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Welcome to VCM-Photography, a website designed and written by myself Vernon Metcalfe to showcase my photographic passion for military aviation and wildlife.

My aviation photography is orientated towards the dynamic aspect of military low flying, where aircraft are captured flying landlocked against the countryside, rather than airshow photography, where aircraft are captured against the sky.

My parallel passion is wildlife photography, encompassing all species, but with a preference for the ‘Big Cats’, which has taken me to places such as India, looking for the elusive tiger, Africa for the lion, leopard and cheetah and to the Brazilian Pantanal for the iconic jaguar.

Boeing EA-18G Growler Boeing EA-18G Growler low-level in the Jedi Transition. California, U.S.A.

Lion cub lying beside its mother Nkuhuma Pride, lion cub. Sabi Sands, South Africa.

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Trip Report April 2024

In April my wife and I travelled to India to visit Tadoba‑Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) which lies in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra state. Tadoba is noted for its sightings of tiger, sloth bear, dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) and an elusive melanistic leopard, known as ‘Blacky’.

Tadoba National Park was created in 1955 and the Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986. The two were amalgamated in 1995 to form what is now the Tadoba‑Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR), one of India's fifty‑five Project Tiger reserves. The reserve consists of a core zone of 625.4 sq.km and a buffer/peripheral zone of 1106.6 sq.km, a total area of 1727 sq.km. The park takes its name from Tadoba Lake which lies in the middle of the core area and the Andhari river which flows through the heart of the reserve.

Tadoba-Andhari National Park Logo

The park is divided into three ranges by the Forest Department: Tadoba North Range, Moharli Range and the Kolsa South Range. All the core ranges are interconnected and accessible by jeep safari through six entry gates. In the core zone no villages exist, and cattle grazing is prohibited. Only wild animals live there in their natural habitat. Villages that did exist in the core area were relocated to neighbouring buffer zone areas to ensure the safety of the villagers and provide animals with a completely natural environment. The buffer zone which contains about eighty villages is where the villagers and livestock co‑exist with the wildlife. Cattle can sometimes fall prey to predators, so to keep the harmony between man and animal the Forest Department compensate the owners for their loss. With tourism prevailing in the area, initiatives such as the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust (TRACT) has been implemented to involve villagers in tourism which generates revenue and employment, giving them a vested interest in the park which has an added benefit of helping to protect the tigers against poaching. The buffer zone of Tadoba is accessible through fourteen entry gates.

The northern part of Tadoba covers the Chimur Hills, while the Andhari Sanctuary covers the Moharli and Kolsa ranges in the south. The northern and western sides of the park are covered with densely forested hills and are made up of small and large meadows and deep valleys, while the southern part of the park is less hilly. The habitat is classed as a tropical deciduous forest. Teak is the predominant tree species, accompanied by Ian (crocodile bark), bija, shauna, half, salai and tendu. Bamboo thickets grow in abundance throughout the park.

Forest view in Tadoba Range A typical view, Tadoba Range.

Friday 12th ‑ At 08:25 our British Airways Boeing 787 overnight flight from the U.K. landed at Indira Ghandi International Airport, New Delhi. Our original itinerary was to catch a domestic IndiGo Airlines flight to Nagpur, departing at 13:00, but annoyingly like a previous trip to India, IndiGo cancelled the flight after we had completed the booking, so we had to wait eight hours for the next available flight. Due to IndiGo cancelling the flight we would arrive in Tadoba later than originally planned, missing one of our fifteen private jeep safaris, which are non‑refundable. With our revised itinerary the flight to Nagpur was due to depart at 16:30, but this was delayed by an hour due to the late arrival of the inbound flight. We eventually boarded the Airbus A320, and the aircraft was pushed back and the engines started. Then the unbelievable happened! The aircraft taxied back to the parking stand and shut down the engines. The pilot announced over the intercom that by the time we reached Nagpur it would be dark, and he had been informed the runway lights had gone out and that all flights had been suspended till the issue was rectified. While waiting on the aircraft, the airline brought onboard and distributed goody bags which contained drinks and snacks to while away the time. We eventually departed at 21:30, after waiting on the aircraft for over four hours. But the traumas was still not over. The eighty‑minute flight was approximately thirty miles from Nagpur when the pilot announced the runway lights had gone out again. All sorts of thoughts were going through our minds. Are we going to return to Delhi, or divert to another airport? Our concern was, we had a taxi waiting at Nagpur to transport us to our hotel at Tadoba, which had now been waiting for over five hours. If we had to divert it was going to be more hassle to reorganise our travel arrangements and we would also miss more jeep safaris. Thankfully, after circling the airport for nearly ten minutes the runway lights came back on and we landed at 23:00.

