A day in the life of a tiger photographer

Here John Myers recounts the highs and lows of one of his recent adventures: An Indian Tiger Safari

It is January, early January and probably going to be a cold, dark and dismal first month of the year. Time to get away but where to? In recent years, I have done a lot of wildlife photography, but I have had little chance to film the majestic Bengal Tiger.

All through 2023, an Indian guide, Indrajit, had been writing me e-mails, encouraging me back to India. Come January 2024, I was on my way to Delhi. I had lodgings and excursions booked at three National Reserves, namely Pench, Kanha and Todoba National Parks. The first two are in Madhya Pradesh, and Todoba Reserve is just south of Madhya Pradesh in Maharashtra State, in central India.

Kanha National Park, set on the Chota Nagpur Plateau on Madhya Pradesh provides breathtaking vistas of grassy plains and Sal forests. It is a 366 sq mile preserve set to save the Tiger and Barasingha deer.

It is a 5.15 am start to the day. There is an early morning wake-up call followed by a gathering at the reception area for a slug of coffee and ab owl of porridge. Torch lights on and it is a short walk to the awaiting transport, the robust Suzuki Maruti 4×4 open top vehicle, (somewhere between a Mini-Moke and an old Landrover. The Suzuki Jimny would be its nearest equivalent in the UK). It is dark, misty, cold and still. The forest is awakening and beckoning. I sit with blanket and hot water bottle and I am geared up, wearing all my warm clothes. A few hundred yards takes us to the Park Entrance. We have this day, a full day pass, that means we can be in the park for a full 12 hours. There is a growing line of Marutis, all awaiting their allocation of a Park Ranger.

On the move and in the Park, we feel the chilly air, hear the birds and listen out for alarm calls given out by Langur monkeys, Spotted or Sambar deer. The forest trees loom out of the mist as we pass along the track. We choose our own track but still after half an hour or so, nothing much is happening. A few spotted deer by the trailside and several peacocks, but no shrill alarm calls that betray the presence of a predator. The driver stops the Maruti and we all listen out. Nothing, no alarms. Sometimes upon entry to the Park, the driver speeds off (at a 25km pace) in the direction of the spot where a tiger was last seen the previous afternoon.

Tigers, as we know, are carnivores and prefer hunting large ungulates, which are hoofed animals, such as the Gaur, India’s largest bovine, Wild Boar, Sambar and Spotted Deer to name a few. Tigers will even stray outside the Reserve and go for a domestic animal such as a cow – easy pickings! The rearing of cubs takes a long time. A tigress gives birth to up to four cubs. A tiger cub weighs in at about 1.5 kilos at birth and has thick woolly fur that is shed after 5 months. The cubs will suckle for 3-6 months and begin to eat a small amount of meat when they are about half a year old. It is then that they will follow their mother on her hunting expeditions and start to learn how to survive. Up to about 22 months, the cubs are unable to hunt for themselves. Their canine teeth are not fully developed and they have to rely on their mother’s skill at tracking down an animal and providing their food. It is not until they are about 2-3 years old that they separate from the family group and start to look for a new area.

We soon get word of a sighting. The rush is on. A tiger has been spotted. Vehicles close in from all directions. There is no off-roading allowed in the Parks. Apart from the usual forestation, the tracks are usually lined with Lantana, a fast growing weed, brought in from South America and which cannot be eradicated. Together with Cat Mint this greenery rises to about a metre or so either side of the track, offering shelter for the deer but also cover for the predator. So tiger sightings are usually made along the roadside. A tiger will suddenly appear from the undergrowth, cross or walk along a road. Of course the Marutis are all waiting and jostling for position to get the best photo angle in anticipation of the cat’s movement. Cameras are out, lenses are focusing, Marutis are revving up, reversing, going forward, their drivers all aiming to get the best position for their passengers. These vehicles hold about 6 passengers plus Park Ranger/guide and driver. Some have even more on board, all leaning out, standing up trying to see what is happening. It is all happening. Dull and quiet one minute, hectic and almost frantic the next. With the modern digital camera it is easy to click off 1000 shots in a short period. Every shot will be different. A tiger with paws forward, ears forward, eyes looking directly into the camera – these are the photos everyone wants.

India’s tiger population is currently around 3000. Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan can add a few more individuals to the total. The tiger has been a popular big game animal. It has, in the past, been hunted and killed almost to extinction. In 1973 Project Tiger was launched, aiming to ensure a viable tiger population in the country. A selection of areas for tiger reserves was set up. In 1984, 1100 tigers were stationed to inhabit these Reserves. They lead solitary lives and have their own range within which they can satisfy their needs of prey, water and shelter.

Well the excitement is over for awhile. The tiger has ventured off into the undergrowth once again. Those Marutis that are just arriving on the scene have missed the experience. It is all a gamble whether you get a sighting, just a sighting, a good viewing or at best several minutes on your own in a single vehicle with no other humans around. This is the very best, and I was fortunate enough to have such an opportunity. We drove 50 metres or so slowly in front of a tiger that was strolling behind the vehicle on a rusty red coloured track (matching in to the tiger’s colours). What a majestic animal the tiger is.

On a full day’s pass, you do get 12 hours of roaming the trails and tracks. But you do get a packed breakfast and lunch, provided by the Lodge. During the morning the bonnet of the Maruti also becomes the breakfast table. There are some designated parking areas at some forest camps. We drive into a small fence-enclosed area. It is good to stretch the legs and use the facilities and down a steaming mug of coffee together with an Indian breakfast, all set up on the bonnet by the guide and driver.

Then there is the next session. Nothing is guaranteed. You stop the next Maruti on the track and request information about sightings. The oft heard words are ‘Kuch Nahin’. This is Hindi for nothing. It is quite possible you can drive on for hours and there is ‘Kuch Nahin’.

I suppose the photography is good in January. The light is excellent, there being no middle of the day bright sunlight, no heat hazes, no harsh sunlight and strong shadows.

At the end of the day, all the vehicles have to be out of the Park by 6.30pm. So the photography has to stop and, in any case, the evening is approaching fast and the light is becoming poor. No matter where you are in the Park, allowance has to be made for the return trip back to the Park gate.

It is cold again, and the hot water bottle so warm and comforting in the morning, has been discarded and lies on the floor. We can only respond by wrapping ourselves with the blankets as we forge forward into the greying and misty twilight.

It is now pitch black and gradually the Marutis edge back to the Gate. The vehicles exit the Park. The Park Rangers dismount, with the words ‘see you early tomorrow morning’. We shout back our thanks, knowing it will be the same procedure on the following day.

Eventually it is the last morning. I sit down with my guide, Indrajit, for a hearty breakfast at the Lodge. I discuss the future. How busy is he? What is his schedule for the months ahead. Well, he has a free week at the beginning of May. Now the Todoba Reserve, which was included in the January trip, did offer the best sightings of tigers. This tiger reserve is a wildlife sanctuary in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra State.

Well in early May it will be hot, very hot in Todoba. But tigers love water. There is not so much water about as the summer heat sets in. Yes this big cat, the top predator, loves sloshing and slopping around in the water pools. So getting some photos of tigers lying about in the water would be great. Oh yes, again, it is all booked up. Got to take those chances when they arise!

Many thanks and I trust you have enjoyed reading the above. A safari well recommended.

John Myers