Lawrence Bruce Kekule, an American by birth, has lived in Thailand for more than four decades.
Bruce has photographed Thailand’s wild creatures and habitats for 15 years. He has travelled all over the country on a photographic odyssey portraying the natural world. Bruce’s passion for the Kingdom and its wildlife, and his mission to show the world this beauty, will surely create awareness amongst the present generation that action is needed now to save Thailand’s wild places and animals for the future.
Chasing a Wild Dream
He published his first book Wildlife in the Kingdom of Thailand in 1999. His second book entitled Thailand’s Natural Heritage was published in 2004 and Wild Rivers, his third, was completed in 2008. He has also written many newspaper and magazine articles about wildlife. Born in the United States, he has lived in Thailand since 1964. His dream to produce wildlife photographic books continues.
Kekule is married to a Thai national and they live in Bangkok with their daughter, son-in-law and two grand daughters. His main objective is to educate the Thai people about their natural heritage before it is too late. A second objective is to help the park rangers who patrol the forests with food, clothing and equipment to create incentive among these men who put their lives on the line for the Kingdom’s forest and wildlife.
A visit to Ranthambhore and Bandhavgarh national parks and tiger reserves in India
Sultan the Great of Ranthambhore National Park and Tiger Reserve: My favorite shot as he was looking right at me.
Several months ago, I found someone on Facebook offering a ‘workshop tour’ to some of India’s most famous tiger reserves. At first I was hesitant but after he discounted the trip a $1000 thinking he had assembled a fair sized group, I decided to take the plunge. By that time I had looked at his website and he has some nice images of birds and other animals from around the world. I thought he was a professional. The schedule looked good and we were going to visit three parks over the course of two weeks.
He will be referred to as ‘Mr. Workshop’ from now on. I sent an email to him in Eastern Canada and it was a go. Funds were sent and everything went good for a while. Then the funny email came that he had switched tour companies in India, and some of the schedule and hotels had also been changed. We were now doing only two parks but the overall timeline had not been altered. He also needed another $500 claiming a miscalculation. It then became a worry…! Was this a scam I asked myself…?
I called him and he seemed OK so we were still on. I got a visa to India that was difficult but finally approved by the Indian Embassy in Bangkok a week before departure. I boarded Air India to New Delhi and landed at noon on November 4th just last month. Immigration and customs was pretty straightforward and my luggage arrived in one piece.
My first male tiger walking in the forest by the road.
Mr. Workshop was suppose to meet me at the airport but was no-where to be seen. I opened my laptop looking for the hotel address and got a prepaid taxi (no A/C) for a hell-bent-for-leather horn-blasting ride through the city, and finally arrived only to find out he was at a sister hotel on the far side of town. The thought of scam raced through my brain again…!
So I jumped in another taxi and eventually arrived at the other hotel. He was with a senior lady bird-watching friend from New York and she had gone to Costa Rica with him on a bird tour. So it was only the three of us…! We had dinner, and I hit the sack and crashed after all the crazy mind-blowing travel through Delhi. We were all set to leave first thing the next morning at 6am to beat the traffic out of the city.
After a quick cup of coffee and some breakfast, we departed for the first leg of the tour. We had a nice medium sized car with A/C and a driver with some English skills. It was a six-hour taxi ride south to the hectic town of Sawai Madhopur, close to Ranthambhore tiger reserve in northwest India.
First tiger stopping for some claw scratching.
We got to the hotel (Ranthambhore Regency) at lunchtime and then the news came that only two rooms were available, and I would have to bunk with a stranger. I was not happy but refrained from making any trouble as we had just begun the safari so I reluctantly agreed. I knew it would be uncomfortable and it certainly was going to be a problem down the road but decided to ride it out. He is actually a skim-artist ordering only two rooms from the agent as I found out later…! He took it for granted that it would be OK for him to bunk with me as if we were buddies. I would of course regret that decision.
In the afternoon, we went out on our first ‘game drive’. By then I was all pumped up to see a tiger in the wild. We were in prime big cat habitat. However, the ride to the park entrance was an eye-opener. It is absolute chaos going through any market place in India with people, cars, pollution and rubbish everywhere, plus cows, pigs and camels all over the place, and horn blowing like I have never heard in my entire life.
Even my first trip to India in 2013 was not this bad. I was dumb-founded and did not think I would survive this marketplace again. Close calls and near misses on the road were frequent. We finally got to the gate and entered the reserve. A hat, facemask and sunglasses are a must when traveling through most sections of rural India…!
The first tiger close by.
Day one was absolutely the roughest off-road ride I have had in a long time and I got bounced all over the back seat of a small Suzuki-Maruti jeep (called ‘Gypsy’ in India). We saw loads of prey species like sambar deer, spotted deer, Nilgai (blue bull) antelope plus peafowl, monkeys and many other denizens of the Indian forest but no tiger.
