Marathi and Gondi, and live off the jungle. In fact, most of the park’s staff—drivers, guides, guards, rangers, medics—know the forest well, and their livelihood depends on it.
Nectar of the mahua flower is fed to new-borns even before their mother’s milk. This symbolic gesture ensures that child and tree support each other in their lifetimes. Even the water of Tadoba lake is considered sacred. It is sprinkled on fields in the hope that it will protect crops and ward off pests. “Gond kings once ruled these forests, and the 50-odd adivasi villages that still survive within the core and buffer zones comprise the few Indian tribes that worship the tiger or Waghoba Dev,” Dalal explained. You can chance upon the tiger god’s idols in small shrines inside the forest, in rice fields and outside most hamlets. “When a local is killed in a man-animal conflict, the villagers make a bamboo, stone or clay idol of the tiger and enshrine it at the scene,” said Dalal, describing a common custom. Waghoba is worshipped here to ensure that tigers cause no harm to people and their farm animals.
She knew we were there, but aside from lifting her head to look at us twice and half turning to see which one of her cubs had roared, Madhuri didn’t do much. She rolled on the grass and let out a few groans. Once the bevy of cackling tourists had arrived in a convoy an hour later, though, she briskly stood up and moved towards the deeper, darker core. Without any warning, our driver steered us a few kilometres ahead, taking us to a winding, sunshine-filled spot he knew was a regular tiger crossing trail. Minutes later, Madhuri slowly sauntered out into the said spot, where the jungle meets the road. She casually looked at us while crossing into a thicket. We guessed she must have stolen a big breakfast from a clan of hyenas at the overhead tank. A short cat nap, under the cool canopy of teak trees and ancient bamboo grooves, obviously seemed like a good idea.
Currently, Tadoba is one of India’s most successful Project Tiger parks. According to Dalal, the latest cat counts indicate that 60-plus tigers inhabit the Critical Tiger Habitats (CTHs), aka the core, and approximately 30 tigers reside inside the buffer zone. And as I witnessed, responsible tourism plays a big role here. While our driver chose to take us to the smaller tiger crossing, the convoy of jeeps behind us backtracked to race towards the main core road to catch Madhuri making her final cross before the CTH started. We found them en route to Tadoba lake and looked on in shock as Madhuri, much like any Bollywood actress trying to escape annoying paparazzi, briskly trotted away. So for the final time that morning, we saw Madhuri in a striped blur.
Tourists aside, I asked Dalal where his conservation work will take him in the near future as we exited the gate. “Recently I’ve been dealing with an increasing number of electrocuted fence-related tiger deaths—five in the last three years alone,” signifying that local and tourist awareness will be his continued challenge, “aside from tiger corridor conservation.” Once cubs leave their mothers, many take to the country’s tiger highways in an effort to get from one woodland to the other, in search of their own home. In a landmark move, the Telangana State has promised to create eco-friendly bridges across one such corridor linking Tadoba with Telangana’s Kumram Bheem Asifabad forest district.
Over a local lunch of jhunka-bhakar (a dry chickpea flour preparation cooked with spices and chopped onions, served with jowar roti made on wood-fired earthenware, and a fiery, freshly stone-ground thecha made with green chillies, onions, ginger and salt), Dalal recalled that Madhuri was the first tiger goddess he met in Tadoba. “I’ve watched her raise four litters of cubs, change mates, gain and lose weight, move from core to buffer and back.” He calls every sighting as majestic as the last. “Considering you saw her four times in one morning, makes you very lucky.” I count my blessings.
Tucked away in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, about 155 km from Nagpur, the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve combines three forest ranges. Tadoba National Park covers the Chimur Hills, while Andhari Sanctuary stretches over Moharli and Kolsa ranges. At 1,727 sq.km, it is also Maharashtra’s largest and oldest. The best time to visit is between February and May and the reserve remains open even during monsoon.
Getting There Nagpur is the closest airport. Cabs from here to the park are easily available. Chandrapur Railway Station is the nearest railhead, about 45 km away. The reserve is also well-connected by road with major cities such as Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, and even Bhopal and Hyderabad.
Stay Besides a basic MTDC resort, Tadoba also has a clutch of upscale jungle lodges. Svasara Resorts (doubles from Rs15,500), stands only a few metres from Kolara gate, and Irai Safari Retreat (doubles from Rs10,500), is closest to Moharli gate.
Jharna Thakkar is a hospitality, travel and lifestyle writer. A trained chef, she has written for publications like the Hindustan Times, Condé Nast Traveller, Time Out and Mumbai Mirror. Currently, she portions her time into freelance writing, cooking Goa sausages and pickling seasonal vegetables.