4.33 PM; Nov 7, 2022. Studio region Sattal, Uttarakhand.
No one… no one ever told me about presence of any tiger in and around Sattal region. No birder, no friends, no fellow travellers, no officials have in recent memory recorded the presence of any tiger here. And, if they have, then no one probably reported it. Leopards are many, that we know, but tigers?
But, this is what I saw and captured on that day, when I was strolling in forest of the studio region for a quick birding trip! Am I the only one to capture a tiger in the region! More than a month and half has passed since the incident, but I still don’t have concrete answers, no responses from any official, district administration, wildlife authorities or even tiger conservation authorities! What everyone—who has seen the photograph—is sure of that, this is undoubtedly a tiger.
That is how the evening unfolded!
I was on one of my ‘now regular’ biking trips to Almora-Shitalakhet! This time, I had planned to make a night half at Sattal, instead of biking straight to Shitalakhet or Almora, as I usually do. Purpose of the halt was to have a quick birding trip, as it was the onset of the winters. I had been to Sattal earlier, but not just for birdwatching. This time though, wanted to have a quick shot to it.
I reached KMVN, Sattal around 2 pm. Had enough time to relax and take a power nap, before going to forest.
I left around 4 p.m. Just at the start of the lake, there is a boating point. Right opposite to it on the other side of the road is a forest check post, which is entry point to the trail leading inside forest. Trail moves alongside a stream which emerges from the overflow of the lake. Stream creates a beautiful landscape in the narrow valley going down, and further it connects to another small lake less than half kilometre away from the road.
That small lake is surrounded by lust green forest on all sides. Trail is on its left bank, while the opposite side is largely inaccessible. Just before the stream reaches the small lake inside, there is a wider semi-circle shaped area with lots of wild bushes around, on both sides of shallow stream. This is the place frequented by birds, mostly the smaller ones. This place has got an unofficial name of ‘Studio’ as it makes a perfect place for birding. Enthusiasts have even gathered a lot of dry bushes here to make it easy for birds to come and sit, mostly during first lights of sun in morning to get some warmth as well as quick prey.
So, the tendency of the birds to come here and give birders an eyeful is perhaps the reason behind this name ‘studio’. Birders will often land at this place, fix their tripods with big lenses and patiently wait for hours for birds to show up.
So, this was the place, I went for my evening stroll that day. Forest check post was closed, I was the only person inside. I kept looking for birds, taking random clicks. Sometime later, a senior couple also joined in. I had earlier seen them at KMVN in the afternoon. They were also staying there.
After introductions, I found out that they are seasoned birder couple from Jabalpur, both medical professionals- Dr Dilip Kumar Katiyar and Dr Shailbala Katiyar. They have also arrived the same day and were on a long birding trip to Sattal and Pangot regions. It was their first trip to Sattal.
For a while we all three kept walking together, looking for birds. When we were turning back from the farther end of the inside lake, all of a sudden we heard a strong call. Dr Dilip Katiyar almost got alert and asked, what was that! I was a bit confused. With no anticipation whatsoever of any alarm, I thought that it might be screech of any vehicle on road uphill. But Dr. Katiyar seemed to be sure.
And then, there was no doubt as the dead silence of the forest was broken with long continuous deer alarm calls coming from the forest on opposite side of the lake. Source of the call seemed to be very close to us.
We all three became attentive and focused towards that area. Just about 100 metres away on the opposite side of the lake, between the water level and the greens of the forest is a small area with sand and dry brown bushes over it, making a sort of bank. All of a sudden I saw some movement in those bushes. In a flash, on my instincts I clicked the camera towards that side. There was no time to adjust and focus. Immediately after, within seconds, that animal quickly went back inside the jungle.
I reviewed the image on LED screen of the camera, showed it to Dr Dilip Katiyar. He was not carrying his camera that evening, only a binoculars. Though it was early evening, but surrounding hills and dense forest had started making it bit dark. Besides, screen of my pretty old Nikon D7000 camera had become quite grainy and scratchy. I zoomed in the image, we could make out the white spots behind the earlobes but remained unsure about the actual identity as the remaining part of the body was not clearly visible.
Just couple of minutes later, we again saw an animal coming out of the forest. I clicked again in similar fashion using my DSLR as a ‘point and shoot’ camera. But this time, we could make out its hopping. This animal quickly ran away towards uphill bit further in the jungle. Hopping made it easy for us to conclude that it was surely a deer, a barking deer perhaps. But our confusion on alarm calls was still there as calls were continuing repeatedly.
