Coffee & Cannoli

leopard morning scape ©

Coming upon a leopard in the first rays of a winter sun is like discovering a fresh cannoli sitting next to your steaming Double Espresso. What a combo! Especially in the hills of Pali where the lunar landscape of granite and the sparse vegetation create an amazingly unique ambience, not replicated anywhere else in India or the world.

Looking forward to heading out there again early next year amongst these unusual leopards.


A Fierce Symmetry

leopard spotlight B&W ©

A leopard in Bera

In the pursuit of higher GDP, let us not forget the Fine Arts. Symmetry, design, perspective- all of it embodied in a living breathing creature whom we have less & less time & space for.

Specially in an ancient country like India, that is desperately trying to pull itself out of wretched poverty and catch up quickly with the developed word, our wild and pristine natural world is always trade-able for a dam or a bridge or a highway.

India has just released a leopard census yesterday, which claims about 14,000 leopards in the country. Fortunately, this one time I think the numbers are underestimated. This animal, given half a chance can survive even in the most populated of places, sometimes without been seen for years.

But that’s the key phrase. Half a chance.

Panthera ‘Billie Jeanus’

jawai leopard coming down revised ©

A jawai leopard looking for warmth in the first rays of the sun

The stage is pitch black. The audience holds its breath. A solitary spotlight fades on. Boom- out of nowhere, there’s a glittering & bejeweled Michael Jackson in all his glory. You could feel his presence on your skin.

My first sighting of this juvenile leopard, as he emerges from the dark depths of the granite kopjes of the Pali hills of Rajasthan to warm himself in the first rays of the sun. Very reminiscent of my first sighting of MJ, many years ago.

As dramatic. As unforgettable.

Good versus Evil

t39 wide open ©

An angry, snarling tiger baring her teeth or just a mother yawning after a hectic day shopping for baby food? What you see is not always what you get.

Most of the snarling tiger pictures that you see in books or on the internet are actually yawning tigers. Similarly, most of the tiger hunting stories that you might have read are also just that. Stories. Fabrication & exaggeration intended to bolster the image of the brave, noble human versus a ferocious, bloodthirsty & brutish monster.

The desperate need for the human ego to convince itself of its supremacy over all other creatures is the fuel that ignites this psychology and has created reams and reams of jungle lore, books and accounts over the centuries. Even today, it is that same primal urge in our DNA which motivates people like the ‘Cecil-killer’ dentist or others of his ilk to pose victorious over the ‘dead monsters’.

Simply put, I would guess that 90% of all hunting kills are nothing more than humans stalking up to an unsuspecting and non-threatening animal and then murdering it from a safe distance. I know this because I have done this myself as a young man.

Lost in this ‘make-believe’ game that todays ‘legal’ hunters play, is the fact that all these creatures have a nobility and graciousness towards others along with a healthy respect for their environment, which far exceeds that of our own species. But then that wouldn’t make a good story, or a good picture, or sell any books, or make any heroes out of any of us, would it?

We need villains for us to be heroes, and if there aren’t any we can always make some up.

t39 zone 1 snarl ©

Walk ALone

star male walking golden light B&W©

The unstoppable stride of a tiger.

Anybody remember Edwin Moses?

So languid it appears to be in slow motion and yet in the blink of an eye he is miles away from you.

The way a tiger cover ground so effortlessly almost seems like an illusion. Hills, lakes, ravines, rocky escarpments don’t slow him down. Neither do villages nor crop fields. Crop fields have cover. They have water. They have nilgai and wild boar. That is all he needs. A tiger could pass through a string of villages without ever being noticed.Tigers walk over 40 miles in a single night, patrolling their territories. Amazingly, a few years ago a missing Ranthambhore tiger was re-discovered in Madhya Pradesh, about 700 miles away. There is is no real contiguous forest between the two places – only farmland and rural human populations.

The stride of a tiger stops only when man stops it.  He runs into a poacher or his snare, a villager or his cattle, a bureaucrat and his development project or a politician and his mining/timber concession.

Are we striding into a better more developed world?

T22 towards camera low ©T28 in the shadows  T39 walking away on track T28 w prey as bkgnd t39 stalking zone 5 © T24 on the hill © T28 side on medium

The ‘Dosco’ Principle

T19 kill 2 copy B&W ©

I have some old Doon School friends who still guard their food like this.

