Everything You Need To Know About Photographing Wild Tigers Part 1
In November, India’s National Parks reopen following the annual monsoon closures and Tiger photography tours are back in full swing. There is quite simply nothing on Earth that compares to a wild tiger but here are a few things you should know before heading out on a tiger safari…
1. PREPARE YOURSELF!
Photographing these mesmerising big cats in the wild takes a steady hand. There is no safe, double-lined fence for you to walk up to and poke a lens through, or laminated safety glass. In fact, there’s nothing at all between you and a very wild 3-metre long, 500lb, master predator. This in itself can take some adjusting! Not to mention a spare set of underwear!
My first experience of trying to photograph tigers in the wild was comical. I shot hundreds of frames (in slide film) of everything the tigress did: Walking, sitting, licking, walking away, standing behind bamboo, behind more bamboo… I kept 3 frames out of a wild burst of joyful photographic abandon. I binned hundreds of blurry, badly exposed, and just plain awful shots that often missed the subject altogether. Basically, they were all rubbish!
This was because it was my first time, I was entirely inexperienced, underprepared and overwhelmed by the encounter. You see, tigers are extraordinarily beautiful. They are staggering to behold. They can also be terrifying. There are very few creatures left on this planet that will look to make a meal out of a fully grown human and the Royal Bengal Tiger is one of them.
You can really sense this when they look at you. They stare straight through your eyes and burn a hole straight into your brain. Right then and there you instantaneously realise that they deserve your respect and you should give it to them.
2. When Is The Best Time To See Tigers?
The tiger parks, such as Ranthambhore, are all closed during the monsoon season. From June to the end of October you can really forget about a tiger photography tour.
March is relatively pleasant time to go on a Ranthambore tiger tour and although the temperatures sometimes soar to past 40°C in April, this is the best time to see tigers. It’s worth the sweat. You just drink plenty of water, a few rehydration sachets and enjoy a cold shower. The foliage has shrivelled and died and less foliage, means greater visibility through the forest and higher temperatures mean the tigers are more likely to visit their waterholes.
3. How Easy Is It 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 a few stripes in the undergrowth. But if you’re reading this, then you’re after more than that. You want portraits, clear views, great light, close-ups. These are not easy but to just see these magnificent stripped lords of the jungle is an incredible privilege!
4. How Do You Find Wild Tigers?
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 jeep traffic. Once the tourist jeeps have passed, the tiger has risen and carried on along its journey. Another time, a tigress took evasive action after spotting waiting vehicles. She simply had a good look around, turned aside, and walked to another more secluded water hole.
With a tiger’s cunning against you, you are well advised to enjoy the National Parks for their unspoiled wilderness and wildlife diversity, such as rutting deer, colourful birds, playful monkeys, and jungle vistas.
Apart from recent eyewitness accounts (bush telegram), alarm calls are the primary detector used to locate tigers. The key species that guides listen for are sambar deer, spotted deer (locally known as chital), grey langur monkeys and rhesus macaques. A sambar deer, 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.
A chital will also 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 a forementioned predators but will also call for the lesser predators such as jungle cat, snakes and monitor lizards. Needless to say, if all these prey species are present, the jungle goes bonkers!
Your local wildlife guide will be able to 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… or as good a chance as you are likely to get. Your guide will then have to judge its direction and try to have you in the right position at the right time.
Tigers also leave distinctive physical evidence along their path. Sometimes we are able to use this evidence to judge their direction, guesstimate a possible destination and how recently they passed.
Foot prints 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.
The only drawback with following foot prints is that you risk wasting time in a wild goose chase, especially if there is more than one tiger active in the area. On more than one occasion I’ve passed along a track, turned around 180º only to discover fresh foot prints 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!
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 foot prints, 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 a few females but will not tolerate another male’s intrusion. Whereas a tigress may allow her daughters/sisters to share the border areas, it’s a terse and grumpy affair if they encounter one another, especially so if one has cubs.
Has this convinced you to come along on a tiger safari? If you need some more persuasion, look out for part two of my next blog entry!