In the tiger’s realm

Print edition : May 11, 2018

The Indian marsh mugger is a serious threat and competition to the tiger as they also prey on sambar and spotted deer.

Noor and Sultan cool off together.

Noor and Sultan indulge in play fighting.

A collective memoir of the tigers and tigresses of Ranthambhore National Park.

AROUND a decade ago when Bina Kak showed me some of her jungle safari photographs on the sidelines of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I could not help but exclaim: “Beautiful! Breathtaking! Wonderful!” I saw them as nothing more than a revelation of a politician’s lesser known side. In Jaipur, Bina Kak is known for her fine tastes and finer graces. Her photographs have the same graceful quality about them. They are timeless, each picture enchanting in its own way.

Time passed and Bina Kak too got more actively involved in her political career as Minister of Tourism, Art and Culture in Rajasthan. Every now and then, though, she would spring a surprise by mailing photographs of tigers in various moods. But gradually Bina Kak stopped sharing her pictures via email or on Facebook because she was busy writing suitable stories to go with her pictures. The outcome of the endeavour is the book Silent Sentinels of Ranthambhore, which is as beautiful as it is different.

Wildlife photographers have captured the majestic tiger in all its moods and various actions in the jungle. Bina Kak’s book is different. She relates stories with such felicity that you discover the human side of tigers—a protective mother, a lazy father, playful cubs, egoistic males and beautiful females.

As a person who has been the people’s representative and a Minister, Bina Kak gives us the perspective from the other side, too. She is a wildlife enthusiast in boots and hat and armed with a camera. But she has also been aware of the problems from outside, from the haloed precincts of bureaucracy and polity, factors that impede the implementation of policy and the everyday challenges facing conservation of tiger or other wildlife. For instance, the problem of man-animal conflict, the death of elephants in train or road accidents in Kerala and the straying of leopards into human habitations in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and even Delhi.

Bina Kak puts her years of experience to good use and turns what could easily have been just another coffee-table book into a book that makes one ponder.

The book opens with Bina Kak’s admission of how disparate things came together in the form of a book. It all started rather suddenly. One day in 2001, she was asked by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to take on the additional responsibility of the Department of Environment and Forests. Bina Kak was then Minister of Tourism, Art and Culture. This additional charge soon occupied centre space as she realised the possibility of linking tourism and wildlife. This resulted in frequent visits to wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. Soon, she was hooked on to the life of Bahadur, the last-born male cub of Ranthambhore’s most famous tigress, Machhli; Ustad, the lazy and massive tiger weighing 300 kilograms; and Sultan, Krishna and Sundari, to name a few. Each tiger has a different personality, and it is this picture that she conveys in the write-up that accompanies the pictures. Bahadur’s presence, Bina Kak writes, helped his mate Husn-ara bring up their cubs successfully: “That her mate T-3’s [Bahadur] presence has kept other predators (including tigers) away demonstrates a working partnership between them both…. At approximately ten years, T-3 is now among Ranthambhore’s largest tigers, if not the biggest one around. Beginning his life under the tutelage of his mother, the grand dame Machhli herself, Bahadur first ranged the Lake Territories all the way up to Lakardah, finally finding his way down the slopes from there into the Aam Chowki, Thumka area. I first observed him as a cub. To see him as a father, accompanying his young family as a tiger in his prime, has been a special experience for me.”

It is with a mix of awe and love that she relates the story of Noor, a female tiger who got the name because her skin glistened as the rays of the morning sun shone through the forest canopy. Noor is projected as a brave and hard-working mother. Only rarely does she get help from her mate, Ustad, in rearing their playful cub Sultan. Sultan has no sibling, so Noor doubles up as mother and playmate with Ustad occasionally joining the fun. Noor is Sultan's teacher as well. They have mock hunt drills. Gradually, she brings him live prey, all along trying to make sure that he becomes independent. Little Sultan is attached to his mother and cannot bear the thought of having to fend for himself until one day she growls and forces him out of her territory.

The “collective memoir” of the tiger families is told with such care that even if the text were not accompanied by photographs, the author’s words would have sufficed to paint the pictures.

Machhli and her cubs

The story of Machhli is even more moving. At her peak, the tigress (mother of Sundari, Krishna and Bahadur) was known to be the most ferocious one around. Belonging to the family of “Lake Tigers”, she ruled over the ravines, the lakes and the fort. Born in 1997, she soon overthrew her mother to take charge of the territory. For a little under a decade, her writ ran in the forest. Then fate caught up with her. Sundari drove her mother out of the territory.

But Machhli did not fade into oblivion. Her death in 2016 was widely reported in national newspapers. She got all the honour she deserved as the “queen” of Ranthambhore who fought a large crocodile with agility and sharpness. The most-photographed tigress, Machhli was also said to have been a caring mother who taught her cubs all the rules of the game, making sure that they were well equipped when they went out to face the world as adults in their own individual capacities. So good were the cubs in imbibing her lessons that Sundari used the same trick to overthrow Machhli.

Talking of Sundari, she was a born leader. Part of a litter of three Machhli was blessed with in 2006, she was soon being followed around by her siblings. So dominant was Sundari that she edged out each of her sisters from the lake territories of Ranthambhore. But when Sundari was blessed with cubs of her own, she too turned into a protective, caring mother.

Bahadur’s mate Husn-ara was a resident of remote Aam Chowki, an area that is in close proximity to several villages. Husn-ara was a valiant mother and a game partner for Bahadur. Bina Kak describes the tigress thus: “Husn-ara, whose name literally means ‘the epitome of beauty’, is a lithe and lean tigress who has done a fine job of bringing up her litter despite multiple challenges. A victim of frequent injuries caused by thorns of the juliflora plants that dominate the area, she has always managed to recover quickly from her prickly wounds.” With the passing away of Husn-ara, Bina Kak got the epitaph she must have been hoping for this beautiful story of tigers and tigresses of Ranthambhore.

Actually, there is much more to the book than the stories of tigers. It has pictures of birds and other animals, too, but Bina Kak uses the opportunity to write about the travails of forest guards, the foot soldiers in the battle to save the tiger. (Project Tiger is an ambitious tiger conservation programme started by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973.)

The guards, Bina Kak writes, “man the front lines of conservation, and often endure the most every times a tragedy befalls our Pas (patrol areas). They patrol our forests, day and night, often on foot and remain vulnerable to threats, from both human miscreants as well as animal attacks. Very rarely are they armed with anything more than a lathi.”

Bina Kak uses the book to focus on both sides of tourism development, the effect it has on wildlife and the revenue it generates. She writes: “While tourists individually may sometimes cause disturbance and stress to wildlife, tourism is, or can be made, a tool for conservation. Tourists visiting sanctuaries develop an understanding of ecology, ecosystems, and the importance of preservation for local communities and society. Those with an economic stake in wildlife—hoteliers, guides, shopkeepers, and so on—in addition, have a motive to help preserve it. However, this needs to be balanced against the need for responsible tourism."

It is a sentiment shared by the Dalai Lama, who has written the foreword to the book: “The creatures that inhabit the earth—be they human beings or animals—are here to contribute, each in its own particular way, to the beauty and prosperity of the world.” Silent Sentinels of Ranthambhore tells you that emotions are universal, whether you relate the story of human beings or animals.

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