The Spotted Deer on Chital Maidan had congregated in a large group and were looking around restlessly in fear. Their silhouettes in the thick fog of the early morning hour moved cautiously from one part of the meadow to another. Somewhere in the distance, deep in the stream that originates from the Nagzira Lake, a family of Sambar had caught sight of a leopard and had heralded its presence with a shrill cry that echoed through the valley. As the sun rose over the Nagdev hill, the relentlessly calling Oriental Scops-owl – nesting in the campus of the old wooden cottage – slowly settled for the day. Morning had arrived in Nagzira!
Situated in eastern Maharashtra, in the districts of Bhandara and Gondia, Nagzira is a green paradise. Denser than any other forest in central India, this beautiful landscape is dominated by mixed deciduous forests with trees like Ain or Crocodile bark (Terminalia elliptica), Teak (Tectona grandis), Arjun (Terminalia arjuna), Axlewood (Anogeissus latifolia), Red Silk Cotton (Bombax ceiba), and Harra (Terminalia chebula). The intermittent spread of bamboo helps to fill any gaps, making Nagzira look green and dense even in peak summers.
The almost triangular Nagzira Lake which sits at the heart of the jungle is the source of life for all that is around it. One can always find Pied Kingfishers hovering over the water looking for their favourite meal. I also know of at least two pairs of Grey-headed Fish-eagles who have nested along the shores of this lake for nearly five seasons now. In the early hours of dusk, one can always hear the fish-eagles – awwhh-awwwhr – their calls echoing through the entire forest. On the banks of the lake, at the foothills of the Nagdev hill, sits the shrine of Nag Dev – the guardian deity of this vast jungle. Years ago, I remember spotting from the far end of the lake, a Jungle Cat silently resting in front of the shrine!
Nagzira caught the attention of wildlife enthusiasts when the legendary female tiger, A-Mark, was ruling over a large portion of the jungle. The famous tigers Jai and Veeru were born to this huge, powerful female, who made Nagzira a top favourite for many. This is the same Jai, the massive male tiger who migrated from Nagzira to the Umred-Karhandla Sanctuary and became one of the most talked about tigers in the country.
A lot has been said and written about the mighty tigers of Nagzira. After A-Mark’s death, tiger numbers in Nagzira hit a low, at which point, many of the earlier regular visitors moved on to other forests for their dose of tiger sightings. However, nature had other plans for this beautiful land!
Soon after A-Mark’s departure, a few tigers migrated to this almost tiger-less habitat. T8, a male with a huge mane and believed to be from the same Nagzira lineage, entered and took over a portion of the Old Nagzira Sanctuary. T4, a tigress from the adjacent New Nagzira Sanctuary moved in and took the old territory of A-Mark. Another male, T9, migrated all the way from the Kolsa range of Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve to settle along the border of the Old and New Nagzira Sanctuaries. Since these movements in 2016-17, T4 has given birth twice with a litter of two cubs each. However, this new set of Nagzira tigers still remain one of the most elusive and shy tigers I have ever come across! Though they move a lot, most of the movement happens at night, away from the eyes of the visitors.
This is one of the most favourite images I have made in Nagzira – mainly because of the fact that I had spent nearly two years tracking these tigers – most of the time ending with a fresh trail of pug marks disappearing into some dense thicket. The first thing we heard that morning was a Sambar calling from the Circular Road, barely seven minutes away from the Nagzira Lake. When we reached the location, a second sound followed, this time of a tiger! Then another growl, and then a few more. It was a mating pair! The tigers, the shy kind that they are, took the next four hours to come out of the bushes for a brief window of 30 seconds. The male, T8, who had picked up a nose injury during a fight with another male, T9, is seen here with the beautiful T4 female.
More than the tigers though, what I love most about Nagzira is that I can track and observe leopards here like no other place in Central India. The relatively low number of tigers has made the leopards here a lot bolder than they usually are in tiger-dominated jungles.
We were at the Bandarchua waterhole in the northern part of the old Nagzira Sanctuary. With no activity in sight, we decided to return the same way we had come. As we were leaving, something made me stop and ask my guide if it would fit the schedule to take the longer Hattikhodra road instead of going back. He looked at his watch, thought for a second and nodded positively. Instead of taking a left turn, we took the right, and not 500 meters down the path, we were greeted with this gorgeous male sitting on the road.
Nagzira is the only protected area in central India where one can still stay inside the core zone. Countless times have I heard alarm calls of langurs and Chitals right outside my room, along the banks of the lake! The night before, in an adrenaline-pumping experience, we had seen a mating pair of leopards outside the canteen porch. They had moved towards the Chital Maidan that night. We spent the entire day tracking them, and waiting for them to come out of the bushes. However, it was only after the sun had set that they allowed us a glimpse.
Gaur Gali is a rich part of the sanctuary. It is towards the northern & north-western slopes of the Nagdev hills. The road meanders through the tall canopy along the waters of Kakad Nala. The place has seen countless generations of tigers, leopards, and wild dogs flourish. Even the current generation of tigers favour this area, for it provides them with good cover, perennial waters, and an abundance of prey. In recent times, one particular leopardess has also made this area her most favourite haunt. She is a tiny individual with big, marble eyes, and a bold demeanour. Of the countless times I have observed her, this has to be the longest one where I could track and see her for one straight hour.
Because of the low number of tigers here, the crowd gets filtered, and it makes space for people who want to linger and observe more than just the striped cat. One can spend time here observing every little thing that nature has to offer without getting disturbed by the constant rush of other safari vehicles. It is a fantastic place to observe and photograph birds, especially raptors.
All in all, Nagzira provides fantastic opportunities to find, observe, and photograph beautiful wild moments. It is a place that touches your soul and makes you want to come back year after year, season after season, as it did to me!
Located in the Bhandara and Gondia districts of eastern Maharashtra, Nagzira is easily accessible by road from Nagpur (125 km to Pitezari gate). The best time to visit would be from October to June. In winters, it is a great place to observe migratory birds. In summers, there are more sightings of large mammals.