Tiger with a human face

If the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan is a conservation success story, the tigers of the reserve have remarkable life stories of their own. The biggest draw of the park today is Noor and her three cubs.

Published : Sep 26, 2018 12:30 IST

The Bengal tiger at a waterhole in the Ranthambore National Park.

The Bengal tiger at a waterhole in the Ranthambore National Park.

T-39. That is how Noor, the tigress, is officially known in the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. But nobody calls the tigress by the number. She has many names that endear her to foresters and visitors alike. Noor is called Mala (garland) because the wavy bead-like pattern on her bright skin is unique, and it glows ( noor ). She is also called the Sulthanpur female, Sulthanpur being the southern-most part of the park where she grew up as the cub of T-13. Noor’s famous and most loved aunt, T-16, better known as Machli, roamed over the largest part of the 392-square kilometre national park. Like Machli, who died in August 2016 at the ripe age of 19, Noor is very adaptive to human presence in the form of photographers and wildlife enthusiasts in her habitat.

The tigress can emote, be expressive, and stay cool even when cameras whirr and click. And she is such a loving mother that the mother-cubs bonding is something photographers long to capture. Some tigers are born great. Machli, who fought and killed a crocodile in the lake area of the reserve, was one such; Noor has greatness thrust upon her by rare circumstances in the wild.

The Ranthambhore National Park, previously called the Sawai Madhopur Sanctuary, is a prime tiger habitat of India. It was formerly the hunting grounds of the maharajas of Jaipur.

For the past two years, the 10-year-old Noor and her three cubs from her fourth litter have been the most sought after and photographed.

Aditya Dicky Singh, conservationist, wildlife photographer and author, said: “The mother and cubs are a sight of sheer magnificence. It is their visibility that makes them great when compared with other tigers.”

Dicky Singh has been associated with the tiger for two decades. He has spent more time inside the tiger haven than at his own home. He has been following Noor and her cubs ever since they [the cubs] were first spotted in November 2016.

Noor displays abundant affection towards her cubs. But when it comes to teaching them life skills, Noor turns into a Shaolin master. The cubs are taught how to hide, camouflage themselves amidst rustling dry grass and the forest cover, and stalk prey without being noticed, and the discipline of staying with the ambush.

Another important lesson Noor seems to have specifically taught her cubs is not to shy away from cameras. The cubs stare at visitors with curious eyes, without fear or inhibition. In spite of the disturbances caused by the jeeps that bring tourists, Noor remains unruffled, and so the cubs show no fear.

Noor’s first litter was in 2012. A male cub, which later came to be known as Sulthan, now roams in the nearby Kailadevi Sanctuary. The second litter had two male cubs, but they are not prominent. The third litter had two cubs, but they died shortly after birth. The fourth litter was first spotted by forest rangers in November 2016. Noor’s spirit of tolerance is amazing, and her remarkable civil behaviour draws people—Forest Department staff and wildlifers—to her regularly.

Dicky Singh quit his government job in New Delhi to migrate to Ranthambhore, to follow his passion—tigers. Initially, he used a box-type camera. Subsequently, he became the proud owner of many costly cameras and lenses. His archives now overflow with countless images of tigers of Ranthambhore. The Spirit of Tiger , the book he co-authored with Nikhil Devasar, has magnificent images of the tigers of the park. It contains a wonderful collection of the different moods of the tiger. He said the tiger’s behaviour appeared to have changed. “There is no ferocity, anger or restlessness. The tiger moves well with the visitors, and sometimes ignores them and chooses its own path.”

Dicky Singh said when he first spotted the three female cubs of Noor in 2016, they were barely three months old. He photographed them almost every week. He has seen them grow from the size of a cat to that of a leopard. As per the laws of nature, the cubs have necessarily to depart from the mother. Like all adult tigers, they have to become solitary and hunt their own prey and find and mark their own territory.

Noor’s gentleness and the stories people who have watched her shared would remind any wildlife enthusiast of the words of the legendary hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett: “The tiger is a large-hearted gentleman.”

