Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Tiger and I (Memorable sightings revisited) - Berda

The tiger has this incredible, almost hypnotic charm attached to its aura. Very few people who have seen tigers fail to get moved by its incredible beauty, grace and power.  Personally, I also come away deeply humbled by every encounter with this majestic beast - and a lot of that comes from a sense of humility and modesty that this animal seems to exhibit. Clearly at the top of the food chain, far more powerful than pretty much all the other denizens of the forest and with relatively no natural predators (greedy human beings are not part of the natural ecosystem) it still does not abuse its bounty. It lives in harmony with its surroundings, takes what is due and gives back what it owes. It does not attack or kill for pleasure or sport and if you leave it alone, it will leave you well alone. And its first instinct at any intrusion is to avoid conflict and melt away into the forest; attack is only the last form of defense. And if the apex predator follows this principle, surely we humans can take a leaf or two from its book?

This is one such sighting where we were pretty much the only ones, surrounded by four grown tigers. We kept our distance and the tigers kept theirs, resulting in two days of absolute bliss.

Berda Valley, Ranthambhore. June 2004

This was a few years ago when Machli ruled the lake area in Ranthambhore with her two sub-adult cubs and we had very good sightings of the sub-adult female, Jhumri on the first two safaris. The second morning, Hemraj suggested we go to Berda to try and sight the family there, a mother with 3 grown cubs (two male and one female). And a bumpy 40 minute ride later, we descend into the Berda valley only to be greeted by a line of jeeps (5-6), patiently waiting for.... tigers!

And as we joined the tail (or was it head?) of the queue, it turned out that the tigers were in the bush near us and they emerged onto the road right in front of our jeep. One parked himself square across the road with a flick of his head and looked haughtily at us, as if to say 'This is mine'. A beautiful male tiger, and future king perhaps. Then he joined his siblings as all three walked the path for a bit and then melted into the bush as it grew hotter. Beautiful sighting but it was to be little more than an appetizer.

That afternoon, we left the rest of the vehicles looking for Machli and headed back to Berda. Hemraj was sure the cubs would be reunited with their mother and that was conviction was good enough for us! We drove around Berda for a bit before he spotted one of the cubs resting in the shade, in thick bush. And we set up our base there, waiting for the tiger to move. 

An hour later and no movement, but suddenly we heard an alarm call from beyond the bushes. 'Waterhole' said Hemraj and we head there and watch as the female cub walks straight into the water and immerses herself neck deep. It was a first for me, I'd seen tigers wallow but never immerse themselves like this. And what was even more intriguing was that she walked head-first into the water. Normally, all tigers walk up to the water and then turn around and enter the water rear-first - but this one just walked right into it. 

Her mother's voice
She seemed to be really relaxed and enjoying herself, when, in the middle of a drink we heard a little sound and the cub dashed out of the water like she had a race to run. That sound (barely audible to us) was the mother calling and we went further ahead to see all the cubs race up to join the mother. And that reunion was so spontaneous and so affectionate, it belied all human claims to be top of the 'emotions' chain. All this happened not far from us but in the bushes, so we didn't get any pictures while we saw the whole sequence clearly.

Then the quartet emerged from the bush, walked to a waterhole and all of them took turns drinking. And making it worth our while as well. While two of them drank, the other two posed for us, the only jeep in the vicinity. Almost like a 'thank you for having the faith' sighting. And then they headed further into the forest as we headed back. Superb sightings but Hemraj promised more the next day. He deduced that the mother had come to fetch the cubs because she had made a kill. So they were bound to be in the area somewhere.

And again, the next morning, we headed back towards Berda. And Hemraj took us all the way to a water hole called Bandarwal ki Bawdi (Bandarwal's pond) There was a guard house virtually right above, on a little incline next to the waterhole. So if a guard were to poke his head above the wall, he could see the waterhole right underneath.  We were all convinced that no tiger was going to come near this place in broad daylight. And Hemraj just laughed. And he was joined by MD Parasher, ace painter, a pioneer of wildlife art and dear friend.

And they had the last laugh as a few minutes later one of the cubs walked down from the other end of the incline (away from the guard house) She paused half way, took stock of the two jeeps in attendance and walked right down to the water to drink. Soon one of her brothers joined her for a drink, but they didn't stay long - didn't want mum and junior to wolf down the rest of that delicious meal, no doubt! We were out of time that morning, but the afternoon plan was already clear!

And we arrived early that afternoon, set stall at a safe distance and waited. And like the morning, they came two at a time, drank and wallowed and then left to guard the kill while the others came down. and we had an absolute field day. They walked around our jeeps, posed for us and preened and groomed themselves. Just imagine the scene - two tigers in the water a few metres away, no other human being in sight. Nothing to disturb this tranquil scene with the only sound being that of the cameras.

And then one of the guards put his head over the wall and looked into the waterhole. And the tigers just scrammed, helter-skelter back to their mother, almost falling over each other in their eagerness to get out of the water. The sight of one guard, rather, just his head was enough to send them running, while 8 humans in two jeeps had spent the better part of 8 hours (over 2 days) a few metres away from them. I guess the unfamiliar (guard on foot) is always a threat while the familiar (jeeps) are accounted for in their routine.

We stared rather unkindly at the poor guard, but take a minute to imagine their plight. Here they were, shut inside their huts all day, with 4 tigers wandering around. The poor guy might have come to get a refill of water! Makes you realize how difficult their jobs are even in the best of times.

The tigers duly came back, reassured when the guard went back in. We left them around sunset, still in the water but probably ready to move on that night. The kill would have been demolished so it was onwards to the next one, the next day. Approaching adulthood, they would remain together only for a short time before they found their own territories and started their own families. And we were grateful that they gave us probably one of the last sightings of the family together - an  amazing private audience; patiently, gracefully and silently blessing us with sightings of a lifetime. 

We left in high spirits, with great hopes for this family. They would move on, the mother would have another little the next season. The female cub would find her own territory and cubs before too long and the handsome males would challenge the established kings for supremacy.

And once again, the Berda valley would resonate with the sounds of a new litter, adding strength to Ranthambhore's precious but fragile tiger population.


But sadly, three of the four tigers (the mother and the two male cubs) were never seen again. What became of them we will never know. The female cub established herself in part of her mother's territory and had two cubs of her own. In turn, she died when the cubs were young, killed after a fight with another tiger. Her female cub (T41) still rules her family's old stomping grounds and with news that she has just had a cub, the Berda family lineage still lives on.