Strange, indeed, are the ways of God. We often see children being born into a privileged family of kings, while others are born into utter squalor. But this does not stop the play of chance – their fortunes turn around with the passage of time. Destiny is not limited to humans alone; I have also seen this happen with animals in the forest.
“T37, the young tigress of Ranthambore, dies” was the headline of a two-column story buried on page 7 of a national daily. The day was March 18 or 19, 2013; the time 8.30 am. I was quickly scanning the newspapers before proceeding for an important business meeting, when the report caught my eye. I sat down and started reading it slowly – word by word. “This cannot happen,” I found myself muttering, shaking my head in disbelief.
Switching on my phone, I instructed my secretary to cancel the business meeting, and called up Ranthambore’s ACF, Ranglal Choudhary, as well as my good friend M D Parashar in Sawai Madhopur. He would surely be able to give me the low-down on T37’s abrupt and uncalled-for death.
T37, if you are not in the know, was the biggest tigress of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and also the most beautiful. A large number of Ranthambore enthusiasts will tell you that T37 was probably as dynamic and commanding in appearance as the famed Machli. The only difference was that their fate-lines didn’t match.
Let me rewind and go back in time, because T37’s untimely death in March 2013 is inextricably linked with the events which started unfolding in September 2008. This was when the Guda tigress, as any regular visitor to Ranthambore would tell you, was a joy to behold. And when she gave birth to two cubs – T37, the female and her brother T36 – a wave of euphoria swept across the national park. If there was one happy family straddling the rugged landscape of Ranthambore’s Guda area, adding to the magical charm of the tiger reserve, it was this tigress and her two cubs. Every tourist wanted to behold this beautiful Guda tigress and her cubs.
And then, like the proverbial bolt from the blue, the Guda tigress died. This happened on September 1, 2008. Subsequent investigations showed that she was killed by another tigress, T18, during a fight while defending her territory and her cubs. The Guda tigress’ s death was unfortunate, but these things do happen in a forest. Little did I know, then, that much worse was to befall the dead mother’s two hapless cubs.
For several days, the two cubs 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 Guda. The seriousness of the effort can be gauged from the fact that the then field director of Ranthambore, R S Shekhawat, was himself leading the rescue team, aided by able officials like Daulat Singh and Ranglal Choudhary. But the search did not yield any results.
The cubs seemed to have vanished into thin air. Finally, they were discovered three days later. Hiding in the undergrowth for fear of their dear lives, they looked weak and helpless. They had probably not eaten anything for over a week.
Initially, the officials decided against sending the cubs to a zoo. It would be better if mother nature took care of them, they reasoned. However, On September 10, six days after they were located, T18, the tigress who had killed their mother, was seen in the area. The cubs bolted to the mountainous area of Indala 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 Guda and Berda areas.
The officials also tranquilised and radio-collared the two cubs.While the female, T-37, was let off in the Qualji range of the tiger reserve, her brother T36 was set free in Sawai Mansingh sanctuary bordering Ranthambore National Park.
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. T36 even attacked a forest guard, Mohan Lal, and left him injured. The behaviour certainly did not bode well for a young male tiger, yet to come into its own.
The forest authorities took a pragmatic decision. T36 was tranquilised and shifted to the Falaudi range of the tiger reserve, some 40 km from Sawai Madhopur. It was hoped that the comparatively secluded terrain of Falaudi would keep T36 out of trouble. 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, I could not comprehend what cruel fate had prescribed for the family of the Guda tigress. On October 22, 2010, Parashar informed me that T36 had been killed by a dominant male tiger that went by the name of T42, in the Falaudi 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.
T36’s death was indeed a cruel blow. But I consider myself lucky to have shared some personal moments with T36, the errant but magnificent tiger, which had kept me under its spell for several months. According to some anecdotal evidence, I later gathered, T36 met his death in a strange way. It was said that the young male tiger ventured into the territory occupied by his sister T37. It turned out to be a fatal error. He was killed by T42, the dominant male of that territory who did not want to share T37.
It was in this Falaudi range that then that I was helping the forest department shift and rehabilitate an orphaned pantheress, Laxmi, by creating a natural facility for her at Ghazipur forest chowki.
She too had once got injured, presumably by T37. We were teaching her ways of hunting and surviving in the forest when on November 27, 2010, I could not trace her all day.
I was desperately searching for her. I finally found her perched on top of a tree with T37 sitting underneath the tree. After a while, the tigress moved away, allowing me to persuade the wounded Laxmi to come down after almost two hours of cajoling. 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.
Owing to this tiger’s presence, the area held high importance for me.My attention by then had shifted to T37, the sole surviving member of the Guda family. “She is such a fine looking tigress. She has done no harm to anybody. I sincerely hoped she will not go the way her mother and brother did. Soon there should be cubs,” was the thought always on my mind whenever I came face to face with T37 on the turns, culverts and ravines of Ghazipur, Pandukhoh and Qualji chowki of the forest. I encountered her many times in the Qualji area of Ranthambore.
The year 2012 was a fabulous year for T37. Her popularity grew by leaps and bounds. Since then, no other tiger entered the Qualji range. T37 and T42, the male tiger, were the only two residents of their territory. It was not surprising that both casual tourists and the wildlife photographers began to make a beeline for Qualji. But it was T37 whose popularity was soaring.
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 Kundal Forest office and then to Rajabagh 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. T37’s death in the prime of her youth, he lone surviving member of the Guda family,came as a shock to me. It threw up questions, some of which I feel I am not competent to answer.
Questions such as why this particular family of tigers was not given fair treatment by mother nature? Was their untimely demise part of a bigger picture still unclear to me?And more importantly, why did fate zero in on the Guda family for this selective treatment? One doesn’t have to look far for contrasts. As I put my pen to this story, in May 2016, Machli, probably the most celebrated tiger of Ranthambore, is still going strong, despite people predicting for the past season that this would surely be her last season in the national park because of old age. I was looking to photograph her for almost an hour on March 5, 2016.
She has seen 20 springs, presiding over her happy family of nine children – four male and five female, and fourteen grandchildren at the last count. But no such luck was in store for any member of the Guda family. Strange, indeed, are the ways of nature.
(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).