In boarding schools, as in the natural world, protecting your ‘tuck’ from other other roving eyes & noses creates a distinct body language, all its own- an observation based on the challenges of predatory behaviour versus survival instinct. Here T19 after making a kill, drags it to a safe hiding place. She is also trying to keep the news very quiet because of the resident male, who is in the vicinity. If he sights or smells the drag-mark, this kill will disappear as quickly as the biscuits & chocolates that mom packed and sent to school to last the whole term. … T19 kill 1 © T19 kill 4 © T19 kill 6 ©T19 kill 2 ©

‘Baby Face’ of Ranthambhore

T 74 close up blur B&W ©

T-75, Ranthambhore

The seldom spotted ‘baby- faced gangsta’ of Ranthambhore.

T 75, a young male from T-17’s 1st litter gives us the look. He has been in some territorial skimishes with older, more established males earlier this year. He is the son of Sundari, the beautiful resident female of the Ranthambhore lakes, until she tragically ‘ disappeared some years back, never to be seen again.

The Shuttlecock Tiger

dhikala subadult in bushes ©

Seeing a wild tiger in today’s India is a very public affair.
Every day scores of vehicles ferry noisy visitors and scramble about in the jungle in search of the big cat. Once spotted, the scene looks more like a zoo. Excited people are exclaiming loudly, eating, drinking and taking selfies with the tiger, who is more often than not, hemmed in between the vehicles.
Every mobile phone camera is in operation. More elaborate photographic equipment is chattering away like machine-gun fire in a few jeeps carrying people who, at first glance, look like BSF commandos just returned from a war. Camouflaged head to toe in military fatigues, wearing bandanas and wrap-around shades, they tote massive Camo-covered lenses. Like Roman charioteers, they are hustling their respective drivers into better camera positions. The drivers themselves are negotiating for space/fighting/arguing for that little extra few inches so that their client can get a better shot. These are the wildlife photographers. Ironically, I too, am one of this species today.

On a recent visit to Ranthambhore in the company of a veteran ‘Ranthambhorite’, we decided that we wouldn’t go anywhere near this kind of crowd, whether we saw a tiger or not. We would accept what the forest gave us and enjoy it for what it has always been – a magical place devoid of human sights and sounds. If one is lucky enough to see a tiger in this setting- a completely different experience from the circus one experiences today- then that would be a fantastic bonus. A one-on-one. You-the tiger & the forest. The magic of this kind of sighting is in a different league. It is almost a spiritual experience.

As luck wouldn’t have it, we didn’t see a tiger on that day. On our way back to the hotel, we reminisced nostalgically about our most memorable tiger sightings, many of which, for the veteran, had happened on foot. This brings me to my one and only ‘on foot’ experience.

Back in the mid 70s, as an 18 yr. old, I was visiting family friends in Madhya Pradesh and we all took a trip to the Kanha National park. Driving through big, lush forests like Kanha and Corbett was a little different back then. It would be hours before you would notice the presence of another vehicle. The magic of the forest would literally wrap you in its fantastic private bubble and then spit you out at the end of your ‘jungle ride’ back to civilisation, at the Forest Guest house.

At the end of one such morning ride, my friend and I were struggling to entertain ourselves. Afternoon is the ‘down time’ between game drives, till one goes back out into the forest again for the evening drive.
Bored, with nothing much to do, we managed to find a shuttlecock and 2 badminton racquets in a musty closet. Quickly a badminton court was improvised in the guesthouse backyard, and a seriously competitive game of ‘baddie’ was on.
On a particularly hard fought point, I managed to miss-hit the shuttle and it went sailing over the Bougainvillea-covered fencing around the backyard.
A brief argument ensued between us over who should go out and retrieve the shuttle.
Since “ You hit it out, you go get it”, my friend reasoned. I went in and around the building to the wooded area behind the backyard wall. It took me a few minutes of looking around in the thick undergrowth to eventually locate it. It was stuck high up in the thorny vines of the creeper on the fencing. It wasn’t going to be easy to extricate it. Eventually, I managed to get up on my toes to reach for the shuttle, trying to avoid the thorns by contorting my body until I managed to get my fingertips on it. As I gingerly began to pull it down, my body twisted precariously with my head tilting at an awkward angle.
In this position, through the corner of my eye, I suddenly saw that I was not alone. Behind me, through the leafy shrubbery about 30 yards away, there was a striped head staring at me unblinkingly.

