The Shuttlecock Tiger

dhikala subadult in bushes ©

Seeing a wild tiger in today’s India is a very public affair.
Every day scores of vehicles ferry noisy visitors and scramble about in the jungle in search of the big cat. Once spotted, the scene looks more like a zoo. Excited people are exclaiming loudly, eating, drinking and taking selfies with the tiger, who is more often than not, hemmed in between the vehicles.
Every mobile phone camera is in operation. More elaborate photographic equipment is chattering away like machine-gun fire in a few jeeps carrying people who, at first glance, look like BSF commandos just returned from a war. Camouflaged head to toe in military fatigues, wearing bandanas and wrap-around shades, they tote massive Camo-covered lenses. Like Roman charioteers, they are hustling their respective drivers into better camera positions. The drivers themselves are negotiating for space/fighting/arguing for that little extra few inches so that their client can get a better shot. These are the wildlife photographers. Ironically, I too, am one of this species today.

On a recent visit to Ranthambhore in the company of a veteran ‘Ranthambhorite’, we decided that we wouldn’t go anywhere near this kind of crowd, whether we saw a tiger or not. We would accept what the forest gave us and enjoy it for what it has always been – a magical place devoid of human sights and sounds. If one is lucky enough to see a tiger in this setting- a completely different experience from the circus one experiences today- then that would be a fantastic bonus. A one-on-one. You-the tiger & the forest. The magic of this kind of sighting is in a different league. It is almost a spiritual experience.

As luck wouldn’t have it, we didn’t see a tiger on that day. On our way back to the hotel, we reminisced nostalgically about our most memorable tiger sightings, many of which, for the veteran, had happened on foot. This brings me to my one and only ‘on foot’ experience.

Back in the mid 70s, as an 18 yr. old, I was visiting family friends in Madhya Pradesh and we all took a trip to the Kanha National park. Driving through big, lush forests like Kanha and Corbett was a little different back then. It would be hours before you would notice the presence of another vehicle. The magic of the forest would literally wrap you in its fantastic private bubble and then spit you out at the end of your ‘jungle ride’ back to civilisation, at the Forest Guest house.

At the end of one such morning ride, my friend and I were struggling to entertain ourselves. Afternoon is the ‘down time’ between game drives, till one goes back out into the forest again for the evening drive.
Bored, with nothing much to do, we managed to find a shuttlecock and 2 badminton racquets in a musty closet. Quickly a badminton court was improvised in the guesthouse backyard, and a seriously competitive game of ‘baddie’ was on.
On a particularly hard fought point, I managed to miss-hit the shuttle and it went sailing over the Bougainvillea-covered fencing around the backyard.
A brief argument ensued between us over who should go out and retrieve the shuttle.
Since “ You hit it out, you go get it”, my friend reasoned. I went in and around the building to the wooded area behind the backyard wall. It took me a few minutes of looking around in the thick undergrowth to eventually locate it. It was stuck high up in the thorny vines of the creeper on the fencing. It wasn’t going to be easy to extricate it. Eventually, I managed to get up on my toes to reach for the shuttle, trying to avoid the thorns by contorting my body until I managed to get my fingertips on it. As I gingerly began to pull it down, my body twisted precariously with my head tilting at an awkward angle.
In this position, through the corner of my eye, I suddenly saw that I was not alone. Behind me, through the leafy shrubbery about 30 yards away, there was a striped head staring at me unblinkingly.

It couldn’t be! Was it my imagination? Was it a shadow? A Sambar deer? Was it a tiger?

Now I don’t remember exactly what happened next or how long it took because it felt like someone had poured iced water all over me. A cold numbing sensation coursed through my entire body. Thinking back, it is probably because I must have broken into a sweat. It took me some time to process the fact that there was indeed a tiger, within leaping distance from me, looking straight at me.

Thorns pricked against my arm and extricating it quickly might have initiated a reaction from him. I was helpless, silent and immobile- and in hindsight, perhaps fortunate. I tried to keep my eyes on him as I began to very slowly and silently work around the thorns and lower my arm. It felt like ages but was probably only a few seconds. By the time I looked up at my arm and then back down to where I thought he was, he had vanished.
My eyes darted across the landscape, looking for some movement or a glimpse. Had he come closer? Was he stalking me? But there was no sign of him. This was when I noticed that I hadn’t been breathing. I sucked in a deep breath and slowly backtracked alongside the wall and found my way back into the guesthouse without further incident.

With my body breaking into spasms and hyperventilating with relief, I ran to tell my friend about what had just happened. To my shock, he smirked indulgently and said, “Oh, ya, sure! Of course you saw a tiger! You were down 14-17; shall we continue the game? ”

Frustrated, I went to tell my friend’s father who also smiled skeptically at me. On further debate & discussion with the forest staff present, it was determined that yes indeed, there was a male tiger who came by this guesthouse frequently to mark territory. They eventually got inquisitive enough and ventured back out to where I had been behind the fence and saw fresh pugmarks.

fl18_corbett_pugma_1818917g

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Tiger Crimes

t24 on bridge alt flp ©

Sitting in Washington, but thinking of Ranthambhore and all the time I’ve spent with T24, easily one of the most magnificent life forms ever designed by Nature.
Today he sits squarely in the middle of a raging controversy with many baying for his blood and an equal number championing his innocence.
4 people are dead because of him in the past few years. Unregulated forest areas, ill equipped forest guards, over zealous tourism, insensitive locals, India’s over population and indeed T24’s man eating tendencies are all under blame & vicious attack on this heated issue.
While better-qualified agencies decide on a verdict, which most likely is to be his removal to a largish enclosure near Udaipur, larger questions about the survival and management of our tiny little ‘dots’ of wilderness remain unanswered.

