Tadoba – Andhari Tiger Reserve – A weekend with the Big Cats!

Date of the trip: Dec 2021

Like all our other trips, we were really excited about our upcoming long weekend in Tadoba wildlife sanctuary. And yes, like every time we knew it was going to be full of little surprises. It was going to be our ultimate year-end holiday. But the fact, that this time we could not take our fur baby “Jiraiya” with us (pets are not allowed in any wildlife sanctuaries) was heart breaking and he had to be left at a pet boarding for those few days. Perhaps, we will be able to make it up to him in our next trip 🙂

Before talking about our adventures on this trip, let’s first talk about the park itself.

If you want to skip this part,

go directly to 5 things to do in Tadoba – Andhari Tiger Reserve

Let’s jump in!

About the place

Tadoba-Andhari National Park is Maharashtra’s largest and one of the oldest sanctuaries. “Tadoba” or “Taru” is actually a name of a God praised by the local tribes and “Andhari” is the name of the river that flows through this region. This national park is known for its highest density of tigers in the country.

Geographically, the park is divided into three forest ranges.

1.     Tadoba North Range

2.     Moharli Range

3.     Kolsa South Range

Each of these ranges are inter-connected and can be accessed via safaris. All the ranges have their core and buffer zones and have excellent sightings due to the abundance of beautiful species of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and butterfly residents.

The highlight for most visitors here are the tigers and the leopards but I would have to say I was taken by surprise when we spotted the rarest of rare spots (hint: it has spots, but its darker than night. Eyes like precious stones and moves like a ninja.. any guesses? intrigued? read on..)

The Tadoba-Andhari National Park is open to the public from 15th October to 30th June every season and remains closed on every Tuesday.

The morning safari timings are 06:30 am to 11:30 am and evenings are 02:30 pm to 06:30 pm.  

Tadoba has around 18 water bodies, the most significant lakes amongst them are Tadoba Lake, Jamani Lake, and Telia Lake. These are the main hotspots for wildlife, birdlife, and breath-taking landscape watching. These lakes are not only vital for the flora and fauna of the park but also for several villagers who live around it.

Based on the research of the forest officers and the information given to us by our guides, amongst the 115 tigers in the park, there are three queen tigresses, their families, and two alpha males. Two black leopards, wild boars, and sloth bears also apex the forest wildlife circuit. But again, remember to not ONLY chase behind big cats. Enjoying the scenery and observing all forest dwellers is part of the national reserve experience.

The regions are largely (but unofficially) divided according to the tigresses’ realm. It makes easy for guides to induce interest in most visitors, like ours did for us. :p

Regions goes like this currently,

Tadoba Lake and surrounding areas right up to Panderpauni are currently dominated by infamous (check google)tigress Maya & her cubs.  These areas can be reached fastest through the Khutwanda Gate of the Moharli zone. This is also the area where ‘Blacky’ the black leopard has been frequently sighted.

Jamani lake and around is Chhoti Tara’s current territory. Choti Tara is currently radio-collared and has 3 cubs. This area again is closest to the Khutwanda & Kolara gate of the Moharli zone.

Telia lake and around is currently dominated by Sonam & her cubs. This area has quick access from the Moharli gate via the old metal road inside the park.

Lara and her cubs were also spotted frequently near the Junona gate.

How to get there?

There are no direct connects and all modes except direct drive in involve multiple mode changes:

By Air

Nagpur is the nearest airport and it’s about 140 km away. Flights from major cities fly regularly to Nagpur. You can get a cab from the airport to reach the national park.

By Train

The nearest railhead is at Chandrapur, 45 km from the park. The railway station is connected to Mumbai, Delhi, Nagpur, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Jhansi. Buses and taxis are available from the railway station to reach the reserve.

By Road

State transports buses from Mumbai, Nagpur, Pune, Jalgaon do ply regularly to Chandrapur and Chimur located about 45 and 32 km respectively. Local transport can be hired to reach the reserve from Chandrapur and Chimur. And if you love road trips, it is wonderful to drive on these roads.

We travelled from Pune station to Wardha station and then took a cab to Tadoba-Andha National Park which was a three-hour drive to the park. Cab : 9657875624

The road from Wardha joins into the rood from Nagpur somewhere midway. Road from Chandrapur is on the opposite side of the national reserve. Later on that.