Saturday 13th ‑ After arriving at Nagpur we had a 2.5‑hour journey (120km) by private taxi to our accommodation, the Wagabo Eco Lodge, located in the buffer zone of Tadoba National Park. We arrived at the lodge at 02:15, checked‑in and retired for some well‑needed sleep after travelling for nearly thirty‑six hours, but the sleep was short‑lived as we had to be up at 05:00 to prepare to leave the lodge at 05:30 for our first jeep safari.

The Pugdundee Safaris owned Wagabo Eco Lodge, is a sustainable eco‑luxe resort set in twelve acres of land in the buffer zone of Tadoba National Park. The lodge has fourteen luxury individual cottages and a superb restaurant which caters for the diets of local and international guests.

Wagabo Eco Lodge cottage A typical cottage at the Wagabo Eco Lodge.

Wagabo Eco Lodge restaurant The restaurant at the Wagabo Eco Lodge.

Our naturalist for the trip and a member of the lodge staff was, Gaurav Dhotre. Gaurav, who hailed from Mumbai was a very experienced and knowledgeable naturalist and a proficient photographer.

Naturalist, Gaurav Dhotre Our naturalist for the safaris, Gaurav Dhotre, preparing the picnic breakfast.

The itinerary for the next seven days and fourteen jeep safaris was as follows: Up early (04:45) for our morning jeep safari. We had time for a coffee and some biscuits before departing by jeep or private vehicle to our designated gate/zone for the safari. Most of our safaris were in the core zone, so we departed the lodge by jeep and made the twenty‑minute drive to the nearest entry gate, the Khutwanda Gate. At the gate we would pick up the Forest Department guie/tracker and present our passports for inspection. Since December 2018, Tadoba Forest Department has banned the carrying of mobile phones/iPads and tablets inside the tiger reserve (core and buffer zone). The rule is imposed on everyone, to prevent tourists going too near tigers to get selfies and stop jeep drivers informing others of a sighting which leads to a rush of vehicles speeding to the area. Thankfully cameras are allowed, but there is a fee of INR 250 per safari (approximately £2.50p). The park opened at 06:00. A picnic breakfast was taken in the park at a designated location. All jeeps had to exit by 10:00. We then returned to the lodge where we had free time till lunch, which was served at 12:30. After lunch we had more free time till the afternoon safari. The afternoon safari was the same procedure as in the morning. The park opened at 14:30, and all jeeps had to exit by 18:30. Returning to the lodge, we had free time till the evening meal which was served at 19:30. After the meal we retired for the evening after a long, exhausting but enjoyable day.

Morning safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ The Khutwanda Gate located in the Moharli Zone is regarded as the middle gate of the core zone, and an ideal gate for accessing all areas of the park.

Khutwanda Gate, Tadoba Entrance to the core zone through the Khutwanda Gate.

After entering the park, we followed the forest road east, till it meets a tarmac road which runs from the Moharli Gate in the south of the park, north into the Tadoba Range. The tarmac road is a legacy access road from when villages were in the core area. At the junction of the tarmac road, we turned north towards the Tadoba Range. A short distance along this road we passed through a Forest Department check point which monitors jeeps entering and leaving the range.

Moharli and Tadoba Ranges check point Forest Department check point between the Moharli and Tadoba Ranges.

We eventually found two fourteen‑month‑old tiger cubs, Mama (in Hindi means, uncle) and Bhanja (in Hindi means, nephew), feeding on a wild boar which had been killed by a leopard. They were inside the forest and difficult to see, so no photos were taken. While at the sighting there was a rumble of thunder and eventually it started to rain. The thunderstorm and heavy rainfall which was affecting most of Northwest India increased in intensity. Our cagoules were starting to leak, so we decided to install the rain cover on the jeep and go for our picnic breakfast at the Panchdhara Visava breakfast and toilets point, located at the southern end of Tadoba Lake. My wife and I were tired from our previous day's journey, and now we were cold and wet ‑ not the best start to our holiday.
After breakfast the rain had stopped. As we entered the Moharli Range, a large male tiger, Chota Dadiyal, was spotted walking within the forest, scent marking. Gaurav, told us that after rainfall tigers will usually patrol their territories and scent mark, as the rainfall might have washed away or diluted their previous markings. After capturing some photos it was time to leave the park.

