Her life was full of sorrowful twists and turns. But the untimely death of the last member of the <g data-gr-id="101">Guda</g> tiger family in 2013 really left me sad and shaken. Strange indeed are the ways of God.
“T37, the young tigress of Ranthambore, dies” was the headline of a two-column story buried deep inside Page 7 of a national daily on March 19, 2013. At 8.30 am, I was quickly scanning the newspapers before proceeding for an important business meeting when it caught my eye. I sat down and started reading word by word. “This cannot happen,” I muttered to myself, shaking my head in disbelief. Switching on my phone, I instructed my secretary to cancel the meeting and called up Ranthambore ACF, <g data-gr-id="113">Ranglal</g> Choudhary and my friend MD Parashar in Sawai Madhopur. Parashar, I thought, could give me the low-down on T37’s sudden death.
T37 — if you already don’t know — was the most beautiful and healthy-looking tigress of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Ranthambore regulars would agree that T37 was probably as dynamic and commanding in appearance as Machli, the reserve’s most celebrated big cat. Only, their fate-lines didn’t match.
Let me rewind the clock to how T37’s untimely death is inextricably linked with the events that started unfolding in September 2008. This was when the <g data-gr-id="126">Guda</g> tigress gave birth to two cubs — T37, the female and her brother, T36. A wave of euphoria swept the national park. If there was one happy family straddling the rugged landscape of Ranthambore’s <g data-gr-id="127">Guda</g> area and adding to its magical charm, it was this tigress and her two cubs. And then, like the proverbial bolt from the blue, on September 1, 2008, the <g data-gr-id="128">Guda</g> tigress died. Subsequent investigations showed that she was killed by T18, a rival tigress, in a fight to defend her territory and her cubs.
The <g data-gr-id="102">Guda</g> tigress’ death was unfortunate but unexpected things do happen in a forest. Little did I know then that much worse was to befall the two hapless cubs. For several days, T36 and T37 could not be located. Ranthambore’s forest authorities launched a massive search and rescue operation. They even set up a control room at <g data-gr-id="104">Guda</g>. The then field director of Ranthambore, RS Shekhawat, was himself leading the rescue team, aided by able officials like Daulat Singh and <g data-gr-id="105">Ranglal</g> Choudhary. The search, however, did not yield any result. The cubs seemed to have vanished into thin air. They were discovered three days later. Hiding in the undergrowth for dear life, they looked weak and helpless. They probably hadn’t eaten for over a week.
Initially, the officials decided to send the cubs to the Jaipur zoo. But later everyone reasoned that it was better if Mother Nature took care of them. On September 10, six days after they were located, T18 was seen in the area. The cubs bolted to the mountainous area of <g data-gr-id="109">Indala</g> to save themselves. Subsequently, T18 was radio-collared and shifted to Sariska. As time passed and the home ground became safe again, the cubs returned and kept shunting around <g data-gr-id="111">Guda</g> and <g data-gr-id="112">Berda</g> areas.
That’s when T36 was set free in the Sawai Mansingh sanctuary bordering Ranthambore. The next few weeks were uneventful for T36 and T37.And then I started hearing disturbing reports about the male cub. He had become reckless and had started lifting cattle from villages near the sanctuary. He even attacked a forest guard, Mohan <g data-gr-id="138">Lal,</g> and left him injured. The behaviour certainly did not bode well for a young male tiger. The forest authorities took a pragmatic decision.T36 was tranquilised, <g data-gr-id="131">radio collared</g> and shifted to the <g data-gr-id="130">Falaudi</g> range of the reserve, some 40 km from Sawai Madhopur. It was hoped that the comparatively secluded terrain of <g data-gr-id="132">Falaudi</g> would keep T36 out of harm’s way. Then one day we were thrilled to see young T36 joined by a tigress too shy to reveal herself. It later turned out to be his sister T37, who had travelled this long distance against all odds. Happy days came back to the family for the next several months. I invariably used to see their pugmarks together.
But my hopes were bound to be shattered. Or rather, we could not comprehend what cruel fate had prescribed for the family of the <g data-gr-id="120">Guda</g> tigress. On October 22, 2010, Parashar informed me that T36 had been killed by another male tiger, T42, in the <g data-gr-id="121">Falaudi</g> area of zone 10. T42 was a bigger, stronger and naturally bought up male by a mother tigress and it was felt that the inexperienced T36 had made an error of judgement by starting to live with his sister.
It was in the <g data-gr-id="123">Falaudi</g> range then that I was helping the forest department rehabilitate an orphaned pantheress by creating a natural facility at Ghazipur forest chowki. We were teaching her ways of hunting and surviving in the forest when on November 27, 2010, I could not trace her all day. The next morning, I found her perched on a tree with T37 sitting under it. The tigress moved away as I walked closer to the tree. After almost two hours of persuasion, I managed to make the wounded <g data-gr-id="125">panthress</g> climb down. She had a miraculous escape from T37, had a long claw cut and was too scared. So I started keeping a close watch on T37’s movement lest she killed the young animal.
Thereafter, no other tiger entered the <g data-gr-id="143">Qualji</g> range and it was occupied by only two big cats: T42 and T37. It was not surprising that both the casual tourists and the wildlife photographers began to make a beeline for <g data-gr-id="144">Qualji</g>. But it was T37 whose popularity was soaring. In fact, 2012 was a fabulous year for her. “She is such a fine looking tigress. She has done no harm to anybody. I sincerely hope she will not go the way her mother and brother did. Soon there should be cubs,” used to be the prayer on my lips whenever I encountered her on the turns, culverts and ravines of Ghazipur, Pandukhoh and <g data-gr-id="146">Qualji</g> chowki of the forest.
Her unexpected and presumably natural death in the prime of her youth, therefore, came as a personal shock to me. It was 3.30 pm when a tourist gypsy came across T37. It walked for some distance, lay down and did not move. The news spread like wildfire. Parashar was the first to reach from Sawai Madhopur around 5 pm followed by senior forest officers. She was taken to the <g data-gr-id="115">Kundal</g> Forest office and then to <g data-gr-id="116">Rajabagh</g> the next morning for post-mortem. The postmortem report revealed excessive fat deposition around her organs — probably due to her lazy behaviour and cattle lifting habits.
The death of the lone surviving member of the Guda family in the prime of her youth threw up a lot of questions which I feel I am not competent to answer. Questions like why this family of tigers didn’t get a fair treatment from Mother Nature? Was their untimely demise part of some bigger plan which is unclear to me? And more important, why did fate zero in on the Guda family for this selective treatment?
One doesn’t have to look far for contrasts. Machli, probably the most celebrated tiger of Ranthambore, is still going strong despite people predicting for the past three years that this would surely be her last season in the national park because of her old age. I was looking to photograph her for almost an hour on March 5, 2015. She has seen 16 springs, with her happy family of nine children, four male and five female and 14 grandchildren — at the last count. But the Guda family had no such luck.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).