In his latest book, tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar writes about his best encounters with this magnificent animal.

Tracking the most elusive predator Secrets of the tigers life revealedDibyendu Ash via Wikimedia Commons
Features Book Excerpt Thursday, November 17, 2016 - 18:05

By Valmik Thapar    

We would have to wait until the end of the year before we next met Padmini and her cubs. In November, Fateh and I were driving around the lakes. We had just passed Badhyaya tracking around on his bicycle. Everything appeared calm. We had stopped to listen to animal calls when we saw a frantic Badhyaya pedalling furiously towards us on his bike. He yelled, ‘Go to the corner of Rajbagh…there is a tree full of crows and tigers are on a nilgai kill.’ This was rare. A nilgai or blue bull seldom finds itself the victim of a tiger’s attack. It is big and there are only a few in the forests of Ranthambhore. Fateh and I rushed off to find Padmini guarding a male nilgai carcass. A bunch of nearly twenty crows sat on a nearby tree and white-backed vultures circled above. Three of her cubs were lazing around the carcass. A chunk from the rear had been eaten. We watched one of the best days in our lives with tigers unfold.

Even today, after nearly forty years, this remains one of my favourite memories of Padmini and her cubs. Fateh and I did not take a break all day and by the end of it were surrounded by nine tigers at different distances from the carcass. It seemed as though half of Ranthambhore’s tiger population was around us. I noted in my field diary that the carcass was too heavy for Padmini to move but she had nibbled at the rump. Two of her cubs, sitting behind her and waiting impatiently for their meal, stood up to approach the kill. As they approached her, Padmini smacked one of the cubs with her paw and he submissively rolled over on his back. The other one began eating from the rump. Padmini seemed to be saying, ‘One at a time.’ At 7.30 a.m., Padmini grabbed the nilgai by the neck and tried to drag it away but its foot got stuck in a fork at the base of a tree so she settled down and started eating. When she had finished, she managed to drag the carcass about 8 metres away. We drove in further but were suddenly confronted by Laxmi, the female cub from Padmini’s first litter. Five tigers were now spread out in front of us with both Padmini and Laxmi sprawled closest to the carcass.

There was much nuzzling between the tigress and her cubs and Padmini marked a tree, sniffed the bark and again pulled the carcass further. This area was easily accessible to the jeep and as she pulled we moved in closer. A few minutes later Padmini decided to walk down the slope to the lake to have a drink of water. This was an opportunity for Laxmi, who darted in and started to eat. Padmini spent more than twenty minutes cooling off in the water and then settled on the path below. It was past 11 a.m. As we headed back to the carcass we noticed that a tigress we had named Nick Ear—she had a small cut in her ear—had arrived for the feast and had sat down near Laxmi. At noon Padmini appeared and snarled at Laxmi forcing her to move off the carcass. She then dozed off but kept watch on the crows whose cawing would alert her to any threat. Everyone was sleeping in patches of shade around the carcass.

By 2 p.m. we had six tigers in front of us. It was an unbelievable sight. But the excitement did not end there. About 45 metres away from us, another tigress appeared amidst much snarling and growling. Things were getting nasty. Stunned at the scene unfolding in front of us, Fateh and I looked at each other as if in a dream. At 3 p.m. a large male tiger appeared in the distance, who looked very much like Akbar from Padmini’s litter of 1976. Behind him was another tiger. Our hearts were thumping by now and we looked at each other in disbelief. We had nine tigers surrounding us at differing distances. Hardly daring to breathe, our eyes moved from one tiger to another. Not one of them was eating—Padmini appeared to be in command of the group and the dining. It was similar to a pride of lions on a kill—they do not eat together but take it in turns. Padmini’s control of the group prevented conflict and injury among the tigers. By 4.30 p.m., as the evening shadows lengthened, Padmini moved off towards the lakeside vocalizing softly. At 5.20 p.m. Fateh and I drove off after ten hours of uninterrupted, extraordinary observation.

Returning to the site the next morning, we found only Padmini and her cubs, one of the cubs preoccupied with chewing off the carcass’s ribcage. The rest of the tigers had gone. An hour later Padmini and her family disappeared over the rise of the hill, leaving the remnants of the carcass for the crows and vultures. This grande dame had revealed one of the great secrets of the tiger’s life to us—kin links remain and tigers can be tolerant of each other when they meet. More than three decades after this encounter, I believe tigers recognize each other in their lifetime and are able to share kills and have enormous overlaps in their home ranges. Some tigers are less tolerant and do not share their food but their individualistic behaviour is a part of the way they live.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book “Living with tigers” by Valmik Thapar.

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