Wild Tigers in India
It is very difficult to find the words to describe the experience of seeing your first wild tiger. By their very nature, tigers are shy, elusive and most individuals exhibit crepuscular activity. However, there are a few that have accepted our presence through time, and it is these tigers that offer a us a unique insight into a hidden world.
I have been to Bandhavrgarh, Panna, Kanha and several other reserves, but the one at the top of the list is Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. At sunrise, the forest is beautiful. Rays of light breaking through the canopy, the sound of birds singing, water gushing down rivers and streams. This is an experience in itself.
However, knowing that a desperately endangered, beautiful and iconic animal resides within these thickets of bamboo and grass gives rise to a unique excitement.
Tigers are creatures of habit, so they can be tracked. Early morning and late evening they often patrol the borders of their territories. Seeking out their footprints or pug-marks on soft ground, we can predict the general direction the tiger has moved in. Couple this with a knowledge of the jungle topography, the individual, the location of waterholes and prey gatherings etc. we can reasonably predict where we may have an encounter. We also need a little luck! Often we will reach a likely location, stop the engine, and simply listen. A tiger’s movement does not go unnoticed by the other animals and you can further track them by listening for langur, deer and peacock alarm calls.
It pays to watch other animals behaviour. Are they tense, are they staring at something intently? Have they stopped normal foraging behaviours?
Once on the trail, encounters can last anything from a few seconds to hours depending on the situation. Tracking wildlife in India is not like in the plains of Africa, and animals are more challenging to spot. That said, when you encounter your first wild tiger, I would urge you to look at her with your own eyes and not through the lens of a camera. This experience will stay with you for the rest of your life. I promise you.
A whole host of species bring life and colour to the jungle. Below is a small selection of what tiger reserves can offer.
Time of Year
For reserves in Central India, April is a very popular time to see tigers for various reasons. Most of the smaller water bodies have dried up by April, and tigers are forced to drink at the few remaining sites. This allows us to sit and wait if a tiger is in the area as they will inevitably come to drink. Post monsoon months October and November are beautiful as some parks are still lush and green, providing a beautiful backdrop. This does pose some challenges as they can be harder to spot, but again with a little luck, research and good guides you will see them. The winter months provide the coolest weather if one is intolerant to heat and the light can be beautiful at sunrise and sunset. Going into March, the heat starts to pick up with temperatures well into the 30’s, eventually leading into the mid 40’s in April. May and June are just too hot, especially for the uninitiated!
Managing the Conditions
Wear lose comfortable neutral clothing, purchase face snoods, hats and shades to combat dust in the spring and summer months and be sure to take plenty of water with you. You will look pretty comical, but it’s worth it! Temperatures in April can reach 45 degrees Celsius!
If you get the opportunity, I would definitely stop for a break for a cup of tea and to meditate on the days sightings…
Lodges vary in reserves. The lesser known reserves such as Umred or Bor, have very little if any where to stay. Upcoming reserves like Tadoba now have some very nice accommodation, whereas more established reserves like Bandhavgarh have a few more options. Lodges are often very close to the entrance gates, and you will find guests such as langur monkeys and owls visiting you even before the safari has started.
Safari’s are conducted in small 4 x 4 vehicles called gypsies. These give a clear 360 degree view of the forest around you and often have armrests where beanbags and lenses can be rested. There is also a ledge that separates the driver from the passengers which can be a good place to rest cameras for stability. Tripods and mono-pods are a no-no, due to space and the speed of some encounters.
I currently take the following:
Canon 1DX, 5D mk iii, 77D, 40D, go pro.
The 1DX is my main tiger camera. The full frame sensor, noise performance, auto-focus, colours and fps allow me to express my creative vision most of the time. Having 12fps allows me to select the right moment to show the world.
The 5D mk iii is my back -up and secondary camera. It is often paired with the 70-200mm f2.8 to capture animals within the context of their habitat.
The 77d is used for the extra reach the 1.6x APSC sensor gives as well as for filming with the duel pixel auto focus. The flip screen also adds another tool to aid my creativity.
The Canon 400mm f2.8 IS is heavy, expensive, built like a tank, but if used correctly, can produce dream like-images that used to only appear in my minds eye. The low light performance, subject isolation (see below) and quality gives images a unique look but at a cost.
The Canon 70-200mm f2.8 IS is my go to lens to show the forest habitat, including lakes, jungles, and the animals within.
The Canon 17-40mm f4 is used to capture dramatic skies, and the odd vlogging video. Can you spot the tigress below?
The 15mm fisheye is used for vlogging from the vehicle and some quirky images.
It can get very dusty, especially in April so I rarely leave my gear exposed like below. I’ll either cover it with a bag or have most of it under cover.
What you should take
LENSES - I would suggest an ultra wide, medium telephoto and telephoto lens. A good compromise would be a telephoto zoom such as a 100-400mm, a 150-600mm on either a crop sensor body or full frame camera
Cameras - If taking an SLR or mirror-less system, I would suggest taking two bodies for back-up. You can get away with a modern day bridge camera, but the quality will not match that of larger sensor bodies. Contact me here if you need and advice on camera gear.
I mostly use a beanbag to support and stabilise my heavy lenses. It’s very important to have constant communication with the driver and guide as you will need to get into the right positions, but also switch off the engine to stop all vehicle vibration when shooting.
Conservation and Supporting Local Communities
At the entry points of most tiger reserves are stalls and stands where you can buy things like caps, hats, face snoods (to protect against the dusty terrain) and general gifts. I always make a point to spend money here as its going back to the locals, which will in turn have incentive to protect the forest and parks. There are many non- government organisations that support the parks, but I choose to support WildCats Conservation Alliance, as all proceeds go to work in the field. Please be sure to click on their link and see how you can help protect tigers in the wild.
In a way, the experience of seeing a wild tiger can make us better. By going to India to see tigers we are actually aiding their long term survival, and providing much needed money and resource into local communities. Just by going to see them, in a way we are giving back, and that is why I return year after year after year…they need us to.
Send me a message here if you would like to know more about photographing tigers in India!