We enjoyed the scenic landscape along the way. Although this region remains in partial drought most of the year, the water for agriculture and domestic use comes from dams scattered all over. The fields along the route were mainly of cotton and Green gram. Within three hours we had reached the park (there are no good rest stops in between, so hydrate accordingly). Good roads all the way were such a blessing.

Like any other reserve, we had to stop at the entry gate to the transition zone so forest authorities could note our itinerary and accommodation details. This is just a way for them to do crowd control in the villages and buffer zones of the forest, and also restrict noise pollution (looking at you Jim Corbett authorities, maybe pick up some pointers!?)

We had all our documents (safari and hotel bookings and ID proofs) in place and we were soon on our way through the open forests surrounding the buffers to Tadoba-Andhari wildlife sanctuary. That’s when we had our first glimpse of Erai reservoir, it goes along the whole way till the main town – looking sparkling and stunning.

 Process for booking a safari:

Website details:

https://www.mahaecotourism.gov.in/site/common/OnlineBooking1.aspx

Below are the gates from where safaris can be initiated:

1. Moharli zone

· Core gate – Moharli, Khutwanda

· Buffer gates – Devada, Adegao, Agarzari, Junona & Mamla gates.

2. Kolara zone

· Core gate – Kolara

· Buffer gates – Alizanza, Madnapur, Sirkheda, Kolara Chauradeo, Palasgaon & Belara gates

3. Navegaon zone

· Core gate – Navegaon

· Buffer gates – Navegaon Ramdegi & Nimdela gates.

4. Pangadi and Zari zone

· Core gate – Pangadi & Zari

· Buffer gates – Pangadi Aswal Chuha, Keslaghat & Zari Peth gates

I know the above names can be confusing when deciding which zone to go for, but one thing to keep in mind is that you can pick any of them as far as you agree to enjoy the forest and all its beings, not ONLY search for the big cats.

Additional info:

We chose to pay Rs200 to the hotel for calling the safari jeeps to the hotel for picking us up. Many tourists save on this and drive to the gate and try to hire a jeep on the spot. We felt it would save us precious morning time if the jeeps themselves came to us. Some private hotels/resorts may provide this as a complimentary amenity.

Each camera is charged separately. Please don’t miss-out on that while booking safari. One important point to note, due to some incidents in the past, mobile phones are not allowed inside the gates of the the reserve. Either you don’t carry them, or lock them in the box which is kept with the driver and is given back to you once you are out of the main gates.

Where to stay?

A few things to keep in mind when you book a stay at Tadoba is to choose your stay closest to any of the gates as they can be far apart.

Tadoba has a variety of hotels and homestays to choose from around the main entry gates. They are easily available for booking online. We chose MTDC Tadoba, where we planned to stay for the next two and a half days. This hotel is well located between the backwaters of the Irai dam and Junona gate and the rooms were spacious and clean. It is away from the main city centre and self-transport to explore the area is recommended.

MTDC Tadoba

We reached the hotel a little past lunchtime. We met my in-laws who were on their awesome road trip from Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, and reached MTDC an hour before us.

Watch this space to read more about their amazing road trip from “Ranikhet to Pune city”.

We got ourselves checked into our rooms and got freshened up and headed back to the reception. We were welcomed with a chilled glass of sweet lassi. It was so refreshing!

Our safaris were booked in advance for the next day so we only enquired about the activities we could do to kickstart our exploration in the surrounding areas. We intended to soak in whatever these forests had to offer by driving around in safari jeeps, some floating on water and some just wandering around.

We wanted to experience it all.

For us, MTDC was a perfect choice. Its location along the bank of Moharli village lake, connected to the backwaters of the Erai dam made it a birding hub in itself. Just walking around on the access road is relaxing, and best way to enjoy observing some water bird’s daily life.

Open Billed Stork
We witnessed a Rufous Treepie hunting an oriental garden lizard. The battle was worth a watch

Common Cuckoo

Now, after all that technicalities are out of the way, let’s finally talk about 5 activities that made our long weekend with the big cats unbelievably fun!

