It was in September 2016 that I wrote of the The Big Four Tigers of Mukki in Kanha. These Tigers had attracted the attention of all the Tiger lovers worldwide in the last 3 years. The most commonly sighted Tiger amongst them was Bheema, the peaceful warrior of Kanha National Park.
Almost everyone was beginning to reconcile that the Tiger behavior was changing in Kanha. Their belief stemmed from the fact that the four big male Tigers had accepted each other in a small area of under 300 sq kms. There were skirmishes on and off in the last couple of years. They all got injured, and recovered too. But deep down few knew that Kanha Tigers are fighters and not quitters. They live and die like Tigers in territorial fights. It was a matter of time before they would show their true colors. Come October 2016, and we saw departure of Rajaram in a fatal territorial encounter with Umarpani male. You may read the same in the below link:
Rajaram (Kingfisher) Tiger dies in a territorial fight in Kanha National Park
Umarpani male is a huge and a powerful Tiger in his prime with some extra-ordinary lineage. You might like to read about him here.
People were still coming to terms with the death of Rajaram when Bheema was found in a condition bordering death. The Mahouts found him gravely injured while patrolling on their elephants. Such was his condition that the department could not even think of tranquilizing him lest he succumb to his injuries. He was lifted and placed on a stretcher by the forest department while conscious. I do not recall any incident when a Tiger has been lifted without tranquilizing in the wild or even in a zoo.
He was taken to a natural enlarged enclosure where he was put under observation and treatment. Apparently the damage to him was considerable, and he was in no condition for a surgery. A team of expert vets were summoned from across the country.
His father was Kankata and mother was Budbudi. He was one in the litter of four. One of his siblings Bajrang is still doing well in another zone of Kanha. Bheema was frequently sighted in Mukki and Kisli zones. He was one Tiger who was not shy of tourists, and gave ample photo opportunities, sighted almost twice a week if not more in his peak days, i.e. until summer of 2016. Usually his sighting was not just a glimpse. He was often seen walking on the vehicle tracks for kms. After his sighting the tourists would go back satiated and delighted always.
It was 11th June 2015, an afternoon safari. I had just finished an amazing sighting / session with Umarpani male which lasted about 30 minutes when we decided to go and wait at the Babathenga waterhole. We had zero expectation of any sighting. The weather was a bit humid, and suddenly we hear a sambar alarm call. For a moment I did not believe my ears, I looked at Naren on the wheels and the second alarm call.
Now, when a Sambar deer calls it is most certain that he has sighted a Tiger. And if he calls twice in succession then it means that the Tiger is active. We started our vehicle and headed just 50 meters ahead from where the call came. As we reached the area, the sambar called again. We switched off the ignition and waited.
I always advise my guide, and whoever accompanying me in the jeep never to stand up, just stay seated. Reason being, that more often than not the Tiger would see the standing eager people before the people will see him. When everyone’s eyes are eagerly searching for the big cat, there is a lot of nervous energy around. The Tigers are highly sensitive and would usually change direction when they notice anxiety. Hence everyone was seated, calmly active and actively calm in my vehicle.
Then Raju our guide pointed in one direction and murmured the most anticipated word, “Sirji Tiger”. His face was seen from the tall grass. As everyone was seated in the car, the Tiger found a conducive atmosphere to make an appearance. We waited for him to come completely out of the grass. Once he did we started our vehicle and turned right where we expected him to follow us. Sure he did like an obedient son.
Then started my vigorous clicking. We maintained a safe distance. I kept giving him mental assurance that “i love you my handsome boy”. He followed us, and did everything that a Tiger on his territorial round would do. Scratching, marking, spraying, flehmen, sit, roll, everything. In about twenty minutes that he followed me i clicked close to 400 shots. He was not leaving our trail. Finally Naren said, “Sir, it is time to go, we have only 30 minutes left for park closure time and we must move”. With a heavy heart i confirmed and we changed course.
On our way back, i started to think of various safaris i had done in my last 27 years in India. Two memorable sightings are, my very first Tiger sighting in Ranthambhore in 1990. And, second would be this sighting. Though there are many memorable ones, but getting two different male Tigers, and both head on for a considerable time in less than one hour is unusual.
I called him the Peaceful warrior because he peacefully carried many combat medals (injury marks) on his shoulders with pride of a warrior. If I was to compare him with Link 7 aka Chotta Munna, or Umarpani male, Bheema was the most peaceful Tiger. He never unnecessary challenged any other Tiger for territory. Stayed mostly in his own territory, and defended it pretty well till almost the last 3-4 months of his reign. His skirmishes with Chotta Munna in 2015 were quite one sided where he chided him away comfortably.
But Chotta Munna has genes of Munna (a legendary Tiger of Kanha). At 15 Munna is still fighting, and surviving. Chotta Munna started to give Bheema some tough time toward middle of 2016. On 1st October 2016 when the park reopened for tourism Bheema was sighted with a limp, and it seemed he had lost considerable amount of weight. He looked a much smaller version of his former self. Subsequently his sightings reduced.
Was he unable to hunt? Was he carrying some injury? Or, was he ill? There was nothing of consequence visible on him. There is no protocol to interfere in the lives of wild Tigers in India. The department only intervenes when they feel that the injury is serious and can disable the Tiger.
On 4th December he was found by the patrolling forest staff. He was frail, his forelimb badly eaten by maggots. And he was found in the territory of Umarpani male. It is possible due to the constant disturbance by Chotta Munna he left his area and ventured into Umarpani male’s territory. I have always maintained that Umarpani male is the biggest surviving Tiger of central India right now. Not only in size, but in strength, and confidence also he is unmatched. The fact that he has dominated Mukki practically since 2011 speaks volumes about his demeanor.
Bheema was also not a diminutive Tiger by any yard of imagination Afterall he was given his name Bheema for a reason. He would have been a dominating Tiger in any other landscape besides Mukki. It was unfortunate that he got stuck between the two sons of Munna (Umarpani and Chotta Munna), else he would never have gone in his prime.
His fans including me were praying that he survives. But when i heard that the chances of survival are minimal i prayed for his ordeal to end.
Having seen Tigers for some decades now, i think, Tigers are born to fight. They survive because they fight. Choice is either they fight or they die. The end is mostly they fight and they die. Such is the life of a Tiger.