Photographing Wild Tigers: Part 2 – Tracking

In Part 1, we discussed the best time to visit the National Parks for wild tigers. In Part 2, we’ll go through the ‘tiger safari’ and what it involves, how you get around the parks and, most importantly, how you find wild tigers.

Is it easy to photograph wild tigers?

Simply put… It’s not. It’s a challenge. Actually, let me clarify. It’s easy enough to take a record shot, or catch a few stripes in the undergrowth. But, if you’re reading this, then you’re after rather more than that. You want portraits and behaviour, clear views, great light, close-ups. These are not easy. To have a portfolio like mine, you’ll need to return again and again, over several years. And it never gets easier. The more you visit, the more you want. The more discerning you become. The more demanding you are. It becomes and addiction. But an exciting one! The challenge is always there.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Photographing kills and other behaviour is difficult. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 300.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 200

Now, if I was pragmatic, I would say something like: “You are well-advised to enjoy the National Parks for their unspoiled wilderness and wildlife diversity” And something else along the lines of “Sighting and photographing a tiger should remain a remarkable bonus. If you go with the single aim of photographing tigers – it could be a disappointment.

But, hey! We’re wildlife photographers. We face disappointment all the time and we excel in the face of adversity. I know people like us are not going to pay ££££s and travel thousands of miles for deer and langur monkey. We are visiting these particular National Parks for tigers. Period.

Portrait of dominant male tiger – Kumbha. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ranthambhore National Park, India with NIKON D800 and 600.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

I’m definitely guilty of being single-minded, when it comes to tiger photography. I’ve shunned practically every other animal (apart from sloth bear and leopard), sacrificing dozens of great photo opportunities, simply because I have been 100% committed to photographing tigers.

However, on some of my most recent trips, I have learned to relax and enjoy the park as a whole. True, I was there for 3-weeks, so the pressure was off. But, I still enjoyed the National Parks as a whole, bringing back fantastic memories and great photographs of rutting deer, colourful birds, playful monkeys, and jungle vistas.

“Will I see a tiger?”

OK, here’s the bad news. Whether you see a tiger or not is largely down to the tiger. If the tiger doesn’t want to show itself, then chances are you will not see it. I’ve watched a tiger, from a distance, lay down low in the grass at the sound of oncoming vehicles. Once the tourist vehicles have passed, the tiger has risen and carried on along its journey. Another time, a tigress took evasive action after spotting waiting vehicles. She surveyed the scene, turned aside, and walked to another more secluded water hole.

Tigress walking through open forest. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Ranthambhore National Park, India with NIKON D800 and 70.0-200.0 mm f/2.8 lens at ¹⁄₃₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.0 on ISO 400

And here’s the good news! Thankfully, many tigers are so habituated to tourist vehicles, they barely even acknowledge them. Male tigers, in particular, will just walk through everybody and everything, without so much as a sideways glance to the mêlée. You see, many of the National Parks’ tigers have lived with tourist vehicles and mahouts on elephants, from a very young age. If a tiger is carrying an injury, or if a tigress has young cubs, then maybe they will keep a low profile.

In short, your chances are very good, especially if you spend a descent amount of time searching for them. Ideally, spending a week in one of the mainstream National Parks, like Bandhavgarh or Ranthambhore, will pay dividends. I just go for two and three weeks at a time, because I am crazy for tigers.

Are you looking for a tiger photo safari? In April and May 2019, my friend and colleague David Lloyd is leading two groups to Bandhavgarh National Park. Click here for more info.

“Join us on a 9-day tour of India to photograph its tigers. This trip has been designed so that we can see and photograph India’s magnificent Bengal Tigers for 6-days straight at one of India’s most rewarding tiger parks, Bandhavgarh National Park. Plus, we secure the best zones in advance for our twelve drives in the park. You can even combine this Tigers of India tour with Wildlife of India. You can combine both for a truly incredible 24-day wildlife and tiger experience with a massive 20-days in the parks and a whopping 37 drives.”

Listen for alarm calls

Apart from recent eyewitness accounts (bush telegram), alarm calls from key prey-species are the primary indicator used to locate tigers. The key species that the guides listen for are: sambar deer, spotted deer (locally known as chital), grey langur monkeys, rhesus macaques. The deer have an acute sense of smell and monkeys have excellent eyesight, plus a high vantage point.

Sambar Deer (Cervus unicolor)
Sambar deer drinking at a waterhole. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS 10D and 50.0-500.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 7.1 on ISO 100

A sambar deer (above), being so large, will only make its distinctive alarm call when there’s a tiger, leopard, or a pack of wild dog. All fantastic sightings, so pay attention to these! A sambar may rarely see a tiger but will certainly smell or hear the approach if the tiger is not directly downwind and in hunting mode.

Spotted Deer or Chital (Axis axis)
Chital deer rutting call. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS 10D and 100.0-400.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₈₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.0 on ISO 200

Chital a.k.a. Spotted Deer (above) will also make an alarm call for these predators, but may also call for wolf, caracal, jackals, or even wild boar. Amusingly, chital have been known to make alarm calls for brightly clothed tourists.