5 things to do in Tadoba – Andhari Tiger Reserve

1)     Kayaking in the backwaters of the Irai dam

It was late afternoon by the time we freshened after our long journeys and without wasting much time, we headed straight to the Kayaking spot, a 10 min walk . It was truly amazing. We enjoyed the slowing setting sun and got a lot of photos from our phone cameras. But I regret not carrying my DSLR camera along in the water, as there were so many opportunities to photograph those water birds up close.

Well… maybe next time.

Fun photos while kayaking. There was always a guide on his own kayak around us looking after our safety and teaching us the skills.

After a fun kayaking experience, we headed back to our hotel for dinner. We stopped at the Junona entry gate which lies in between the Kayaking area and our hotel just to enquire if there was a free spot for a night safari for that day but no luck. So, we came back to our hotel and enjoyed a cup of tea with some snacks. As we had an early safari the next day, we had an early dinner and called it a day.

The process of booking night safari is via website too, but no harm asking on spot incase there are any no shows. We could not get any bookings.

By the way, this reservoir is fed by rivers which may have one or two crocodiles. So never step into it without a guide. The next day, after this kayaking session we saw a crocodile sunbathing behind one of the weed thickets not very far from where we were kayaking :p

2)     Wildlife Safari in Mohari (or whichever gate from where the booking is)

Morning Safari

As planned, our jypsy reached the hotel at 06:00 am and we headed straight to the entry gate where we were joined by a guide for the morning. The gates opened exactly at 06:30 am and we were in. Guides are assigned according to their roll call and can not be booked beforehand.

The enthusiasm before the safari starts is always on high spirits!

The forest in the early morning mist looks amazing. Some of the common trees found in the jungle are bamboo which covers over 70 percent of the area and the rest is teak & crocodile bark along with other species. Grasslands are few but stretch for a kilometer around water bodies.

As soon as we entered the gates, we noticed these huge ancient pillars on the left side of the road. Our guide gave us a bit of history regarding them. Turns out that these pillars were built under the rulership of the Gond Kings around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Talking about the purpose of the pillars. Our guide mentioned that it is most probable that these pillars had bells attached at the top and were connected through ropes. These ropes were then pulled from points for the bells to ring in a patterned manner to transfer small messages in the fastest way possible at that time. It would be used as a main way to communicate. These pillars stand at regular intervals from each other and this road at that time was said to connect Nagpur and Chandrapur.

First, we crossed tigress Sonam’s territory and drove on pakka road around Tulia lake. A couple of metres away, an orange head popped out of the bush, startling us. One after the other a pack of endangered wild dogs (Dhols), came out of the forest, crossed the fire line grass area and pooped on the road while crossing and going the other side.

Spotted this amazing pack of Dhols at the start of our safari
All safari jeeps wait to see the pack of pooping Dhols on the road

Off-roading from here, we soon entered Tigress Lara’s area. A herd of Gaurs grazing along the road were well camouflaged. Both Dhols and Gaurs were firsters for us and the sighting was exceptional!

It was a great start of the day on our first safari.

We diverted right onto one of the side roads to explore further. On the way, our guide spoke about the famous different tigers & tigresses and how the forest department IDs them. These regions are known by the respective cat’s territory.

Usually, the female’s territory is 15kms compared to the male which spans to over 30kms, and overlaps several female territories and tries to add them to his harem.

Females & males mark their territory with urine. Males scratch tree trunks and if they see older markings lower than theirs, they search for them to compete.

Photo of the tiger markings on the tree

Dirt roads took us around the core area of Tadoba – Andhari tiger reserve. We soon came up to the Andhari river and waited here for a while hoping to catch a glimpse of the tiger but unfortunately nothing appeared through the thickets of forest in front of us.

Hearing from the guides of the other passing vehicles, a tiger was spotted in a nearby area, and we quickly headed to the location. By the time we reached the spot, there were around 10 other vehicles already waiting for the tiger to come out. Our guide noticed some movement in the bushes on the left and looked very carefully in that direction. After confirming through his binoculars, he asked us to concentrate in the region to see a tiger walking away from us.

