The tragedy of Sundari

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The beautiful T17 ( Sundari ), centrepiece of Ranthambore for many years, in the winter of 2008 when she ruled the lakes. She vanished suddenly in 2013, leaving 3 young cubs to fend for themselves.

A massive hunt was launched to find the seven-year-old tigress for over a month, but it came up empty.

An extremely successful and dominant tigress, Sundari was never heard from again and presumed dead. There were many stories and conspiracy theories. Many fingers were pointed in many directions. In the meantime, her cubs were scattered with two of them looking quite weak initially. All the three were later sighted together, but their mother was never found again.

The forest department intervened to a limited extent and the cubs are growing up without their mother. This once again raises the questions of leaving nature to nature or playing God or just being ‘human’. A very real dilemma in today’s vanishing wildernesses.

Its important to note that just like people, tigers also take a long time to teach their young the ways of life. How to hunt, where the water is, which trails lead where and where the danger is. This ‘rearing’ takes about 2 1/2 years, when a sub-adult is confident enough to strike out on its own.

It has been falsely assumed for many years that if you simply relocated a young healthy tiger to a new territory with adequate water and prey base, it will become self sufficient very quickly. Not true!

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The Forest Fly-past

storks in flight ©

Sometimes being in the jungle is a bit like being a spectator at India’s Republic Day parade.

An archaic vestige from a time when the country took inspiration from all things Soviet, India celebrates the birth of its constitution by a parade of its military might and its cultural heritage. Regiments, tanks, armor and ethnic dances march by. The high point is the finale which is a fly-past of aircraft, whizzing by in tight formations.

Many hours can be spent without seeing anything in the jungle, just twiddling one’s thumbs, being at peace in the comfortable embrace of nature.  But sometimes when such a parade occurs and there’s a steady stream of critters, big and small, marching by, it can all get a little too much.

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You are a watching a tiger stealthily stalking a chital deer, upon whose back is a Drongo bird riding piggy-back, desperately trying to balance itself. On the tree behind which the tiger is hiding, a python creeps towards a bird’s nest. The frantic bird is squawking noisily trying to ward off the snake, which makes you look upwards, only to see a silent and smooth formation of painted storks flying overhead against the sky.

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All serious photographers go into the jungle with a specific purpose and objective.  They are disciplined enough to ignore all temptation and stay focused ( no pun intended ) on the job at hand . It is idiots like me who get all worked up and react to everything, often spraying my camera all over. It hardly ever works. This one time, I think it did.

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(C)attitude

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Cats- small , medium or super-sized- they all seem to carry an attitude that’s a lot bigger than them.

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This is a Jungle Cat, the smallest of the wild cats, in Ranthambhore making a monitor lizard kill. Interestingly, while driving through Semli on a crisp winter morning, I asked our friend & guide, Yadvendra Singh when was the last time he saw a kill. Before I could even complete my question, we came upon this cat taking out a monitor lizard.

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Incidentally, it is the Jungle Cat which was mummified along with the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, to keep them company on their onward journey.

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Elephants are People too

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 A Bush Brawl

 

Many years ago, on safari, in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya, we were watching a black rhinoceros drink at a small waterhole. It was a picture postcard, tranquil evening scene with the rhino at the water, the setting African sun in the background and a mother duck on the water, gently drifting by with her ducklings- the perfect spot to pause and reflect after spending the entire day out in the bush.

This wildlife ‘zen’ moment was soon to be shattered quite dramatically with the arrival of two young male elephants. As all wild-lifer’s know, in the bush, things always happen when you least expect them to.

These young bulls swaggered up to the water, quite like street thugs and began bullying the rhino off his spot. Trumpeting loudly and snapping their heads sideways, they tried intimidating him off his spot. Now rhinos are known to be stubborn but they usually give way to elephants. This guy however, wasn’t going to take any of this lying down. He squared his shoulders and charged the elephants.

Shocked by this sudden burst of aggression from an unexpected source, one of the elephants retaliated by thunderously head butting the rhino in his flank. As the conflict escalated, the 2nd elephant panicked and ran away from this scene as fast as he could, shuffling fast towards the single acacia tree that grew beside the waterhole. He then tried to hide his large bulk, rather unsuccessfully behind this threadbare tree, where he stood, cowering in fright.

