I remember the sad day of September 20, <g data-gr-id="112">2008,</g> when the small cub, T-36 lost its mother. I also remember October 18, 2010 equally well, but with a lot more sadness. This was the day T36 completed his circle of life and returned to the happy hunting grounds of his forefathers. To me, T36 will always remain an unsung hero. One of the most graceful tigers to straddle the hills and grasslands of Ranthambore, he was — however — never a photographer’s delight. No television channel ever made a documentary on him, nor was his pictorial laid out in any magazine or newspaper. He simply wasn’t noticed enough.
But this would not take away from the immense, almost immeasurable, charm of T36. For three years, right from his birth to death and the turbulence he suffered in-between, T36 would hold me spell-bound... <g data-gr-id="120">And</g> therefore, I feel his life-story deserves a few words. It is not a happy <g data-gr-id="119">story</g> but it is one which T36 scripted and lived out in the spirit of a true tiger. For starters, T36 was an extremely shy tiger (one reason why he could never become a celebrity tiger). He was difficult to spot, and would bolt at the slightest hint of a human presence. There was a reason for this odd behavior, perhaps due to loss of his mother in childhood, the orphaned cub could never gather self-confidence, a striking contrast to the normally camera-friendly tigers of Ranthambore.
Born to a <g data-gr-id="122">Guda</g> female sometime in January 2008, T36 and his sister opened their eyes to the chilly but friendly forest of Ranthambore. The <g data-gr-id="123">Guda</g> area of the park — after which the mother was named — <g data-gr-id="127">harboured</g> sufficient shelter and prey animals for a family of three tigers to live happily. For eight months, Ranthambore granted a peaceful existence to the family. It was during this period that T36 imbibed some of the hunting skills from his mother — skills which would save his life in the dreadful years ahead. Peace in the forest is often temporary. Meant to be savored as long as it may last, peace is an unsecured loan granted to the denizens of a <g data-gr-id="126">forest,</g> and is usually taken back as swiftly.
On September 20, 2008, T36 got the shock of his young life. In one stroke of bad luck, the gods snatched away peace and comfort from T36 and hurled him down the path of an almost daily battle for survival. On that fateful day, T36’s mother died. Rather, she was killed by another tigress while defending her territory and her cubs. The forest authorities of Ranthambore discussed the carcass and were aware that the motherless cubs might be hiding somewhere in the rocky terrain, so they launched a massive search-and-rescue operation.
Three days later, T36 and his sister were found in <g data-gr-id="156">dense</g> undergrowth. They had probably not eaten anything for 10 days and might not have survived the ordeal for long. “Now what?” the authorities asked themselves. Faced with two grown-up cubs who had not yet carved out their territories or established hunting techniques, it was a tough question to answer. An ad-hoc forest <g data-gr-id="139">control-room</g> was set up in the area. Finally, after enough deliberation, the senior officials of Ranthambore decided to let nature decide the fate of the siblings. Forest Range officer Daulat Singh <g data-gr-id="141">Shaktawat</g> took upon himself the task to radio collar T36. He was taken to Sawai Mansingh sanctuary, bordering Ranthambore, as it had no territorial competition. The fact that the sanctuary had only a few resident tigers and the males of Ranthambore rarely transited it as a <g data-gr-id="148">passageway,</g> would make it suitable for T36 to establish his domain there. The area had a rich prey base of chital, sambar, wild boar etc and the rocky elevation of dry and deciduous forest. But it also had a problem of cattle grazing manifestation in the open patches and ravines on the lower plain, which also had water storage handicaps. The water was shared by cattle & wildlife both. For months thereafter, my trusted friend M D Parashar and I would scout Sawai Mansingh sanctuary, always on the lookout for T36. He crossed our paths several times and each encounter is deeply etched in my memory. But the encounters were generally short and it rarely allowed us to click the pictures. From day one of his forced freedom, T36 started displaying reckless <g data-gr-id="150">behaviour</g>. Within weeks, he acquired the reputation of a cattle-lifter. This trait gained him <g data-gr-id="149">immediate</g> dislike of a large number of villages dotted along the boundary of Ranthambore. Naturally, it also made the authorities jumpy, for now they had to keep a sharper eye on the young male.
