My passion for wildlife has brought me face-to-face with several miracles of nature and yet, nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed recently at the reputed Ranthambore National Park. My team members and I have been filming the developments of this unique phenomenon that I have never witnessed in the past four decades of observing tigers anywhere in India.
It was January of 2011 when the park was teeming with visitors toting their cameras at the friendly tigers. Machli, the queen of Ranthambore, could be found ambling on her fixed route. Her daughter T-17, the last remaining radio-collared tiger at that time, was happy cat-walking on the banks of Rajbagh lake but the big draw was a healthy tigress named T-5 and her two young cubs. Every day, hundreds of tourists would enter the park with one fervent desire: to somehow spot the happy family of T5.
In February, it was noted that all was not well with T-5. She walked with an awkward limp, indicating she was in pain of some sort. Her plight was first spotted by Rajasthan’s environment minister Bina Kak, who is also a keen wildlife enthusiast. The forest department was quick to tranquilise the tiger and perform a surgery on her. For the next few days, it was assumed that T-5 was on the path of recovery. Alas, it turned out to be wishful thinking.
T-5 died on February 9, 2011, leaving behind two very young orphans. The forest guards, obviously distressed by the untimely death of T-5, told me that while breathing her last she let out a very strange moan which the guards had never heard before. The moan was probably a signal to the cubs of her death and to move to a safe den immediately as evening was falling. The cubs immediately ran away to the den while the tigress breathed her last. This was a mother’s final adieu.
Following T-5’s death, her cubs were nowhere to be seen! This was a period of great stress and anxiety in Ranthambore. A team of more than 50 forest guards combed the area where T-5 had died but failed to locate them. Help was also sought from me; I too accompanied the forest staff to Kachida area. From close quarters, I saw panic writ large on the face of the then Field Director of Ranthambore, RP Gupta, because all efforts in securing the cubs were yielding no result. I had bought DVD’s of a tigress calling for her cubs recorded elsewhere, it was duly played at high pitch, but the cubs probably recognised only their mother’s voice. They never came out.
In any forest, a motherless tiger cub is the most vulnerable animal you can think of. Its life hangs by a thread. With no means of protection from predators and without the necessary skills to hunt, it can starve to death. Even before it dies a natural death, a cub is likely to fall prey to leopards, bears and hyenas around it. And Ranthambore is full of such dangers!
The next two days were harrowing for the forest department. Repeated searches of the area showed no sign of the cubs. No pugmarks, no sighting, not the slightest evidence that they were alive. A number of experts from such reputed organisations as Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) too reached the spot — but the cubs outsmarted them all. Several traps and cages were put up in the area (that was closed to tourists) but the cubs were still nowhere to be found.
About four days after T-5’s death, the officials finally managed to spot them. They had been hiding in a crevice near Kachida forest chowki, some 400 mts away from the spot where their mother had breathed her last. The cubs were still in a state of shock and bolted into a cave the moment they spotted the forest guards. Now convinced the cubs were alive, it was absolutely necessary to monitor the cubs at any cost — for their own safety. As a first measure, we installed several camera traps at different places around Kachida post. And the area was made out of bounds for tourists.
Dead meat was also placed around the chowki for the cubs. Additionally, a number of traps were put up in the area, with the hope that they would fall into them. But the tiger cubs turned out to be smarter than that. While they would finish the food, they refused to come anywhere near the traps and cages!
Thanks to the video trap cameras installed in the area by the Ranthambore forest department, the cub’s day-to-day activities no longer remained a mystery. The images also threw light on the cubs’ diverse personalities. While one of them was outgoing, impulsive and gave in to curiosity, the other was content to take a backseat.
On the ground level, two senior officials of Ranthambore were in the forefront: Field director RP Gupta (and later, his successor Rajesh Gupta) as well as DFO Yogesh Sahu. The two, along with a team of forest guards, would constantly monitor the day-to-day activities of the cubs. While in Jaipur, senior officials such as the chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan, AC Chaube, were regularly updated on all developments. Very rarely would one find so many forest officials working collectively for a single cause.