Project tiger

An ancient Indian saying goes that the tiger went to dwell in the heart of the luxuriant forest while his brother, man, stayed at home. Now, great things are happening when man and the tiger meet. The tiger is watched, its ecology and behaviour are studied, and efforts are made to protect it and its space. The first scientific analysis of tiger behaviour in India was done by the the United States wildlife biologist Dr George B. Schaller. In 1965, Schaller visited the Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh to study the tiger. This study resulted in the monumental work, The Deer and Tiger .

Numerous studies have been undertaken in India since then on the threats of habitat loss and poaching, which has diminished tiger populations. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), a statutory body of the Environment Ministry, was established in 2005 to strengthen tiger conservation. It has the overarching responsibility of coordinating with the Project Tiger initiatives. When Project Tiger was launched in 1973, there were nine tiger reserves. Now there are 50 tiger reserves spread over 18 States.

Ranthambore had 14-18 tigers in 1973. According to information posted by the national park on its website in May 2018, the reserve has 70 tigers now. Sariska, the other tiger habitat in Rajasthan, has 14 tigers.

According to the NTCA, the tiger reserves are constituted on a core/buffer strategy. The core areas have the legal status of a national park or a sanctuary, whereas the buffer or peripheral areas are a mix of forest and non-forest land, managed as a multiple use area. Project Tiger aims to foster an exclusive tiger agenda in the core areas of tiger reserves, with an inclusive people-oriented agenda in the buffer.

Tigers require a sustainable landscape, including protected cores, where they can breed, and wander outside the cores.

Two decades of fascination for the tiger has made Dicky Singh a meticulous tiger-watcher adept at discerning its every movement, behaviour, mood and expression. He says some tigers like to contemplate, some like to daydream, and some have a naughty smile. Dicky Singh has been lucky to go close to Noor and her cubs.

In April 2017, this writer saw Noor and her cubs at close quarters. The park driver stopped the vehicle close to where the tiger was. Soon more jeeps arrived at the spot. The mother and cubs were resting, unmindful of the sudden swell of audience. After some time, the cubs started playing with the mother. Noor’s actions gave the impression that she gave them each a hug.

Bear vs tiger

Dicky Singh said that among the most unforgettable sights he had seen in the park was the fights between sloth bears and tigers. Usually, the tiger would withdraw when confronted by a sloth bear. Noor was drawn into one such fight, and she was also compelled to back down. Tigers are said to avoid a confrontation with sloth bears.

The acclaimed wildlife photographer Andrew (Andy) Rouse of the United Kingdom is emotionally drawn towards the tigers of Ranthambhore. In the past 10 years, he has visited the park 20 times. A single visit would extend to a month, he said. In an email to this writer, he said: “Noor is an amazing hunter and mother combined, living in tough mountain zones.... The park is a perfect combination of human and natural history. The magnificent ancient forts dominate the skyline and when you look at it, it is an incredible place.” Andrew Rouse and Dicky Singh are planning to bring out a book focussing on Noor. It is a documentation of the photographs taken by them showing some of the rare moods of Noor and her cubs.

Andrew Rouse has travelled widely to photograph wildlife. He has been to the Arctic Ocean to shoot the polar bear, to Antarctica to film the penguin and visited African countries to photograph the cheetah. He has been following the Ranthambhore tigers with tireless energy, trying to locate them in mountains and lakes. “I came to Ranthambhore to see specific tigers whom I have followed. I started with Machli and follow Noor and other tigers. I love to watch Noor patrolling her territory, being affectionate with the cubs or pounding through the forest chasing a fleeing deer.”

Success story

Evaluating the Ranthambhore National Park’s conservation activities, Andrew Rouse said: “Ranthambhore is a conservation success story. It has given wild tigers the protection they need. I felt Ranthambhore was my home. I felt a particular empathy towards Noor.”

Gautam Pandey, a Goa-based young wildlife film-maker, narrated some of the amazing moments during the making of a film on Noor five years ago. Sulthan, Noor’s cub from her first litter, was nearly five months old. “It was a hot breezeless afternoon. I was waiting to locate Noor when I saw Sulthan. In a flash, he rushed into the bushes. The forest exploded with alarm calls of the cheetal. Noor emerged from the foliage with a cheetal fawn, still alive, in her mouth. She carried the fawn towards Sulthan who slowly approached Noor. The mother shook her head signalling the cub to take over the kill. It obeyed, and with great difficulty managed to throttle the fawn to death as Noor watched keenly.”