Monkeys, peacock, and jungle fowl all make distinctive calls for all the aforementioned predators, but will also call for the lesser predators such as jungle cat, snakes, monitor lizards, etc. Needless to say, if all these prey species are present when a tiger walks through, the jungle goes bonkers!

The guides must differentiate between the calls to reason out the type of predator (large or small) and the direction in which it’s moving. A persistent and prolonged sambar alarm call on its own or combined with chital and monkey alarm calls is almost a guaranteed sighting of a tiger or leopard. Your guide will then have to judge its direction and try to have you in the right position at the right time.

Follow the physical evidence

Tigers leave distinctive physical evidence along their path. Sometimes we are able to use this evidence to judge their direction, how recently they passed and guesstimate a possible destination, i.e. waterhole, hunting ground, etc.

Pug-marks, tiger footprints

Pug-marks (footprints) running either along or crossing a road are quickly assessed: How fresh are they? What made them? Male or female? Sharply imprinted marks with the dust discoloured by damp paws, for example, are a good sign that the pugs were left very recently. Marks that are rounding and the same colour as the road are older but can still be useful in assessing the likelihood that a tiger is active in the area.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Male tiger pug mark. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II and 98.0-280.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

Pug-marks also enable guides to differentiate between male and female tigers. A male’s pug has rounded toes (see pic above), whereas a female’s are pointed in shape. The only drawback with following pug marks is that you risk wasting time in a wild goose chase, especially if there is more than one ‘active’ tiger in the area. On more than one occasion I’ve passed along a track, turned around 180º only to discover fresh pug-marks on top of our tyre tracks. In these situations you just have to sit back and smile. Being outmanoeuvred by a tiger is not a bad thing.

Territorial marking

Other physical evidence includes fresh claw marks on favoured territorial trees, fresh urine and scat (tiger faeces). These are often accompanied by scrapes in the earth, particularly visible on the dusty tracks.

Your guides can assess these to give a rough time of when the tiger was present. Along with pugmarks this evidence has particular relevance as tigers are extremely territorial. Their boundaries are closely guarded and maintained with scratch marks and scent marking on prominent trees and other landmarks.

A male’s territory will overlap those of mature females. Whereas a tigress may allow her daughters/sisters to share some territory, a mature male will never tolerate the presence of another mature male, even his own male offspring. When related females encounter one another, it’s a terse and grumpy affair, especially so if they have cubs.

What is the tiger safari?

The usual way to see tigers within the National Parks is in a tourist vehicle – a Suzuki Gypsy, shown below. These are much smaller than African safari Toyota Land Cruisers and Land Rover Defenders.

Tiger Tourism: Jeep Safari
Maruti ‘Gypsy’ on safari. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS 10D and 16.0-35.0 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₅ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 100

However, they are simple, rugged, open-top 4x4s built by Maruti and they are the safari vehicle of choice for all India’s National Parks. Some high-end camps and lodges are using larger TATA safari vehicles, but these are almost too large for the narrow tracks.

If you’re serious about your wildlife photography, pay the ‘exclusivity supplement’ and have a maximum of 2 passengers in the back. It’s amazing how much room your camera bags and equipment take up. If you’re only wildlife watching or your equipment is small and limited then you could have a maximum of 3-4 people.

Be aware that you will already have a driver and a mandatory Forest Department ‘naturalist’. If you have a professional guide from your lodge as well then that is another seat gone. The naturalist will often sit in the front passenger seat, to direct the driver, so the local F.D. park guide will be in the back with you, or hanging out on the back of the jeep. It’s rather cramped. If you’re anything like me, then you’ll want room to move and are quickly irritated by a lack of space.

What happens during the tiger safari?

Once you’re in the park driving along your route, your guide and driver will be looking for pug marks on the tracks. Guides are eager to be the first to enter the park and be the first along their route. If you’re way behind in the queue, the pug marks will have all been erased by the vehicles ahead of you.

Tiger Tourism: Driving Through Forest
Driving along forest track at speed. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS 5D and EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens at ¹⁄₁₅ sec at ƒ / 16 on ISO 100

If there are no fresh pug marks to be found, you’ll just continue driving along. They’ll be heading to either the last known sighting (based on info from the previous day) or for a waterhole, hoping to encounter a tiger having a morning drink. In the hot dry season, the waterholes are a likely place to find a tiger, especially if the tiger has killed and eaten during the night. They are, to an extent, creatures of habit and will go to waterholes to drink after every meal. This usually happens around first light, while it is still cool.

Tigress walking along edge of waterhole. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Tadoba National Park, India with NIKON D800E and 600.0 mm f/4.0 lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 400

If you strike-out at the waterholes, the drive will continue, moving from point-to-point along the route, stopping and waiting every few hundred metres. Pausing gives your guides the opportunity to listen out for alarm calls along the way. Sometimes, it feels like the driver and guide are just hoping to literally bump into a tiger on the track. Sometimes, they actually do.

Click here for Part Three: Photographing Wild Tigers

“Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed Part Two of my guide: “Photographing Wild Tigers”. I’ll be posting more seasonal guides and ‘top tips’ on here in the coming months. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing using the quick form below – just click the button. You can even decide on the type of posts you want to receive. My other feature articles, photography guides and Photo Stories are always accessible from my homepage.”

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