One day, the cubs managed to kill a goat which the forest department had tied up near Kachida post. The officials heaved a sigh of relief. At least the cubs now knew how to bring down a live animal although killing a wild animal was a different ball-game altogether. It’s only a tigress which teaches the art of stalking a prey to her cubs. And with their mother nowhere on the scene, it was impossible for the cubs to learn this invaluable art of stalking on their own. So who would teach the cubs how to hunt down wild prey? Without this knowledge, they could not survive on their own in the competitive environment of the jungle. And all of them were their potential enemies! The general consensus that was building up then was that the cubs should be caught and dispatched to a zoo. That way, at least their lives would be safe.
But fate had its own plans. One day, the cubs found their saviour — as if Mother Nature decided to intervene for the benefit of the orphans. The miracle came in the shape of a male tiger which was found along with the cubs. This startling fact was revealed on March 14 through a photograph captured by the forest department’s trap camera near Kachida post. In the wild, the male is supposed to be a predator for these cubs but something had made him change the natural course of things.
Careful study of the photos in the trap cameras confirmed it was T-25. The territorial dominant male tiger of the area, sensing that the cubs were bereft of their mother and their lives were in imminent danger, decided to take the matter in its own powerful paws. He was presumed to be the cubs’ biological father but nobody was sure of it. Rajesh Gupta sent T-25’s scat for forensic analysis to establish if he was biologically connected to the two orphaned cubs.
It was now fairly easy in Ranthambore to spot T-25 with the two cubs. Looking at the juniors, nobody could guess they were the same cubs who were presumably doomed for an untimely death just a few months ago. T-25 took full responsibility for the two. One of the cubs was more attached to the male tiger. And often, the two could be seen patrolling the dirt tracks of Ranthambore, with not a care in the world! Interestingly, I found that the cubs not only accompanied T-25 on his jungle patrols but also watched his actions intently. Some of these actions, which appear to be daily rituals, are crucial to a tiger’s survival such as scent marking at regular intervals to declare its territory, or scratching its paws on a tree trunk to keep the nails sharp. T-25 is a doting father; there is no doubt about that.
Though the cubs had been blessed with a tiger dad, their life was not a bed of roses. In the forest, every day is a new day. On one such day, the cubs realised that their lives are still at the tender mercies of chance. This was the day when one of the cubs, though now grown into a young adult, had its first brush with death. The whole thing happened rather suddenly, the way it happens in the forest.
A young tigress, T-17, was near a water-hole when she spotted one of the cubs some 300 yards away. A tiger normally doesn’t tolerate the presence of another big cat in its territory. And T-17, who was also known by the name of Sundari, was no different. Crouching to the ground, T-17 began to eye the cub intently. She didn’t like what she was seeing. Slowly, she began to prepare for a charge.
Incidentally, the cub did not have any inkling of the danger to its life. Its game would have been over in a flash; it was no match for the bigger T-17... But again, lady luck smiled on the young tiger. As T-17 prepared for the assault, she stopped. She could not believe her eyes! A male tiger suddenly emerged from the grassland and walked menacingly towards her. Within a matter of seconds, T-17 went through three diverse emotions: aggression, confusion and submission. She realised she was no match for a much bigger and powerful T-25 but nevertheless held her ground.
The waving of her upturned tail (as shown in my photograph) is a signal that she didn’t want a confrontation with T-25 over the cub. Surprisingly, T-25 had no intention to harm the tigress either. He merely wanted T-17 to stay away from his kids. He approached the tigress, brought his face near her and the two stayed locked in this position for about 10 seconds. Some kind of a message was definitely conveyed to T-17 and though she didn’t like it — she let out a sudden roar — she decided to stay away from the cub.
T-25 also didn’t press the issue. Turning away from T-17, he calmly walked back to the cub and the two wandered off in the opposite direction.
Even for those who claim to be experts on tigers, this encounter is an eye-opener. Fortunately, we managed to record this encounter on our cameras and it throws a new light on the secret world of tigers. Life has come full circle by now. For while I am writing this story, the cubs are now named ST-10 and ST-11. T-25 proved himself to be an able father. The cubs had learnt everything about hunting and surviving in the jungle.
It was decided to tranquilise and shift them to Sariska Tiger Reserve. Here ST has given birth to there beautiful cubs & it is teaching them the laws of jungle learnt from its doting father in an enclosed area of the park. The male has also made the area his abode. Both have passed on the DNA of ST-5 to the coming generations of tigers. Their mother must be happily watching them from somewhere in heaven.
(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).