We quickly aimed our cameras to capture the big cat. Unfortunately, we did not get the shots we desired. But we kept looking at it enjoying its magnificent presence before it disappeared into the dense forest. This was my life’s first tiger spotting in the wild (sort off), and it was WILD!

Tiger in the bushes

Ah, the thrill of chasing stripes. I think, this is part of the whole excitement and I enjoy it when done correctly and in proportion. Following proper etiquettes is necessary to have a memorable experience.

We also had good sightings of many other animals like the spotted deer, sambars, langurs, wild boars and many birds along the way.

Complete family of Spotted Deer. Don’t miss the alpha male watching over his family.
A lone female Sambar.
Wild boar
Adult content Caution : A Langur enjoying the morning sun from the canopy. 😀

We witnessed a large crocodile enjoying a sun bath along the Telia lake and many fearless whistling ducks surrounding it.

We had come to the end of our morning safari and soon we were out of the gate. Our mobile phones were handed over to us from the box and we were dropped straight to our hotel.

We had to grab an early lunch as we had our evening safari already scheduled. This time we were accompanied by a different driver and guide.

As we entered the gate, our guide specifically asked us what we wanted to see, in this way he narrowed down the routes and took us to the exact spots.

Photo of Red wattled Lapwing

The tiger was definitely on the top of our checklist (no points for guessing!). So, without wasting any time he took us straight near a water body which was one of the common hang out spots for the tigers. We waited for a while but apart from a Red-wattle Lapwing resting, there was nothing there. Usually, summers should be a great time to see tigers near or inside watering holes.

Next, we headed to the same spot where we saw the tiger that morning. We were the only vehicle there at that moment.

While our guide was looking for a tiger, he noticed a shadow pass through beyond the bushes. And he asked us to be completely silent till he confirmed what it was. Soon there was a air of excitement and hushed yelps and vigorous pointing. It was ‘Blacky’ the black panther – One of the rarest Big Cats of Tadoba. And VERY fortunately we were alone on the pathway for some kilometers.

I quickly lifted my camera to look for the cat. That’s when I could see it through the viewfinder. I was spellbound and could not make myself press the button fast enough.

It was beautiful! and in a blink it was gone.

I clicked a photo before it went into the bushes and only got its tail in the frame.

The tail of the black panther

I was so happy to be fortunate enough to have see the black panther even though it was just a glimpse.

Our eyes were still searching for it in the thickets when our guide decided to reverse the vehicle and stay completely silent. So the driver turned the engine off too. Our guide asked us to focus our cameras on the road ahead as Blacky would surely turn around and come in front on our vehicle and cross over on to the other side. Our guide was knowledgeable and understood the nature and the actions/reactions of our subject, that’s why he was able to predict what the leopard may do.

Siddharth (my brother-in-law) and I, seated at the back of the safari jeep, had a few seconds to check our camera settings and stay ready hoping for the big cat to cross.

 And guess what? It did cross over.

A black paw slowly came out of the bushes from the left side of the road revealing itself out in the open so gracefully. There it was ‘Blacky’ The Black Panther.

As it came on the road, it stopped and looked straight at us for a second. I can never forget that look in those bright eyes. It was magical just like a ‘Bagheera’ out of ‘The Jungle Book’. As if he paused for an applause for his exquisite private cat walk performance.

We aimed our cameras at him and fired away.

Looking away from us, it crossed on to the other side. It was a moment of a lifetime!!

‘Blacky’

It felt like time had frozen and it was just Blacky and us in this beautiful forest. All this time, we were alone with him but the moment it disappeared into the woods, a few safari enthusiasts appeared from a distance behind our jeep looking confused seeing all of us in the vehicle celebrating our lucky encounter excitedly!

While we headed to another location hoping to see a tiger, our guide pompously announced to any guide who would care to listen in the passing vehicles about us spotting the black leopard. He told us that anyone can see a tiger in these forests but spotting a black panther is very very rare and he was feeling very proud that he was able to spot one for us.

Next, we tried to search for the tawny owl which was seen a couple of times near the river. We headed straight to the spot but we had no luck finding it. Instead, we did spot some other birds of prey like the Changeable Hawk Eagle, White Eyed Buzzard and the Honey Buzzard.