Afternoon safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ We went to the Tadoba Range again where we found a male tiger sleeping in the forest, approximately thirty‑five metres from the road. No keepable photos were taken. On the way back to the exit we spotted a sloth bear with a cub on her back crossing a firebreak. The sighting was quick and too far away to get any keepable photos. After we left the tarmac road, heading towards the exit gate we heard a warning call from a sambar deer. In a meadow we spotted the male tiger, Chota Dadiyal, still patrolling his territory, scent marking. He emerged from the long grass and crossed the road in front of our jeep before disappearing into the forest. A nice ending to our first day.

Sunday 14th.
Morning safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ A nice warm morning with clear skies. For the remainder of our time at Tadoba the weather was dry, and the temperatures began to rise steadily, reaching 42 °C. Passing Tadoba Lake we saw a family of sambar deer in the water feeding on the lush vegetation, but we noticed they had their tails raised, which signalled a state of alertness. Perhaps there was a predator in the vicinity? We waited for a while, but nothing was seen or heard, so we moved on. North of the lake we saw a clan of five dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) on the edge of the forest. The eventually started running on the road, where we followed them for over half an hour. By driving ahead of the clan I managed to get nice photos of them as they approached.

Clan of five dholes hunting Clan of five dholes on the hunt.

After leaving the dholes we found the two tiger cubs, Mama and Bhanja, feeding on a sambar deer which had been killed by dholes. The two cubs have not yet been given a ‘T’ number. This is normally allocated by the Forest Department when a tiger is twenty‑four‑month‑old and classed as a sub‑adult (age 2‑4 years). The reason is because tiger juvenile mortality is high, with only half of the cubs surviving. The two tigers were relaxed and not intimidated by the jeeps which were starting to congregate at the sighting. They even came to the waterhole to drink and relax in the water, which was less than ten metres away. Great for photography.

Afternoon safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ After passing the check point and entering the Tadoba Range, we turned off the tarmac road onto a forest side road. We were following another jeep when suddenly it stopped, with the occupants signalling us to stop. Ahead, on the side of the road was a large male leopard. Realising we were not a threat the leopard walked towards a waterhole to drink. He was approximately fifty metres away and partially obscured by vegetation, but I was able to capture photos as he approached and left the waterhole. It's always nice to captures photos of a leopard as they are very elusive, especially when they are sharing the forest with tigers. We returned to the sambar kill, where we saw the two tiger cubs yesterday. We still found them at the site, sleeping. The tigers eventually awoke and came to the water to drink. There was a lot of jeeps at the sighting, so we decided to leave and search other areas, which was a good decision as we found the large male tiger, T‑138 Mowgli, walking in the forest towards a waterhole. We went ahead, and positioned the jeep so we got a good view as the tiger approached the waterhole to drink and cool off in the water. Another excellent sighting for photos.

Monday 15th.
Morning safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ We returned to the Tadoba Range to visit the site of the sambar deer kill. The stench of the decomposing sambar was overwhelming, but the tigers were still there, with Mama, feeding on the carcass. After feeding, Mama, approached the waterhole to drink. She was soon joined by, Bhanja. The sighting was starting to get busy as more jeeps arrived, so we decided to leave for our picnic breakfast, and then exit the park.

Afternoon safari, Moharli Gate (core zone) ‑ This afternoon we had to leave the lodge fifteen minutes earlier, as the Moharli Gate located at the southern end of the core zone was a forty‑minute drive away. We travelled to the gate by private vehicle, as the jeep for the safari would be based local to the area. Unlike the Khutwanda Gate, Moharli Gate located on the edge of the town is more commercialised, with souvenir shops and vendors renting camera equipment to tourists who realised they couldn't use their mobile phones/iPads etc.

Moharli Gate, Tadoba Jeeps waiting to enter the core zone through the Moharli Gate.

After entering the park, we travelled north on the tarmac road till we came to a waterhole set back fifty metres from the road in a clearing. The large male tiger, Chota Dadiyal, was resting on the embankment of the waterhole. He eventually entered the water to cool off. As the temperature started to drop, he got out of the water and started to walk towards us. Gaurav, moved the jeep nearer to an Indian frankincense tree, which he said was a favourite scent marking tree of this tiger. Then something amazing happened, which Gaurav said he had never witnessed before. Chota Dadiyal, started biting the tree, then lay down and started to lick the gum from the bark of the tree. When finished, the large male began to patrol his territory.
Returning to the exit gate via the Telia Lake, we saw a tiger in the water on the opposite bank, but it was too far away to photograph. The tiger left the water and started to walk along the shoreline. We noticed it had a limp, which was probably an injury from a territorial fight.