It couldn’t be! Was it my imagination? Was it a shadow? A Sambar deer? Was it a tiger?

Now I don’t remember exactly what happened next or how long it took because it felt like someone had poured iced water all over me. A cold numbing sensation coursed through my entire body. Thinking back, it is probably because I must have broken into a sweat. It took me some time to process the fact that there was indeed a tiger, within leaping distance from me, looking straight at me.

Thorns pricked against my arm and extricating it quickly might have initiated a reaction from him. I was helpless, silent and immobile- and in hindsight, perhaps fortunate. I tried to keep my eyes on him as I began to very slowly and silently work around the thorns and lower my arm. It felt like ages but was probably only a few seconds. By the time I looked up at my arm and then back down to where I thought he was, he had vanished.
My eyes darted across the landscape, looking for some movement or a glimpse. Had he come closer? Was he stalking me? But there was no sign of him. This was when I noticed that I hadn’t been breathing. I sucked in a deep breath and slowly backtracked alongside the wall and found my way back into the guesthouse without further incident.

With my body breaking into spasms and hyperventilating with relief, I ran to tell my friend about what had just happened. To my shock, he smirked indulgently and said, “Oh, ya, sure! Of course you saw a tiger! You were down 14-17; shall we continue the game? ”

Frustrated, I went to tell my friend’s father who also smiled skeptically at me. On further debate & discussion with the forest staff present, it was determined that yes indeed, there was a male tiger who came by this guesthouse frequently to mark territory. They eventually got inquisitive enough and ventured back out to where I had been behind the fence and saw fresh pugmarks.


Ranthambhore in the Rains

Unlike some of the other places that I’ve lived in, where people see rain as an intrusion and a temporary inconvenience in their lives, Indians tend to celebrate rain, perhaps like no other nationality. The ominous darkening of the monsoon skies, the lashing winds and the heady smell of the earth as it gets pounded by meaty raindrops stirs most of us into a state of exhilaration & romance, a kind of temporary madness. To get soaking wet, to dance and play in this weather comes naturally to most of us.

Ranthambhore rainscape

The lush green Lahpur valley of Ranthambhore

For me this June was the very first time I got to experience the monsoon season in Ranthambhore. That Ranthambhore is a magical place any time of the year is a given. But dial into it the monsoon season, and it becomes one of nature’s greatest roller-coaster rides.

Tigers dancing, playing, stalking & hunting in the downpour, hiding and cowering from claps of thunder & lighting, the spectacular vistas covered in emerald green, cloaked by black thunderheads above, this was a first of its kind experience for me, even though from a photography-standpoint it wasn’t perfect. Leaky tarps, fogged lenses, poor light were constant challenges, but was it one of my best ever trips to Ranthambhore? You bet!

wet tiger stand up ©

A young tiger is looking for a way to escape from thunder & lighting

wet cub in the rain long shot ©


Wet cub copy ©

A huge clap of thunder makes her just cower under a tree, shaking with nervousness.

tigers rain dances 3 ©

playing tag in a downpur

tiger on wet ledge ©

now that I’m wet, there’s no point trying not to be..

tiger leap in the rain ©


rain tiger thru the tree

A tiger at full speed is a sight to behold

reflection pool

mirror, mirror, on the ground..

tiger in the rain ©

my best shot of the trip

rain dance ©

here I come..

Pythons & Lizards

python monitor 1

A Rock Python works his coils around a monitor lizard

Returning to Ranthambhore ( and this blog ) after a couple of months, we had a day full of tigers playing in the monsoon rains, stalking & hunting chitals, tracked a patrolling dominant tiger who stumbled upon and surprised a sub-adult into full flight. Saw a tiger run like a cheetah for the first time in my life. We also had a leopard sighting while waiting for a tiger to emerge from the same spot. However, nature throws surprises at you as it must and this was was the highlight of the day just as we were exiting the park- a life & death struggle between a large monitor lizard & a rock python.

python monitor

A large monitor lizard struggles in the grip of a coiled Rock Python