Changeable Hawk Eagle
White Eyed Buzzard
Honey Buzzard
Black Winged Kite
A mongoose also came out in the open for a bit to visit us.

Right before sundown, we revisited the watering hole where the guide had first taken us hoping to spot the tiger, we were welcomed by a traffic jam on the dirt track. There was a loud rustle in the bamboo forest lining the sides of the dirt track. We could here whatever was making the rustling sound was approaching our jeep slowly. We were sure it was not a cat as they are never so loud while they walk. Maybe Gaur? perhaps. After 15 mins of suspense and rustling growing louder and louder, one cautious snout poked out of the trees followed by a curios junior snout. Soon with a lot of encouragement mamma Sloth bear was able tug the baby sloth bear across the pathway right in front of our jeep. Shutterbugs clicking away the cute duo. A rare sighting again of ‘Baloo’ from the Jungle book.

Sloth Bear with her baby bear

It was getting too dark and all the vehicles had to get back to the gate before 06:30 pm. And it was the end of our wonderful safari.

After heading back to our hotel, we had an early dinner and excitedly appreciated/assessed photographs and encounters before calling it a night.

3)     Walking on a nature trail 

Next morning we drove to the starting point of ‘Tadoba Nature walk’ which was a 30 mins drive from our hotel. We had reached the spot a bit earlier and did a bit of bird watching along the way. We spotted a few larks and swallows.

Barn swallows on the wires
Rufous Tailed Lark

The nature walk is organized by the local authorities. A designated group of locals accompany you into the jungle. At first we found it weird that more than one guide is accompanying us on the nature trail. It was literally a whole team. This trail was not even near the main core or first ring of buffer area and we were not able to fathom why we need so many people accompanying us. But as this day passed we realised the reason.

Nature Trail entrance
Path leading to the dense forest

The walk started from the main road towards an open land and into a dense forest. We were accompanied by five locals, two in front and three behind us at all times, who carried sticks for safety. They told us about tiger sightings recently around the area (which we off-course thought was exaggerated) and asked us to be alert and silent while on the walk.

Walking in the dense forest was a bit challenging. The uneven ground with rocks and twigs made it very difficult to walk as we were also trying to look for any movement around us. We spotted the usual small forest birds like Oriols, paradise flycatcher etc.. nothing rare and unusual.

See the whole gang of security around us? while we look up for birds.

Fresh Tiger pug marks, the reason for the security force with us.

The trail is a great way to know the local lores and stories. How the villagers live with one of the most famously dangerous cats and avoid human- animal conflicts. Their everyday struggles and cautions, their strategies to boost economy and different activities they offer to help tourisim.

We were back out in an hour, mainly because it was getting hotter and we were not really spotting any birds and most importantly, we were hungry. It was time for breakfast. So, we headed back to our hotel and enjoyed a good meal. We had planned to do a bit of boating and spot some water birds next. The location was just a half hour drive from our hotel.

4)     Boat cruise on Irai dam 

The usually ignored by visitors, Tadoba Boat Safari starts from a floating pier on Erai reservoir. The ticket counter and the pier was well maintained and tidy with a clean washroom. Lucky for us, we had the complete six-seater boat to ourselves for an hour.

 

All set to enter the boat

The boat was clean and had a roof to protect us from the heat. We had ourselves seated and ready with binoculars and cameras set on our tripods.

Bird spotters alert!
and click click click!!!

After the adventure we had on our safaris the previous day, we thought of having a little relaxing time but guess what.. things got interesting after a while.

As we began our boat ride, we saw a few common birds like the River Terns, Cormorant, Gulls. We also saw huge flocks of Whistling ducks flying from one spot to another. One of the birds I had not seen before was the Red crested Pochard. Their red bills were shining under the Sun.

This reservoir is a treasure trove of water birds. The weeds surrounding it and under the water may be full of food to attract such wide varieties of ducks.

White browed Wagtail
Red Crested Pochard
Red Crested Pochard at flight
Knob Billed Duck

“Surprises come to you when you least expect it”

Our boat was slowly creeping along the edge (keeping a bit away from shallow waters) of the reservoir so as to not scare away the ducks. As we were busy admiring the beautiful birds in the distance, Varnica (my wife) happened to look through her binoculars along the edge of the lake for any waders and spotted a statue of a tiger sitting on an embankment. She called out to us to look in that direction and laughed, humoring the attempt of the forest authorities to encourage tourist about spotting tigers in the safaris, she was still disappointed that we dint see any tigers properly the day before during our time in the forest.