Tuesday 16th.
Morning safari, Dewada‑Adegaon Gate (buffer zone) ‑ On a Tuesday the core zone is closed to all visitors, so today our safaris were in the buffer zone.

Dewada-Adegaon Gate, Tadoba Jeeps waiting to enter the buffer zone through the Dewada‑Adegaon Gate.

At Tadoba, the buffer areas have been having good sightings. Because the reserve has a heathy population of tigers, and being a very territorial animal, tigers looking to secure a territory have been venturing into the buffer areas. The buffer area we were visiting today had a dense forest, predominantly of bamboo. Our female tracker soon found the tigress, T‑155 W‑Mark, who had three, three to four‑month‑old cubs. She was on the opposite bank of a small stream which had steep valley sides and thick vegetation, which made it extremely difficult to get a clear unobstructed view of them. They eventually moved down to the edge of the stream, where I was able to get a clearer view and capture some photos. It was nice just to sit and watch the cubs playing, and entertaining to see them trying to scramble back up the steep riverbank.

cub of tigress T-155 W-Mark Three to four‑month‑old cub of tigress, T‑155 W‑Mark.

Afternoon safari, Junona Gate (buffer zone) ‑ Entering through this gate we were able to access the area we visited in the morning, so we headed there looking for the tigress, W‑Mark, and her cubs. We soon found the mother who was sleeping on the opposite bank of the same small stream, but there was no sign of the cubs. After waiting for over an hour, the tigress awoke and started calling for the cubs. It was reassuring to see the cubs appear and heartwarming to watch the way the mother greeted them.
Driving back to the exit we saw the occupants of a group of jeeps pointing at an area of the forest. We just glimpsed a leopard walking ahead and entering the forest. The jeeps moved on, but we decided to wait. A few minutes later a female leopard emerged from the forest behind us and crossed the road. Another lucky sighting.

Forest road in the buffer zone A forest road in the buffer zone.

Wednesday 17th.
Morning safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ Five minutes after entering the park we saw an alpha male dhole sitting by the roadside. The rest of the clan were inside the forest feeding on a kill. We decided to move on. After entering the Tadoba Range we came across a clan of eighteen dholes resting on the road. As we approached, they started to regroup and moved into the forest and disappeared. Moving on we found a tiger resting near the Jamni Meadow. We think it was, Mama, one of the cubs seen previously. We watched as he started stalking some chital, but he was soon spotted and the chital started their alarm calls. We next visited a secluded waterhole and waited there for ten minutes. It was quiet, so we decided to go for our breakfast at the Panchdhara Visava breakfast point. While having our breakfast another jeep arrived and the Indian tourist informed us that, ‘Blacky’, the melanistic leopard had crossed the road a few minutes after we had left ‑ Ah well, win some, lose some.

Afternoon safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ Driving to the gate the temperature was 42 °C. After entering the park and reaching the tarmac road, we headed south to a waterhole where we found the tigress, T‑24 Sonam, resting beside the water. As it was hot, we decided to leave as she would probably be there for a while. In the Tadoba Range, we found a mating pair of tigers in the Jamni Meadow, under a tree. It was the male, T‑165 Yuvwraj, and the female, Bijli. They were hidden from view most of the time, but they did come into the open occasionally, which allowed me to capture some photos. About two hundred metres away on the far side of the meadow by the edge of the forest, Gaurav noticed a sloth bear foraging. We quickly went around to the area, but by the time we got there the bear had disappeared.

Thursday 18th.
Morning safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ we found the mating couple of tigers from yesterday afternoon, sleeping in a dense area of bamboo. A lot of jeeps had congregated at the sighting jostling for a view. The tigers were sleeping, so after thirty minutes we decided to leave.

Afternoon safari, Khutwanda Gate (core zone) ‑ We returned to where we saw the tigers in the morning, but they had gone. Following a couple of jeeps whilst driving back towards the range check point, we came across a male sloth bear walking on the tarmac road. The bear did not seem bothered by the vehicles as he left the road and wandered over to a ghost tree by the roadside. Standing on his hind legs, the bear began to rub his back against the tree. I managed to get some photos of the sighting, but the light was fading, and other jeeps prevented us from getting into an ideal position. But it was nice to watch.