Dr Dilip Katiyar suggested that it was getting dark and was not safe to be here, so we shall move out. I asked them to move ahead and said, I will follow. I stay put for a while as alarm calls were still there and I was hoping to have another shot at that animal. I recored calls on my phone.
I waited for sometime and with no visible activity, started moving towards exit.
Just when I was about to finish my climb to the stairs close to forest check post, I saw another person coming down with a big camera hanging on his neck. He came to me, and—because of my camera—presumed me to be a birding enthusiast as well. We exchanged pleasantries and he asked me to accompany him down to the birding spot. Though it was getting dark, but since I had nothing else to do, hence I went with him.
He enthusiastically showed me the exact birding spot and way to reach there, and also about birds found here. We looked around for birds and then, after it got dark enough to make photography impossible, we decided to call it a day. He was a government official in revenue department with a passion for photography and birding. I narrated earlier incident to him and also showed him the photograph. He too was very unsure of what it was.
After seeing him off, I came back to KMVN. It had been an exhausting day. I was to leave for Shitalakhet the next morning. But, before that I had planned to go back to the same region early in the morning.
I followed the same route early morning. I went again to the studio region and lake. Sunlight has yet not reached down. There was morning stillness in the air, occasionally broken by different flocks of birds on their morning sorties. There was no other person. I kept clicking random shots and was on my way back when a few groups of birders started coming in. Sunlight just kissed the stream and bird activity has suddenly increased. May be, it was the perfect time for birding. But I had other plans.
When I was walking towards KMVN, then Dr Katiyar couple was going towards the studio, this time with 600 mm lens and camera. I only came to know later that the morning went incident free, even in terms of birding, it was dull.
I left Sattal and almost forgot about the incident. After few days in hills, I returned to Delhi, downloaded the photos some days later. It was more than a week after returning to Delhi, that I started reviewing the photos on the big computer screen.
And, when I saw the particular photograph of that evening, I was shocked and thrilled together. Even the raw photo was very clear on what was the subject. Adding contrast to the pic cleared all doubts. It was indeed a tiger that we saw that day. It actually looked like a cub to me in the photo. Immediately, thought came to my mind that if it was a cub, then the mother tigress should also be definitely around.
I called Dr Dilip Katiyar on his phone and told him about the finding. He was thrilled as well. I sent him the photo on his phone, and he too was sure about this being a tiger cub. He only suggested to report this finding to wildlife and local authorities, so that they can be aware of it. (Few days later Dr Dilip Katiyar too wrote a post about this experience.)
I called Vijay Chandra, manager at KMVN to inquire. He categorically told me that in his seven years posting at KMVN, he has never heard of any tiger sighting at Sattal. Then I also talked to forest inspector Kishan Bhagat of the region. He said that he was in charge of the region for last two years and in these two years he has never heard on record of a tiger sighting either from his superiors or from beat forest guards under him.
I wrote mails to Nainital district administration officials, state forest department officials, officials from nearby Corbett National Park as well as officials from National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). None of them probably cared to read the mail or if read it then reply me about any action, if taken.
I am perplexed, why?
In my social media posts I tagged many birders frequenting that region as well as tourist resorts operating in and around Sattal. Not even a single person confirmed of any tiger sighting in this area before. Many of them were actually surprised about it.
Commenting on my Facebook post famous wildlife photographer Dushyant Parasher wrote, “Durgapal ji, a senior citizen living near our house on SatTal road had once told me that when he was a kid, a local landlord of Mahragaon had shot a tiger in SatTal area. Little Durga pal had joined the procession as the corpse of the big cat was taken around the area. This must’ve been 60-70 years ago. Other than that I’ve never heard of tiger presence in this region. Although few years back, Bhuwan Kumari of The Cottage had reported seeing some wild elephants in Jyoli Kot area.
Traditionally these low hills must’ve been connected to the Ramnagar forests and movement of wildlife here must’ve been a routine feature. Now of course as the corridor has been completely blocked by expansion of human settlement and animals don’t venture this far.”
But then this was here! Looking for birds.. I probably got lot more in bargain.
Has anyone else seen a tiger in this region before or heard about it? Please share in the comments section below.
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