I looked through my camera and saw it. But wait… within a few moments it moved its head looking straight at our boat. I stiffened, as we realised that’s it, it’s a real one. A real surprise encounter with the tiger.

With a feeling of butterflies in our stomachs, shocked from what we just saw, we did not know how to react for a few seconds.

I asked the driver to stop the engine of the boat while I focused on the tiger and kept clicking a number of photographs and making videos of this majestic beast. This helped us get good photographs without any vibration caused due to the engine and it was much quieter.

The look it gave us while it sat on that rock was second to none.

In my mind, I thought of ‘Sher Khan’ the tiger from the Jungle Book.

The majestic big cat sits out in the open.

The driver of the boat was equally excited to have seen the big cat himself and kept blurting different names trying to recognize it, but honestly, the name didn’t matter much to us. Seeing one tiger in the open – outside of the sanctuary was unbelievable. More than we could have hoped for. We kept looking at the tiger as it stood up very calmly from its position and went into a large cluster of weeds.

Check out the video I took of this moment.

We hoped it showed itself just once more but we realized that the show was over. The driver turned on the engine of the boat and moved away from the spot.

At one moment we were joking about the fact that we didn’t get a good view of the tiger the day before on both our safaris when authorities claim hundreds of residents. And at another, we were having a jaw dropping moment seeing the big cat here in the open.

Pied Kingfishers perfectly seated for a photograph
Osprey in flight

We still had some time left from our one hour slot, so we explored the other side of the lake where we also spotted a pair of Pied Kingfishers and a hunting Osprey.

With this our boat ride ended and we were back on shore. Showing off our tiger spotting and photography.

Shikra
Bush Chat – Female

On our way back to the hotel, we also spotted a Jungle Owlet on the side of the road. We stopped the car and got off as slowly as possible to get a good view and also a few photographs too. Lucky for us, the owlet did not feel intimidated by us.

Jungle Owlet perfectly camouflaged
5)     Driving on Tadoba-Chandrapur road 

The road which connects Chandrapur and Tadoba is another excellent driving patch where one can encounter wildlife. Because this road is along the borders of the national park, it is possible to spot various animal crossings too, yet you can not stop anywhere. Fret not, drive really slowly and enjoy the suspense of wildlife spotting for free.

Family of Gaurs at the side of the road.

We headed to another popular tourist attraction on this road: ‘Butterfly World’.

@ Butterfly World

The Butterfly World is located on Agarzari road towards Chandrapur city. This park is very well maintained and is a fun place for families with kids. We enjoyed our time identifying the different species of butterflies in the park based on their information boards which are placed in strategic locations making it a fun yet educational park.

Ticket cost are around INR20/- with additional camera charges.


In conclusion,

Tadoba is a fine example of almost calm relation between wildlife and humans. Human are benefitting by helping maintaining forests and wildlife as it is attracting more and more tourists each year. Thankfully, we observed that locals are conscious of not encouraging ill practices which would harm or stress the wildlife.

If you see the above tiger photo closely, you may see a haystack behind it. The point to wonder is the proximity at which this tiger is sitting to human settlement. Yet there was no conflict. Humans have got used to remaining calm and giving space to the cats and so has the big cat learnt to ignore humans. The tiger was sitting only a couple of meters away from the main road which connects the villages, yet it was composed and not feeling under threat. Unfortunately, there are still accidents. But at-least all beings have realised that both sides need each other for survival. Baby steps… Baby steps.

Tadoba to me will always have a sweet spot in my heart as thats where my mind was blown with watching stripes and spots so close to me yet wild and free. It will always be on the top of my list for Tiger reserves to visit.

Hope this post has encouraged you to not only visit Tadoba for ‘Tiger’ or only for wildlife safaris. There are so many other things to enjoy and experience, and you never know who maybe sitting and watching you at the next turn 😀

2 thoughts on “Tadoba – Andhari Tiger Reserve – A weekend with the Big Cats!

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