Sloth bear walking on the forest road Male sloth bear walking on the tarmac road.

Friday 19th.
Morning safari, Navegaon Gate (buffer/core zone) ‑ We travelled by private vehicle to this gate as it was a fifty‑minute drive. The gate accesses the core zone via the buffer zone. The buffer zone which is now a large open area of grassland was once farmland and occupied by the village of Ramdegi. In 2013, the village was relocated and the forest has slowly been reclaiming the land.

Buffer zone landscape betwween Navegaon Gate and the Tadoba core zone Buffer zone landscape between Navegaon Gate and the Tadoba core zone.

After passing the check point and entering the core zone, we headed to the area near the Pandharpauni Lake 2. Near the lake we stopped to observe a large sambar feeding at the edge of the forest, when suddenly we spotted the tigress, T‑7 Chota Tara, who had also seen the sambar and was starting to stalk it. The sambar eventually spotted the tigress and barked an alarm call and quickly disappeared into the forest. The tigress then started to walk on the forest road towards us. We kept driving ahead to keep our distance, then stop and watch as she approached. We spent the next ten minutes doing this with only one other jeep in attendance, which made it even more special. The tigress reached an area of tall grass near the lake and disappeared into it. We located to a parking area overlooking the lake hoping she would come to the water to drink, which she eventually did.

Tigress, T-7 Chota Tara Tigress, T‑7 Chota Tara, at the Pandharpauni Lake 2, Tadoba Range.

When the tigress finished drinking, she walked back into the tall grass. All the jeeps which had now gathered at the sighting departed to the opposite side of the grass area, in the hope she would emerge onto the road. We decided not to follow as there was too many jeeps, and it would be chaotic. Gaurav suggested we return to the area we first sighted the tigress, because when we first sighted her he had heard an alarm call a distance beyond. As we left the other jeeps, one other jeep decided to follow us. It was a wise move, because after driving about four hundred metres along the forest road we saw the large male tiger, T‑138 Mowgli, walking towards us. We quickly turned the jeep around and kept driving ahead to keep our distance, as we did with the tigress. We had a quality ten minutes with the male tiger before other jeeps started arriving. Very happy with the two sightings we decided to leave the area and go for our breakfast, after which we exited the park.

Afternoon safari, Junona Gate (buffer zone).

Junona Gate, Tadoba Jeeps waiting to enter the buffer zone through the Junona Gate.

We headed to an area our tracker had seen a tiger on her morning safari. The location was by a small river in a dense forested area. We heard some monkey alarm calls, so we parked‑up and waited. It was 41 °C and because we were next to a river it was very humid. We waited for over two hours, but the tiger, we assumed was sleeping did not appear. My wife and I were starting to get uncomfortable with the heat and humidity. If the tiger did appear, the dense vegetation would prevent a clear view of the animal, so we decided to make our way towards the exit. As we approached the exit we saw a group of jeeps parked on the forest road because they had seen a tiger entering the tall grass near the gate. We could only wait for five minutes as it was time to exit the park.

Saturday 20th ‑ Today we were leaving Tadoba and travelling back home. We left the lodge at 05:00 by private taxi to travel to Nagpur to catch our 09:10 IndiGo Airlines domestic flight to New Delhi. We arrived in new Delhi at 110:45 and waited around the airport till we could check‑in to our room at the Holiday Inn Express, Terminal 3. We had booked a room as we had a fourteen‑hour wait till our international flight.

Sunday 21st ‑ We departed New Delhi at 01:35 on a British Airways Boeing 787 bound for the U.K. We arrived in London Heathrow at 07:30 after an uneventful flight.

British Airways Boeing 787 Our British Airways Boeing 787 aircraft at London Heathrow after our overnight flight back from New Delhi.

Closing thoughts ‑ Though our outbound journey was a nightmare, it all paled into insignificance with the quality of tiger sightings we witnessed. For any future trips to India my wife and I decided to look at alternative modes of transport to get to the national parks. We opted for domestic flights over an overnight train (which we previously used), as it would theoretically cut‑down our travel time and maximise our time for more jeep safaris, but on our last two trips to India, this was not the case. More than once we had to rearrange flights because IndiGo had cancelled them, costing us more expense and missing jeep safaris which are non‑refundable. Transport by road, and if necessary by rail, are the alternatives we will have to consider for future visits.

Photographs from my trip can be viewed at: 2024 ‑ Tadoba, India.

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