Dominant tigers are supposed to defend their territory. Against anything that is construed to be a potential threat. He has supposedly stalked his victims. Not defending but predatory behavior. A man-killer in today’s world evokes angry retaliation by locals. Poisonings, which end up killing many more tigers (often the wrong ones, often entire families), threats to the Forest Departments and other serious law & order situations.

T24, guilty or not guilty? Either way, it is human beings that will decide his fate. Somehow it doesn’t seem entirely fair that only the representatives of the victims will pass a verdict, but that is how she rolls. Maybe T24 has to go in order to keep the many others in clover.

“Many that live deserves death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” ~ Tolkien

A very sad day, any way you look at it, and with no easy answers. RIP, forest guard, Rampal Saini

Trees n’ Tigers

Tigers on trees panorama ©

trees & tiger cubs

Who says the leopard doesn’t change his spots? Sometimes he wears stripes!

The myth of the tiger, built over centuries through records of ancient documents, India’s Mughal and Colonial histories and reams of accounts from all kinds of tiger-hunters and watchers had left us with a classic stereotype of this animal which now seems to be up for scrutiny; That they are solitary, nocturnal… and don’t climb trees.

But tigers do climb trees. As youngsters or sub-adults, trees fascinate them and they are light enough at 230 kilos to go up and down them relatively easily. Trees are great for horseplay, sharpening their reflexes and their claws, and they are a perfect vantage point from where to survey their environment. Once they grow to full adulthood (close to 370 kilos), they get too heavy.

Thanks to India’s new love affair with wildlife photography and modern research technology, there is much more access and intrusion into the so called ‘secret life of tigers’today.

Ranthambhore, when explored as a virgin wildlife landscape in the 70s by the legendary Fateh Singh Rathore was a cluster of village fields and hutments and the tiger was a shy and secretive creature, seen occasionally and only at night.

Today tiger moms are strutting about in the open, with their offspring in tow, for hordes of long-lensed photographers and visitors. From the birth of the cubs till adulthood at around 2 years, they are raised in front of a house-full audience of people. This is happening in Ranthambhore, Bandhavgarh, Tadoba, Panna, and I believe even in Bandipur and Nagarhole.

From the miraculous glimpses of tigress ‘Noon’ with her new -born litter in the 80s to spending a full day with T19 and her cubs this year, tiger behavior seems to have come a long way. Perhaps tigers too, quite like the leopard, are rapidly adapting to the intense human presence that is constantly around them.

Tiger on a tree uncropped

Tiger sub-adult high up in a mango tree, in Bijrani, Corbett

two cubs in the big tree

Horseplay on the ‘jungle gym’

cub w butt up on tree

Awkward for tigers to come down trees because they are front-heavy.. opposite of the leopard.

Freaks of Nature

half tigers ©

The Half -Tiger

From my beloved land of the mystical, the bizarre & the unexpected, I present the ‘Half Tiger’’ and the ‘Double –Headed tiger’.

These were very commonly seen in the forest till recently, but now seemed to have caused outrage amongst the denizens and have been summarily banned by the ‘regular’ tigers of Ranthambhore for hurting their sentiments.

In other news, it has been such a pleasure to witness the romps of T19’s sub adults through most of 2014/15 who are still as playful as puppies even though they must be close to 300 pounds each by now. Life for them will change soon as they will go their separate ways and establish their own territories. An encounter with each other a few years from now might not be as cuddly.

One more trip beckons …

two headed tiger in the grass ©

The Double-Headed Tiger

Stalking Tiger, Hidden Wagon

T19 stalking

Stalking– Ranthambhore tigers have so adapted to local conditions that they often use the tourist jeeps as both, visual and audio cover to position themselves to make a successful kill. They are often seen slinking along close to a jeep hiding behind its profile, masking their sound by the sounds of the engine ( and yes, unfortunately also of the loud tourist )

It was therefore odd for me to see one of the most successful hunters in recent times, T19 aka Unnis, Krishna, Brat, stalk though a maze of burnt Dhonk trees. She stood out like a neon sign on a charcoal drawing! She was predictably unsuccessful but I was quite happy to get a few surreal pictures.

t19 thru the trees in dhonk ©

T19, moving through the burnt brush.

Moving Stripes

tiger in motion panorama ©

                                                                            A composite frame of T19’s cubs in motion

Ranthambhore’s sambhar powered, all -terrain Hummer, 400 pounds of torque.. A turbo powered mac truck that can build incredible thrust in a split second and then turn on a dime.