On March 21, 2009, matters came to a head. For the last few days, T36 took shelter in front of Oberoi Hotel, Vanyavilas, creating panic and awe among onlookers. It had not made a kill for several days, and a desperate and foolish step it was, but a hungry T36 attacked a human being. It happened at Kutalpur village near <g data-gr-id="133">Karmoda</g> as T36 thought it would be a nice meal, but the woman gave a brave fight. She was bleeding profusely when we reached <g data-gr-id="134">Karmoda</g>.
Two days later, T36 attacked and injured a forest official, Mohan Lal. The same day, the forest authorities <g data-gr-id="132">tranquilised</g> the errant tiger and after checking his Radio collar, took him to <g data-gr-id="129">Falaudi</g> forest range near Ghazipur, some 40 km away and released it at Ahtri ka jungle behind <g data-gr-id="130">Jogeshwar</g> temple at <g data-gr-id="131">Kwalji</g> forest. This area is now designated as zone no 9/10 of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.
It was at <g data-gr-id="113">Falaudi</g> that I had some of the most memorable encounters with T36. It was clear he was coming into his own and had started pursuing natural prey like <g data-gr-id="115">cheetal</g>, <g data-gr-id="124"><g data-gr-id="114">sambhar</g></g> and wild boar. I would often meet T36 on narrow jungle bylanes on early morning rides. Initially, as was his habit, he would take cover the moment he spotted Parashar’s Gypsy. At times, we spotted him quenching his thirst at a water-hole. Over time, he started accepting my presence — or that’s what I thought. Had I managed to connect with T36 in some unknown manner? Who knows? But he showed far less hostility to me than earlier. I found myself privileged.
By June 2010, I had managed to establish what may be called a rough connect with T36. One afternoon, with temperatures soaring to 45 <g data-gr-id="103">degree</g> Celsius, I saw T36 approaching a water-hole. We were some 50 feet <g data-gr-id="102">away</g> but he took no note of us and jumped headlong into the pool.
For the next 30 minutes, as T36 continued his battle with the high mercury, I found myself engrossed in gazing at his superb form. Time lost all sense of meaning. I was drenched in my own sweat. This was also the period when I was involved in the rarest experiment of rehabilitating a female leopard cub in the wild. For over a good two years, my weekends were spent in following the sub adult panthress and tracks of T-36, so that it did not get near enough to kill the panther cub.
Things were going along rather fine for T36 at this stage. Now approaching his third birthday, he had effectively made Falaudi his home-turf. The skirmishes with villagers and cattle-lifting had become rare. T36, it seemed, had finally learnt to balance freedom with responsibility. His sister, T-37, in the meantime, also joined him in the same range of the forest. Life was happy again as they played and roamed together occasionally. “He is now ready for a mate,” a beaming Parashar told me in the first week of October, 2010, when, along with the forest guard Mohan Singh, we saw both T-36 & T37 near the training enclosure of the female leopard one day in the early morning.
When Parashar called me up on the afternoon of October 22, I picked up the cell-phone with an intuition that Parashar must have taken beautiful pictures of T36’s successful mating. But within seconds, my hopes lay shattered. T36, I was informed, had been killed by T-42, another male tiger, in a territorial fight over mating with T-37. Parashar gave me the details of the deadly fight, but I was not hearing the words. I was elsewhere, in a secluded patch of Falaudi, watching T36 as he ambled majestically towards me...
— I am thankful to MD Parashar, a true wildlife artist at Ranthambore, who has been my friend and accompanied me on Ranthambore safaris and shared photos to write this article.
(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)