Gautam Pandey said it was a classic lesson in prey kill and he was able to capture this. The next moment was even more amazing. Sulthan approached Noor and started nuzzling at her, as if to say thank you for the food and the lesson. He once again nuzzled at her before settling down to tear the fawn as the mother watched.

Dharmendra Khandal, a young and dedicated conservation biologist, who heads Tiger Watch, Ranthambore, a non-governmental organisation launched by the late Fateh Singh Rathore and other conservationists, said: “Noor, the mother, is fantastic. She is one of the boldest mothers I have seen.” When this writer met Khandal in his office in Ranthambhore, he said villagers were coming forward to participate in Tiger Watch’s training programmes. “People from different walks of life are showing interest in conservation activities. The volunteers are paid a remuneration.” He showed me a WhatsApp message that a volunteer had sent. It said a tiger had attacked a goat in a nearby village. The Forest Department has been able to apprehend poachers with the help of Tiger Watch volunteers.

Unusual experience

Bijo Joy, an Indian Forest Service official who served as the Wildlife Warden of Ranthambhore, shared with this writer his unusual experience in the reserve. It was during Deepavali in 2017. He was in Zone No. II of the park at 3:30 p.m., moving in a sports utility vehicle. He saw three cubs coming from a distance. They were playful like kittens. He stopped the vehicle. The cubs, about a year old, came close to the vehicle. They were playing what seemed like a game of hide and seek, running around the vehicle, disappearing into the foliage, peeping through the leaves, and running back towards the vehicle. One cub began to scratch the tyre of the vehicle. The other two tried to prevent it. They began to quarrel and run around the vehicle several times. Bijo Joy took out his binoculars to look for Noor. Usually, the tigress never leaves her cubs alone. But Noor was nowhere to be seen. After playing for a while, the cubs went into the woods.

He said he had occasion to see Noor and her cubs at least 30 times when he worked in the park. But that was the first time the mother was not present with the cubs. On another occasion, in the Sulthanpur area, he saw the cubs and Noor resting. After some time, one cub drifted away and came back with a small prey. But it did not allow the other two cubs to touch the prey. But on a signal from Noor, what to a human eye seemed like a nod, the cub shared the prey with the other cubs.

In April 2018, I rode with Bijo Joy in the park. He took me to a vantage point and showed me a tiger neck-deep in a pool of water. It was summertime and the tiger was cooling itself. For nearly half an hour, we watched the tiger. It looked in our direction but did not seem disturbed by our presence. All those who admire the conservation activities of Ranthambhore today must pay tribute to Fateh Singh Rathore, who, as the Field Director of the park, did pioneering work in tiger protection by relocating villages within the reserve area, thereby giving the tiger more space to flourish. He created a consciousness about the big cat and made Ranthambore famous. His knowledge of the tiger was legendary and his services were sought even after his retirement.

Valmik Thapar, the conservationist associated with the tiger park for more than four decades, says in his book Tiger Fire : “There is no doubt that the fire of the tiger in all its beauty and perfection will continue to burn and mesmerise the human soul for all eternity as it has done for thousands of years in our history if we do not douse it.”

The tiger has inspired awe and fear from time immemorial. While folk tales have glorified tiger hunting, conservation literature has always given the tiger the pride of place in the forest. It would be good to remember the words of the late conservationist and author Billy Arjan Singh: “The eyes of the tiger are the brightest of any animal. At dusk or in the beam of torch they blaze back the ambient light with awe-inspiring intensity. It would be a tragedy and a terrible dereliction of duty if we allow the magical fire to burn out.”

William Blake seemed to wonder at its metier when he wrote: “Tyger Tyger, burning bright,/ In the forests of the night;/ What immortal hand or eye,/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Tiger habitats are big a draw because people have learned to see the beauty in the beast. And that is a good thing for tiger conservation, in spite of the fact that in 2016 alone India lost 75 tigers, mostly in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka.

G. Shaheed is the Chief of Legal   and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi.

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