Searching Maya’s Cubs

My travels beyond the shores of Sri Lanka’s wilderness took me to Ranthambhore national park thrice in 2015 searching stripes in the great Indian wilderness. After 41 tiger sightings in the breathtaking Ranthambhore canvas, I looked beyond Rajasthan in search of more locations to see this amazing cat that stands out from the rest.

Highly recommended by Paul Goldstein of UK, we set our sights on Tadoba national park set in Maharashtra. Over 650 square kilometers extend, Tadoba resembles the dry zone wilderness of Ceylon more than Ranthambhore and amazingly, in all that space, they have an allotment of 47 Gipsy jeeps roaming at any given time.

Our objective over 10 game drives was simple and clear.. we travelled from Mumbai to Nagpur and then a further 200 kilometers away from the 18 million populous in the state capitol looking for two sets of tiger cubs.

Maya and Sornam were both mature females and they have both cubs aged 7 months, Sornam blessed with two cubs and Maya with three. The Theliya lake hosts Sornams range while a further 18 kilometers away along the ‘Pandarpuni’ region is Maya’s domain.

We arrived at an untimely moment with forest guards burning a fire line alongside all tracks that were still burning during our first game drive, this obviously changed the natural tiger activity sending the cats away from all roads that are on fire.

Our Indian expert guide Gajan Bopat was optimistic, We’ve got ten drives and we will see the tiger said Gajan much to my relief after seeing the fires.

we entered the park daily from the ‘Muhrali’ entrance and checked Sornams range initially before driving to Maya’s territory almost like a routine. On the 3rd drive well past 9 am, we were suddenly stopped by a jeep and moments later, one of Sornams cubs walked across perhaps the male cub, more adventurous to roam alone without the mothers presence. That was encouraging and certainly raised our hopes of freezing one moment with these amazing cubs at Tadoba.

The freezing temperaturr4s early morning forced us to wear heavy protection almost like on a snow leopard quest but I wasn’t embarrassed as most of the Indian visitors too were similarly taking their winter cloths in the morning with the chill existing almost pass 9 am each day. We pressed on in our hunt to spot Maya’s cubs as her terrain was certainly more photogenic and inviting to us as photographers.

But it seems like Maya had her own thoughts of almost teasing us with her precious family. We missed the cubs twice and that was almost painful, we were now into our 9thb game drive, alas! time was running out and Maya seems o be a step ahead of our plans all the time.

It was 0930 Hrs on the 8th February when we arrived at “Nmudi” water hole… almost a full compliment of jeeps ahead of us waiting for the queen of Pandarpuni and her offspring to arrive at the party. And thirty minutes later, I could sense the excitement in the jeeps ahead and do nothing much but look on and watch the 04 tigers cross the road a hundred meters in front of our Gipsy. It took our driver Sujee quite an effort to wade through fifteen jeeps to get into a spot from where we can see a glimpse of the cubs playing and I raised the 500 Mil and saw all three in the frame for not more than ten seconds. The 1DX fired two bursts and the show was over.

Hurriedly I previewed in anxiety and the nine drives was worth the effort, Five days of work, beating the morning chill and the burst of dust later, I had all three of Maya’s cubs at seven months of age.

The search for Maya’s cubs was successful, This mother having her first litter is blessed to inherit her mothers territory after a snake bite sadly killed the senior female at ‘Pandarpuni’, now her daughter Maya rules the lakes at the ‘Khatoda’ range.

As we boarded Jet airways at Nagpur transiting Mumbai to Colombo, my flashed back that ten seconds which made an unforgettable moment at Tadoba.

It wont be long before I return to this fascinating tiger reserve to track Maya, Sornam and Chotidhara, along with the fabulous male tigers Tadoba puts on show for the yearning traveler.

For now, Maya seems to be well in control and will care for her cubs at least till they are 18 months of age. Perhaps she will have new cubs mid next year when I return to Tadoba which I miss already on a flight back home to Sri Lanka.

Chitral Jayatilake
Photographer – Writer