Up at dawn for the first of two drives a day (one in the morning and one in a afternoon). Day two was even rougher as we traveled to another zone up to the top of a mountain. After two days, still no sign of a tiger. I was beginning to wonder if we would see one at all as there were quite a lot of tourists and jeeps about.
But day three was magic as we bumped into a huge male tiger first thing in the morning walking parallel to the road. When you see a tiger in the wild some 20 meters away, you then realize how big these cats really are. We followed him for a while before he disappeared into the bush but reappeared further down the road again for some more shots. It was absolutely great seeing and photographing this iconic apex predator.
A tiger cub hidden in the bush.
We then moved to another area where we found loads of jeeps huddled around another male tiger plus two cubs but we could not get close enough for any real good shots as it was packed solid. A male tiger looking after cubs is rare. I did manage to get a couple quick images of a cub and the big male a little later on when he went out hunting leaving the young ones hidden in the grass. We had seen and photographed three tigers in the wild during the morning drive. The afternoon was quiet again. That evening, I had a few beers in celebration.
Day four was the same drill: up at dawn but was less hectic getting into the park as we took another route. Up into the forest we went and ended up in a canyon bumping into a mature male tiger sleeping on a ‘weir’ (concrete check dam). The driver was an expert and got us into a great position directly across from the big cat at eye-level. Mr. Workshop refused to photograph this tiger lying on the concrete saying it was unnatural.
There are stone and concrete structures all over Ranthambhore and some date back centuries that have become part of the habitat for so long that tigers use them all the time to rest up and hang out. I began to question his mentality and logic. Come this far after a tiger and complain about the backdrop.
A male tiger looking after two cubs out hunting in mid-morning.
I used two cameras on this trip: a Nikon D300s with a Tamron 70-200mm ƒ2.8 lens for my offhand camera, and a Nikon D3s and a Nikon 200-400mm ƒ4 VRII telephoto lens plus a 1.7 converter (for 340-680mm) as my main rig, and used it in conjunction with a Gitzo lightweight graphite tripod and Wemberley gimbal head. I was able to lock onto the sleeping feline without any strain, and be instantly ready for any behavior and movement.
After an hour, this tiger named Sultan (the king) finally woke up and I did not stop shooting. By that time, some 40-50 vehicles had showed up with at least three hundred people behind us and it was complete madness with almost everyone talking at once and jeeps crashing into each other jockeying for position. Everyone wanted to see him. He is probably the most famous tiger in the park now. There is another infamous tiger (T24) and he has a habit of charging jeeps that get too close and has already severely wounded a ranger taking out his left eye and lacerations to the shoulder.
On day five, we were lucky to get the same zone again and headed straight back up the canyon. ‘Sultan’ was sleeping close to a water hole and the road, and we got within six meters of him. I went after the close-up head shots and got some really amazing images of this three and half year old mature tiger. He then got up and we moved in further, and he came and flopped down in front of us. It certainly made me very happy. Lady luck was on my side.
Sultan resting on a weir (check dam).
In late afternoon that same day as we were traveling by the lake going back to the lodge, we bumped into a large group of trucks and jeeps that had gathered by some tall elephant grass with everyone pointing at something moving in the bush. We moved closer and by sheer luck, a male tiger stepped out to the left of us. He then moved behind and crossed the road. The driver went into reverse and got us in front of him. I managed to get some very nice head-on shots with a beautiful back-lit scene. Another tiger was in the bag making it five separate sightings. My spirits were high as we returned to the hotel.
However, Mr. Workshop started to get annoying wanting only two things: to photograph tigers and kingfishers. I thought this odd as this trip was meant to be a workshop (as he called it) and I thought we would photograph everything wild but this was not to be the case. His promise that the clients had first priority in the beginning of this tour quickly went out the window. I did not say much and just clammed up deciding to be quiet but the ill feeling continued. I concentrated on getting as many images as possible.
Sultan up from his slumber.
Day-six and seven was quiet with no more tiger sightings other then some pug marks here and there, plus the usual deer, antelope and birds. It was like we were winding down after all the tiger excitement. We left the hotel that evening and arrived at the train station for the great ‘Indian’ 12-hour train-ride further south that went throughout the night. We were assigned to three sleeper-bunks but I felt extremely uneasy after hearing many stories from friends about train rides in India. But we arrived safe and sound the next morning at Jaibalpur and were met by a designated taxi driver at the train station.
Sultan checking his surroundings.
The ride to Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve took about three and half hours to the hotel (King’s Lodge). During the ride, I decided that I would not be bunking with Mr. Workshop anymore and that he could bunk with his birder friend but that brought out a shriek of terror from her. So I told him to find his own room. It looked like he had been slam-dunked, or an ice bucket put over his head.
Sultan yawning showing his canines.
