I have been studying and watching Tigers for over 29 years now. What i had not seen i had read, and what i had not read i had seen about the Tiger. But what unraveled on my last visit to Jim Corbett National Park, i had neither read, nor seen and never imagined. It was a misty morning in Dhikala. The sky had taken the shades of orange, birds had stepped out of their comfort zones in search of food. How every sunrise is creatively different from the previous one is tough to fathom.
The biggest question before one moves out of the Dhikala compound gates is whether you should go towards the grasslands or towards the Sambar Road. My mind was saying the grasslands. I shared the same with Irshad. We reached the crossroad where you take right for grasslands, and left for Sambar road. My head turned right towards the grasslands and the vehicle turned left towards the Sambar road. A bit baffled i asked Irshad why? He said, Sir just like that…
Well, having no choice, and instantly no regret i was with the wave taking me towards Sambar road. Crossed the watch tower, stopped for a second to see if anything stood on the old Sambar road, nothing, so moved on. On the new Sambar road which is just next to the Ramganga river, Irshad slowed down a bit to see if there was anything unusual around the river. This is one spot in Corbett where you want the time to stop, other being the bridge on the Ramganga river taking you to Paar (across the river).
We had barely gone ahead of this area when Irshad braked and whispered “Tiger”. The light was very low, mist in the background, we looked ahead and a Tiger just crossed the road into the bush. I just about saw his shadow. Even before i could get disappointed that i had missed the Tiger we saw two more Tigers on the road just behind him.
Irshad stopped. Ignition off. The distance was good 25 meters. They were both sitting on the corner of the road. What were seeing was the “Chua Pani” Tigress with her cub, the one that had moved in was a male Tiger. She gets her name Chua Pani from a beautiful place few kms away known as Chua Pani. She has a litter of two cubs about 16 months old. The female cub was right besides her, and the other one most likely the male had moved in.
There seemed to be something unusual with her behavior. She was looking into the lantana and growling intermittently. I put out my bean bag and took a couple of images. Her growling did not cease. She would show us the canines once in a while to signify to stay put where we are, and then look towards the bush and growl again.
Silence everywhere. Only two sounds were her growling and my occasional shutter click. The female cub was not leaving her side. Then she took a stance that a Tigress takes when she stalks and is about to charge. She went down on her four legs, her belly touching the ground, her ears rolled back, and canines out, only worry was her eyes got focussed on us.
We knew there is nothing stupid we need to do. I stopped clicking, and stood our ground. It was her female cub that came to our rescue. The cub came close and nudged her on her face, as if saying, it is alright, let it be.
She relaxed, and i exhaled a long breath out of my mouth. When it all seemed normal, she got up growled looking at the lantana and went into the bush. By this time 3 more Jeeps had come and they were behind us. we decided to go ahead, and asked the Jeeps behind to stay put. We had crossed the area where she was, and moved further ahead by good 30 meters and stopped. We looked back.
The growling sounds kept coming from the lantana, we just could not figure out the reason for her demeanor. One thing clear was that it was not us. So that relaxed us a lot more. In a few moments she again stepped out with her cub, crossed the road in front of us and into the grass that would go towards the river.
Having gone few meters away, the male Tiger stepped out of the bush. This was a male cub, and not the adult male whom we thought could be why she was behaving like that. But this intrigued me more, as to why was she so upset with her male cub.
The moment the male cub came out, she walked briskly towards him growling, and the poor little boy meekly retired back into the bush. When satisfied that the male cub was back in the bush, she alongwith her female cub turned her attention towards us with a light growl which signified move on. We listened like obedient students started the vehicle and went further ahead by 10 meters. She went into the bush. Her going into the bush meant appearance of the male cub again. He walked out, not so confidently and went behind her into the bush. The growling in the bush commenced again.
Now this was getting a bit complex for me to understand her frame of mind at this point. They moved on from the old Sambar road, and climbed up. The growling continued. Her anger was unrelenting. During the break after the safari, my mind was on a treadmill of thoughts, continuous.
The afternoon safari began, we went towards Paar. Most of the vehicles were hanging around the Sambar road area in anticipation of some action as there were growls every so often. While we were roaming in Paar my mind was also on Sambar Road, and then something happened which completely took my mind off Sambar Road and we three just looked at each other as to what was this. This was another Tiger, what happened here will have to follow in a separate post.
We returned towards evening on the main road, and saw some vehicles standing there. On enquiring they said, the Tigress had just crossed over, we waited. The male cub also crossed over into the bush. The growling started again. Now this was not normal for me. It had been 10 hours since morning that the Tigress had been growling on the male cub. What was wrong? What did the male cub deserve to get this treatment? My heart went out to him. Suddenly we saw her emerge from the bush, ran almost 40 meters parallel to the bush and re-entered.
It all happened in a flash of a moment. As expected growling once again. But this time the growling seemed to be going further away from us. As if she was chasing him away. Asking him to get lost else she would do something real nasty. One thing became clear that this was not normal. She was gravely upset. But she would not kill him as if she had to kill him she would have done by now.
The safari time ended, we got back to Dhikala, and my mind got back on the treadmill once again. Only difference was that this time it wasn’t a jog, but a sprint.
Next day morning safari, without any discussions or decisions we landed up in the same area. We went to Kamarpatta road, and saw the pug marks of male cub walking on one side, and the Tigress and the female cub on the other side. These were not fresh pug marks but seemed as if they had walked in the night. Good 5 kms we followed the trail, and finally arrived at a point where the male cub went ahead into another territory and the mother with her cub came down towards their home territory.
We stopped the vehicle and thought of various possibilities.
While the 1st and 2nd possibilities also seemed real, but my mind was bent on concluding that it was most likely the 3rd.
The world of Tigers is an unfinished encyclopedia, many chapters will still be written till the time this fearsome, fascinating and forceful predator survives. I pray, until eternity.
And thank you Irshad for turning left towards Sambar road.