A battle royale raged between the 1st elephant and the rhino. The air was full of dust and sound that literally shook the jeep we were sitting in. After about a half hour of these two going full -tilt at each other, the bruised and exhausted rhino reluctantly conceded defeat and grudgingly backed away from the waterhole.

Upon seeing this-his buddy’s victory- the 2nd elephant who, till now, stood motionless, pretending he wasn’t even there, emerged from his hiding place. His body language immediately reverted back to the old confident tough-guy swagger. He hurried towards the waterhole, which was now clear of the rhino. He triumphantly flailed his trunk, trumpeted loudly and violently charged the little ducklings in the water, scattering them even further away.

I could have sworn the the1st elephant looked at him with an expression that said ” are you serious?”

I guess some of us are braver than others.

 

Cool Cats & Angry People

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A frail 16 year old Machali

India’s recent economic growth, coupled with rapid technological advancement has had an interesting effect on its wildlife.

Camera trapping, drones, advanced communication and surveillance systems, satellite maps etc. have allowed scientists and forest officers to better monitor and administrate the National Parks and one cannot help feeling that the natural resources are safer than they were in the past, despite growing threats on many fronts.

There has also been a dramatic societal change. People now have more money and more access. Good cameras and lenses are easily accessible and people can afford them. The Internet and the mobile phone boom allows for millions of pictures, videos and conversations  to be shared exponentially by passionate communities of enthusiasts. What is happening in Ranthambore on a day–to-day basis can now be shared ‘real-time’, with an enthusiast sitting in New Zealand, for example.

This constant flow of visual information, news and gossip is responsible for the rapid growth of this online community, which is gradually becoming a lobby for ecological awareness and responsibility. Its sheer numbers and unity of purpose is making it a force to reckon with. Their 24X7 focus on the animals is also a powerful policing force of the forest. There is a strong sense of familiarity with almost each animal in the tourist zones. Sometimes when these animals go missing for a few days, all hell breaks loose. If an animal dies, everyone is a suspect and there are relentless petitions for enquiries and probes. This phenomenon has added to the overall safety of the forest, to some extent. Unauthorized grazing or any surreptitious mining or timber activity is also almost certain to be caught out, at least in the tourist zones, by somebody who will immediately put a picture of the incident on the internet.

All this is wonderful. But..

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I notice an interesting offshoot of this relentless scrutiny. I notice people getting very emotionally attached to the animals that they see or have experienced on a regular basis on these channels. This attachment almost seems to mimic our feelings towards a favorite zoo animal, or even a household pet.

There is a raging debate about Ranthambore’s most famous tigress Machali being hand fed and kept alive beyond her natural lifecycle, because of her fame and notoriety. Passions are inflamed on both sides of the argument, which often get abusive.

Recently, another legend, the Kankatti tigress of Bandhavgarh was found dead, along with her cubs. The cause of death is not confirmed, but it is most likely a male tiger. In the monsoons, territorial markings get washed away and tigers can to run into each other unexpectedly, violently. The picture of the dead cubs, posted on the Internet, was heart wrenching. None of this is particularly unusual tiger behavior, but predictably, passions are inflamed, again. In yet another  ill-informed overreaction to ‘saving the tiger’, a forest officer got killed in a National Park when he tried to separate 2 male tigers during a territorial battle- something tigers have been doing since longer than we’ve been standing on two legs.

T24 sleeping ©

Tigers have been around for more than 2 million years. That’s a lot longer than man. We have been around for only about 200,000. Such tiger behavior is a part of their natural selection process, which is also millions of years old.

But today, we face a dilemma. Nothing is more threatened than the natural world. It is the repository of some of the earth’s most precious resources, which is constantly under attack by the greed of vested interests and by the exploding human population.

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Therefore, should man interfere? and by how much? Is he already interfering by destroying the natural world at an unnatural rate? Is it still a natural world? Or just small pockets of disconnected forest land? Is the proximity of humans already an unnatural environment for the animals? And therefore do we have a responsibility to exercise greater control?

Therein lie all the questions and dilemmas. For example, should Machali of Ranthambore be fed? Kept alive? Is she being kept alive at the cost of the young cubs being born in Ranthambore? Is her life ,as a well known and much loved tigress, more important than the lives of the anonymous cubs that have just been born- and might get killed because new territories haven’t been vacated in natural life spans. Should we leave nature to nature or is it already too late? Serious issues to reflect upon, I think.

