This year is shaping up to be pretty special for my photography. My weddings are taking me all over Europe and I'm finally finding the time to dedicate some of my off season to my lifelong passion for wildlife. Whilst every photographic adventure is very special in its own right, I'd been counting down to this trip to Ranthambhore, India, for a looooong time.
I guess like many kids, I was seriously in to tigers from a very young age. The difference is that my passion for them didn't disappear with age, it only grew! Of all the big cats, tigers have always been the ultimate for me, for many reasons that I won't completely geek out on here. Despite that, I really didn't imagine that, any time soon, I would get the opportunity and absolute privilege to see them in the wild, never mind have the absolutely mind blowing encounters we witnessed during our week in magical Ranthambhore.
It's very important to say here that tiger numbers, whilst on the increase globally, are still desperately low. They are still relentlessly poached and their numbers suffer greatly from retaliatory killings and habitat loss. To lose one of the planet's most iconic species would be disastrous to us all and the habitats they are still found in - this slow increase in numbers shouldn't be taken for granted. In the last hundred years their numbers have fallen from 100,000 to around 4,000 today. To sponsor a tiger and do your bit for their conservation, you can do so here.
It has to be said that none of this would have been remotely possible without the incredible team I was lucky to be led by. Andy Rouse and Dicky Singh are two of the world's most renowned tiger photographers (click the links for more of their awesome work) and in Salim, Himmat and Rajkumar, there are no finer guides and drivers in the park.
Finally, in answer to a couple of questions I've been getting; yes, these tigers are all absolutely wild and yes, we got very, very close to them!
Our first encounter with Ghost, on our very first drive, was whilst she crossed a rocky valley. It turned out she was heading back to her cubs, who were feasting on a Sambar deer kill by the side of a forest trail. Ghost gets her name from being a tad elusive. As her territory is next door to the legendary tigress, Noor (more from her later!), a lot of the time she likes to keep herself and her family in thick bush. Clearly this plan is working well for her and the cubs; they are all fit and healthy - the cubs are a very impressive trio indeed.
The purpose of this sequence is not to be blatantly gruesome, more that this is completely natural behaviour for carnivorous predators, like tigers. When you think of tiger cubs, you possibly imagine something cute and cuddly - however, these guys are nearly a year and a half old and very powerful in their own right. There is a hierarchy at the kill and each tiger eats his or her fill, before the next gets a go. Any tiger trying to sneak in for a bite is dismissed in no uncertain terms! Although the bushes were very thick and not at all suitable for great photos, just being within a few metres of this kind of action was absolutely remarkable.
Whilst Ghost was living up to her name, the intense heat in Ranthambhore in summer means that every tiger, even the secretive ones, have to cool down. Despite the temperature being 45c + every day, summer is probably the best time to see tigers in Ranthambhore; as well as the forest being less full of vegetation, as the weather is so hot and so dry, the few waterholes that don't dry up become oases and the tigers gravitate towards them. After an amazing first day, on the way out of the park we were treated to great views of Indian nightjar, brown fish owl and the ever-present langur monkeys.
Our next morning was the first opportunity to photograph tigers in the open, in the beautiful warm light, after sunrise. As I mentioned earlier, after eating, during the heat of the day the tigers gravitate towards waterholes. To get there they have to walk! This can offer some great opportunities for photography - one of Ghost's male cubs was particularly bold and gave us a great encounter, along the forest trail. The final couple of pictures in this sequence are him picking up another tiger's scent on a tree and then him performing the flehmen response; a behaviour where the scent and pheromones are inhaled and essentially processed, giving him information on who's been there and when.
Later we followed the cubs to one of their favourite waterholes, under a rocky cliff. The cubs chased each other around, in some lovely light and even this spotted owl was impressed!
Before I came on this trip, I'd read many of Andy's updates from his previous trips and had heard him speak at local talks about his current favourite tigress, Noor. Without ever seeing her, she had already become a bit of legend and we had been told that if she was sighted, we would definitely be leaving Ghost and her cubs to find Noor and her three six month olds. Let's just say that we weren't disappointed and my next blog will be all about the legendary Noor and her current litter. Here's a teaser for you all - what a truly awesome cat she is!