A tiger in flowing motion is a thing of powerful beauty. I was fortunate to get a few grabs of T19’s sub adults frolicking in the open grasses that skirt Ranthambhore’s Rajbagh lake. I also got a few hundred out-of-focus bloopers which was tragic because the action was spectacular and a more accomplished photog would have done more justice to the moment
Since turning to photography I sometimes miss not worrying about the camera settings and just enjoying the fleeting moment for what it is.

cub charging ©

cub mustang pose copy ©cub full run copy©

fighting cubs 2 ©

sparring cubs 2 ©

two cubs wrestling copy ©

Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.

T19 returns to a joyous reception by her cub after an outing

T19 returns to a joyous reception by her cub after an outing

T19 3 cubs leaving jhalra ©

By accident rather than design, I have found myself in Ranthambhore almost every few months, these last couple of years. Also quite by chance, I ended up in the presence of a remarkable tigress who rules the prime real estate of this region. She perhaps is the first tigress who has raised 3 cubs from birth to sub- adulthood under the full glare of tourists, wildlife paparazzi & filmmakers and in the process, has given the world an expose´ on how tigers live and raise families. The secret life of a tiger is secret no more.

I have been an unwittingly lucky spectator to T-19’s family life over this period of time, thanks to Balendu Singh who triggered it all by calling me in sweltering June last year to ask if I was coming to see the new cubs. When I refused and told him that I would visit in October instead, he said “ Well, ok fine, but they wont be little cubs anymore in October”. I left for Ranthambhore very the next day.

Over this year and a half I have been witness to the most amazing acts of motherhood, protection, loving care, admonishment, training, fun and playfulness of this little group. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, her trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows, her determined investment in her progeny has been as human as human could be.

The sheer pleasure of being kissed by one of her cubs when she returns from an expedition, or the terrifying snarl which is admonishment to a cub who seemed prone to run up a little too close to the tourist jeeps (Yes, humans are dangerous, children!! Keep away! ) is evidence enough that the distance between us as a species isn’t as great as we believe.

It has been a privilege and a tremendous learning to be a voyeur to this little family drama unfolding in the lives of this very public tigeress and her cubs and I do hope I can follow many more episodes of this story as it continues..

As someone famous once said; “ Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”

A Herd of Tigers

T19 family spread 2 ©

Who would have thought that one could have a frame full of tigers in one shot!

If the light was any poorer one could have mistaken them for a group of Sāmbhar moving cautiously through the tall grass. Yet, this is a very common sight these days in Ranthambhore. Frequent sightings of families of tigers, nonchalantly moving about in broad daylight, surrounded by jeep-fulls of visitors, testifying to the recent good news of more tigers in Indian reserves.

40 years ago when Fateh Singh Rathore, the visionary architect of Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve fought the ‘System’ valiantly for these forests, he would see a tiger perhaps once in two weeks, and that too in the middle of the night.

I wonder what he would think today.

I spy

T 74 close up blur ©

“ I see that you have seen me, seeing you”. A peekaboo through some very thick foliage of the not-often-seen T-75 ( the offspring of T17 aka Sundari ).

Some people mistook him for an older male, Romeo ( T6 ) but that Rudolf nose is a dead-giveaway. The pink is a sign of youth. As they grow older the pigmentation turns darker.

With the recent population explosion at Ranthambhore, and the resident tiger moms raising their offspring from infancy to adulthood in full public view of park visitors, a notable behavioural change over that last 15, 20 years, it remains to be seen how the park and the town of Ranthambhore manages this recent ‘good news’ of more tigers. Limited space, more tigers – more tigers used to human proximity. Something for all of us think about, worry about…

Ranthambhore ( yet ) Again!

T19 & cub money- eye glint

T19 & family returning from feasting on a full grown Sambar deer, which they finished in less than a day

Back from yet another trip to Ranthambhore. Lately, it seems that I’m ‘visiting’ Delhi instead of the other way around. Not complaining though!
It has been especially satisfying to observe & photograph the ‘First Family’ of the park – T19 and her fast growing cubs over the numerous trips this year. With an abundance of males in the tourist zones recently, and a classic tiger sighting usually being a fleeting glimpse of a solitary cat, it seems rather strange to see both T19 and T39, raising their cubs, mostly in plain view of the visitors. Moms and cubs are everywhere. Hunting, feeding, eating, playing, nuzzling – to the delight of visitors and the army of photographers that camp there month after month.

From the many stories told by Fateh Singh and Valmik Thapar, when in the early 70’s it would take weeks to spot a single tiger in Ranthambhore and that too only at night, as the saying goes, we’ve come a long way, baby.

With all the bad news that constantly surrounds us on issues related to wildlife & conservation, it is nice to acknowledge all the good folks who have built and preserved Ranthambhore over the years and transformed it into this tiger paradise- at least for now.  Fingers crossed.

3 cubs in the air

the cubs playfully follow the mother

Noor cub in river bed

Noor’s ( T39 ) male cub relaxing in the winter sunshine of a december afternoon

Noor cub peering from behind tree

Noor’s male cub playing peekaboo with me.