I don’t have answers to any of these questions. All I know is how I feel.

ranthambore landscape ©

History tells me that even a little tinkering with natural balances has created huge devastations in the past, the world over, be it tigers or lions, birds or insects or even vegetation. To mess with it is to cause disease, loss of wildlife, vegetation and topsoil, desertification and floods. For example, even a seemingly simple consequence of too many herbivores in a particular area (because there aren’t enough predators) causes the flattening and hardening the ground by their hoofs, because of which the earth cannot absorb the rainwater, because of which the rainwater rushes out carrying rich topsoil with it, because of which vegetation dries out, because of which animals and birds which are re-pollinating agents move away, because of which the entire jungle starts to die when it fails to regenerate, because of which there is nothing to stop the rush of water, because of which there are flash floods.

Just connect the dots, from the absence of tigers to the loss of human life and property. Everything is truly connected in this delicate web of life.

The industrial age in Europe killed off its entire natural ecosystems. All of Europe’s existing forests have been re-forested decades later, when realisation dawned. – and even then all of them couldn’t fully recover. Man made imbalances in inter-species ratios has wiped entire populations. Not too long ago there were lions in Palestine, Egypt, Syria,Turkey, Macedonia, and Greece. Lions were seen in Southwestern Iran as recently as 1910.

According to a recent scientific study,  today all populations of large mammals across the globe are dwindling in total numbers.

We need to draw wisdom and learning from past mistakes to influence our forest policies. Even the lovers of wildlife, who can be such a  powerful force need to understand that our national parks and tiger reserves are more than just large ‘natural looking’ enclosures that house their ‘favorite’ cats.

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An Elephant Story

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( Image courtesy © Carol Buckley )

It was a typically balmy evening on the outskirts of Bandipur, Karnataka. Some years ago I was shooting a TV commercial which involved the temple elephants of Guruvayoor, which had trekked up all the way from Kerala. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FGkc6FbDYE&feature=youtu.be  )

The shooting crew was taking a break and I decided to walk away from the hustle and bustle of activity with my cup of coffee, towards the adjacent wilderness. It opened out on to a lush green meadow across which the temple elephants were being temporarily camped. I sat down on the soft grass, thrust my face into the fragrant breeze and soaked in this beautiful, tranquil scene.

Soon I saw a mahout ride one of the elephants towards me. He dismounted and loosely chained the elephant’s foot to a spike that he thrust and hammered into the ground. With the elephant secured, he then walked over to get the elephant some feed from the main stockpile a few yards away. He dumped a hearty portion in front of the elephant, patted him lovingly and proceeded to walk away into the distance, presumably to attend to his own errands.

The elephant munched away peacefully on his allotted feed, occasionally gazing at his mahout walking away. Gradually the mahout’s silhouette got smaller and smaller against the horizon, till he crested a hill and finally disappeared from our sight.

Now it was just me and this elephant, surrounded by a green panoramic landscape. The weather  could not have been more perfect and there was no other human being in sight. Bliss!

At this very instant the elephant carefully tugged at the spike. He worked it and pulled it out of the ground with his trunk. He then put it down noiselessly and sauntered over to the main food stockpile and began gorging himself, in what seemed to me, an unusually hurried manner. After about 10 minutes of frenzied feeding, suddenly, as if struck by guilt or fear, he quickly shuffled back to his original spot. Soon the mahout reappeared on the horizon. The elephant very smoothly re-planted the stake back into the ground; into the same hole the mahout had dug. By the time the mahout finally walked up to the elephant, everything was as exactly he had left it. It became very evident to me that he never caught on to what had just transpired

I watched this entire drama, stunned & transfixed. Finally I snapped out of my stupor and for a minute, thought about walking over and telling the mahout about his elephant’s extraordinary behaviour while he was away. On second thought, I chose not to tattle on the elephant!

Looking back at this encounter, I wondered if what I saw was really extraordinary or was I just witness to an event that went beyond my existing understanding of elephants  or my pre suppositions?

It seems to me that the more we observe animals, the more we notice that they exhibit behavior and emotions that we associate with being uniquely ‘human’. Somehow we are always surprised and delighted to see that. Why should we be surprised by intelligence in an animal? Or its craftiness, greed? Or its affection or sadness? Or even be surprised at this common thread of feelings and behavior across species?

I am not a scientist or an expert, but I really do think that if we can stop thinking of animals as ‘creatures’ or ‘beasts’ that are somehow alien to our own human condition on this planet, we might understand our world and ourselves a little better and perhaps even improve it.