Photographing wildlife in India
My alarm goes off at 4:30 am. I prefer the alarm to the use of a wake-up call and having to sleepily mumble ‘thank you,’ into the phone. I’ve laid out my clothing and equipment the evening before, so need little time to dress and make my way to the meeting point at the entrance to the lodge. A staff member, impeccably dressed in white, offers tea and coffee, and a light bite for those who don’t want to leave on an empty stomach.
Other staff members are packing breakfast, woolen blankets, and hot water bottles into the jeeps. The first hours after dawn are still very chilly in an open jeep. Our guide, a local naturalist employed by the lodge, supervises the loading. I’ve prepared my cameras so I won’t need to change lenses during the drive. One camera and lens combination in each lightweight nylon zippered bag. They’ll get very dusty anyway once I start using them.
My two traveling companions and I cheerfully greet our guide and climb into our jeep. We take off, bumping down the dirt road at a brisk pace. We want to be in the front of the line at the gate. It’s a good 20-30 minutes to the park entrance. After the first day or two of uncomfortable jouncing, I’ve gotten the hang of sitting with a straight back instead of leaning, keeping my equipment stable, and keeping the blanket tucked around me. I pull a buff up around my nose and mouth and pull my hat low over my forehead against the dust.
When we arrive at the park entrance, it’s still dark out. Jeeps are starting to line up at the gate. Our guide hops out, collects our passports, and wanders over to the office to sign in. Our passports are checked against the permits we were issued months in advance. A park spotter is assigned to each vehicle. These are also local lads, and the guides and spotters form a congenial group, greeting each other and exchanging the latest news on tiger sightings.
Because tigers is what it’s all about in Bandhavgarh National Park. The birds and wildlife are spectacular, but the success of Project Tiger is the real reason people come here (and to the other wildlife parks in India). Launched in 1973, Project Tiger is aimed at saving the Bengal Tiger from extinction and preserving the unique ecosystems of the tiger’s habitat.
The light is starting to brighten. A larger jeep, carrying a BBC cameraman and his very large film rig, pulls to the head of the line and is let in early. He will spend the entire day in the park, documenting the life of the tigers. Then, at the break of dawn, it’s our turn. The jeeps file in through the gate, and each guide turns off onto the route he’s been assigned to.
As the light grows stronger, mist rises from the pools and lakes in the park. Light shines through the trees and forms rays in the mist. Vague silhouettes of deer, monkeys, and birds become visible.
The first, cooler, hours of the morning are for the tigers. We rarely stop for other wildlife sightings, hurrying to arrive at locations where tigers may cross the road. At each junction, the driver stops, shuts down his engine, and he and the spotter listen carefully. I close my eyes and try to locate the various jungle sounds. Then we hear an alarm call from a Langur monkey. And again. The guide and spotter nod to each other and we take off in that direction.
More Langur calls from much closer now, and the loud yap of a Barking Deer. The spotter is standing on the front seat of the jeep, peering into the bush on both sides of the road. We meet up with a tracking elephant and mahout. The mahout confers with our guide while the elephant curiously explores me with her trunk. Then we take off again in the direction the mahout has pointed towards.
We’re the first jeep on the scene. “Tiger, tiger!” the spotter exclaims and points into the bush.
To be continued…