We stayed there for four more days and I kept my distance during breakfast and dinner, and we hardly talked at all while in the jeep. He was ticked off that he now had to fork-out cash (mine) for a room. I was totally disgusted with his behavior and I figured no more dialog was the best remedy. He was also extremely rude and showed his arrogant attitude towards anything he did not like or care about.
Unfortunately, we did not see any tigers in Bandhavgarh but there were many pug marks in the dust on the roads telling me the big cats were mainly nocturnal here and would disappear into the bush at first light and come back out at dusk. Poaching pressure was probably the main problem.
Sultan just six-meters away the next morning.
A natural occurrence also happened last year when a male tiger killed three females to bring them into estrus (breeding) plus all their cubs had been killed. It was a blow to the park but just part of natural selection. After talking to some English wildlife photographers that had been coming since 2008, they said this year was way down on sightings and photographs from previous years.
The only neat thing for me at Bandhavgarh was the fact that I got some great camera trap videos of two ‘jungle cats’ coming to some chicken bait behind my lodge where I set a Bushnell Trophy Cam. These cats have become rare throughout their range and it was neat seeing them. I will be sharing these videos with the naturalists at the hotel so they are aware that these rare cats live there.
Sultan looking ‘straight down the barrel’…My last sighting of this magnificent cat.
The thing that struck a wrong cord with me about Mr. Workshop was his claim to be a professional photographer. He brought his lens to the jeep in a roll-on bag made for an airline overhead bin to fit a long lens, and he would get dust all over the camera while in the jeep and then just put it back into his bag at the end of every safari. He also would sometimes leave the zip undone and dust poured in during travel around the dirt roads in the park. He complained about the focusing ring being stiff. He also used his shirt to clean his lens.
I brought my cameras to the vehicle on my shoulder and when I got back to the room, would quickly take a wet cloth and wipe the camera and lens down with a moist towel and clean all the nooks and crannies with a toothbrush. I paid special attention to the lens using a blower and special lens brush. My roll-on bag stayed in the room where it was dust-free. I took my cameras back to Thailand without hardly any Indian dust; it is deadly stuff and will damage fine equipment fast…!
My last male tiger and fifth sighting in Ranthambhore. It was absolutely amazing but a very stressful shoot…!
Ranthambhore National Park and Tiger Reserve: The protected area is situated in Rajasthan State in northwest India and is best known for its historical medieval fort, and is believed to have been built in 944 AD by the Rajputs. The massive battlements dominate the cliffs overlooking the lake where many other structures and temples dot the landscape. But the park is most famous for its tigers. The great tigress named ‘Machli’ who fought off the advances of many males is still going after 19 years and can be seen from time to time but is near the end of her days. And the first male to dominate her in a fight is ‘Sultan’ and he can be found in several zones in the park that is divided into 10 separate areas where tourists and photographers can enter. There are many males and females with cubs and depending on your luck, you may bump into one of these magnificent cats. I saw five tigers over three days during my stay in Ranthambhor
Bandhavgarh National Park and Tiger Reserve: This land of valiant medieval kings was the bastion of the 12th century Kalchuri dynasty – and is situated in a vast verdant forest of Madhya Pradesh in Central India. This scenic region has a rich historical past and civilization that can be traced back some 2,000 years. The protected area is spread over 448 sq. km and was the private hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Rewa. The first ‘white tiger’ was spotted here. Sadly, they no longer can be found in the wild but only in zoos. The famous tigress named Sita made Bandhavgarh famous, as did a male tiger named ‘Charger’ (he made mock chargers on jeeps hence the name). Documentaries produced by National Geographic about tigers and other creatures found here. However, I did not see any tigers in Bandhavgarh but there were loads of pug marks on the roads telling me the big cats were mainly nocturnal and would disappear into the bush at first light and come back out at dusk. Poaching pressure is probably still a problem. Sightings are now quite rare as the tigers have become wary of humans. After talking to some English wildlife photographers that have been coming here since 2008, they said this year was way down on sightings and very photographs of tigers have been taken.
Conclusion: The moral of this story is never trust anyone on Facebook if you don’t know them personally as it could end-up far worse than what I experienced. I was lucky and got my tiger shots plus many other beautiful Indian creatures, but the stress and aggravation of being with someone who was not truthful, arrogant and non-professional was very difficult to cope with. I have learned my lesson and will never ever go on any so-called ‘workshop tours’ found on Facebook. I also know of another individual in Bangkok who scammed some Thai photographers on a ‘tiger tour’ to India off of Facebook…!
If you have a passion to see a tiger in the wild, go on Google and surf the net, or find someone through a national publication like Wildlife Photographer or some other outdoor magazine, or contact the hotels and lodges directly found on the Internet offering tiger tours in India. Many of them are good but it can be hit-and-miss sometimes so try to choose wisely. Check references and follow-up on everything that is not ‘crystal clear’.