Ultimate Tigers 2016 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Apr 14, 2016

You can’t type field notes on an iPhone from the back of a moving elephant. It doesn’t matter if you’re 65 years old or a 15-year-old with an Android, it’s next to impossible to hang onto a rocking pachyderm and type at the same time. On every trip I learn something new—and this was one of the three handy tips I gleaned from our 2016 Ultimate Tigers photo tour that started at the end of March.

Our small group met in Delhi. From there, we flew to Khajuraho in central India and then drove through village, farm and forest to Bandhavgharh National Park. Because our group flew business class as part of the tour, we had next to no hassles getting our big lenses and other photo gear on the airplane as part of our carry-on baggage. The airport at Khajuraho is brand-new—open only one month—and this immense glitzy multimillion dollar airport terminal currently services only two flights a day! It rises out of the dry impoverished landscape like a shining shrine to government spending. They are obviously expecting a huge uptick in usage, but to me it looked like a colossal and expensive boondoggle.

A big feature of this trip was the all-access permits we had for several days during our exploration of the national park as we searched for tigers. These were the very same type of permits a film crew from the BBC or Discovery Channel would have—and that access certainly allowed us more tiger time. Every day at dawn we set out in our small “jeeps"—actually small Suzuki “Gypsy” 4x4s—with two photographers plus a guide and driver in each vehicle. Fifty-five cars may enter the 165-square-mile park, but only five vehicles are permitted these all-access permits on a daily basis. Though 55 cars seem like a lot of vehicles, the system of numerous assigned tracks keeps East Africa-style vehicle scrums to a minimum. The only problem is some of these tracks are virtually devoid of wildlife, and the track you are assigned is supposedly the luck of the draw. If you draw one in the really dry country your chance of seeing tigers is greatly diminished. This is where our all-access permits were worth their weight in gold.

My second epiphany of the trip was that these “tiny” (by my standards) vehicles are very bouncy, and by having a small adjustable nylon strap (or two) to lash my camera bag to the metal frame on the back of the seat kept the bag from bouncing off onto the floor. The strap was quite useful and will be something that I keep in my bag all the time from now on.

As we departed in the early morning, the dawn chorus of birds and mammals would build to a crescendo as the sun rose. The staccato calls of brown-headed barbets and the cooing of doves echoed from valley to valley. Mating calls of spotted deer resounded through the forest, and the wail of peacocks gathering their harems added to the cacophony. The early golden light backlit the fresh electric chartreuse leaves of sal trees and ignited an orange glow in the showy blossoms of “flame of the forest” trees. On these flower festooned branches, black-faced langur monkeys gorged themselves on the sweet orange blooms, while spotted deer snuffled up the fallen flowers and the small fruits that had dropped from several other tree species mixed within the forest.

Sal is a dominant tree in the forest and one of the few trees that maintains its leaves into the dry season. As one of the few trees with leaves at this time of the year, sal is a prime food resource for small moth caterpillars. During quiet moments, the sound of their falling frass resembles a gentle rain on the leaf litter of the forest floor. The forest itself is open and parklike, interspersed with dense and scrubby bamboo thickets that surround some large open grasslands—a favorite habitat in which tigers ambush deer, wild boar and the occasional peacock. Though seemingly natural, these huge meadows were once the site of several villages that were removed from the national park in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The meadows are cut regularly by men and women laboring in the hot sun using only hand scythes—it appears to be backbreaking work. Human labor is either less expensive, or less disruptive to wildlife, than bringing in huge mowing equipment. I suspect it is a bit of both.

It was birthing season in the sal “jungle” and spotted deer and langur monkeys with tiny babies could be seen in many areas around the national park. On many occasions the monkeys and deer were found together in sections where the vegetation is a bit more lush. These species have a symbiotic relationship—they are always on the lookout for tigers and leopards—and both of them recognize each other’s alarm calls when a cat has been spotted. In fact, one of the ways we photographers know a cat may be nearby is by listening to these same alarm calls.

During our week in the field, tigers were seen by some of our group members every day. And everyone had great opportunities to photograph them—but not necessarily at the same time or on the same day. Overall, we saw at least 14 different individual tigers, and without a doubt the star of the show was a beautiful female with her four one-year-old cubs. She was seen and photographed by members of our group virtually every day.

During our time in the park we saw two leopards (though they were too deep into the scrub for good photographs) and we also sighted four sloth bears, a jungle cat, brown mongoose, sambar deer, rhesus macaques, many peacocks and hens, plus the original chicken progenitor—red jungle fowl.

My third and biggest object lesson came while photographing the female tiger with her four cubs in the dark and shady forest. As the day grew hotter, the mother tiger took her cubs toward the cool shelter of a limestone cave. Even with my camera set at 2500 ISO, I was getting extremely slow shutter speed even at f/5.6. As a product of the old film shooting days I am still reluctant to set my camera to what I consider to be extremely high ISOs. And as a result, quite a number of my tiger shots from that session are soft. Whereas my shooting companion had her ISO set at 6400 or higher—and her shutter speed was much faster—resulting in much sharper images. Lesson learned. It is better to have sharp images using a high ISO with some noise that can be corrected in Photoshop than obtaining soft images, and less noise, that I would ultimately delete.

I would say that all of our trip participants made thousands of tiger images! In those images you can see how effectively coloration and striping camouflages tigers from their prey when they are within their grassland habitat. But, as you might imagine, all of that grass can also prevent a photographer from getting a clean image. And though we created many clean images, I also have enough shots with some grass crossing a tiger’s face that I could spend much of my old age fixing them on my computer in my future “free time.”

One side benefit of traveling at this time of the year is that the advancing dry season allows for easier tiger spotting since virtually all animals in the park must come down to some of the small streams and water holes to drink and for the tigers to take a cooling soak.  It is definitely hot by midday—but not oppressive due to low humidity.

The last leg of our trip returned us to Khajuraho and its famous thousand-year-old carved sandstone temples—a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This complex of temples is renowned for the intricate sensual carvings of couples in various states of caress. If you’re looking to find lots of ancient pornography here, you’ll probably be disappointed. But it is certainly beautiful. At this time of year, the tourist season at Khajuraho is over and it is very easy to get shots of the temples that are devoid of people—almost an impossibility at the height of the season.

At the time of this posting only one space still remains open on our Ultimate Tigers trip in April 2017. It's a wonderful opportunity for shooting these spectacular cats at the best time of year and with the best access. Just be ready to learn a few new handy tricks along the way!