Bandhavgarh National Park, with its highest density of tigers in the world, is no undisturbed pristine forest but is, in some ways, an unnatural laboratory. Dense human habitation crowds in right next to its artificial boundary. The high density of tigers makes the weaker and the more adventurous tigers foray into the seemingly attractive cattle lifting escapades, which is a sure recipe for human-animal conflict. That can potentially have disastrous consequences for the local tigers. The forest department does financially compensate for the cattle lost to the tigers but the situation remains tenuous. Poaching of tigers is common.
A tigress at rest
The high density of these territorial animals also appears to be leading to an unnaturally heightened conflict within the community of the resident tigers as also increased scope of inbreeding. There appear to be no easy solutions to this predicament. However, for the moment, this dry deciduous patch of forest is perhaps the best arena in the world for sighting this elusive predator, to study tiger behaviour and to photograph them.
The deer can sense that the tigeress is not hunting and therefore stand their ground
Certain tigers of Bandhavgarh, due to their forceful personality, have gained individual recognition in popular perception. Mohan, a white tiger cub, spared death in a hunting expedition in 1951 because of his beautiful appearance, was subsequently used in a successful captive breeding programme and is the sole patriarch of all white tigers in the world today. In more recent times Sita, the grand matriarch of most tigers in Bandhavgarh today, was a favourite with the paparazzi (she even made it to the cover of the National Geographic Magazine) till she disappeared in 1996, possibly killed by poachers.
A tigress drinking water
Sita’s two litters with the handsome dominant male named Banka were followed with another four litters with the ill tempered but powerful Charger, who gained dominance over the tala zone from 1991 onwards at the expense of Banka. Charger was notorious for having attacked an elephant carrying tourists and would charge at jeeps but never harmed any human being. Meeting his nemesis in 2000 at the hands of his son B 2 (through his daughter Mohini), his mortal remains lie buried at the Charger Point within the park.
The shy and aggressive male cub of the Jhurjhura tigress Durga
During our visit to Bandhavgarh in the summer of 2009, the confident and self assured Jhurjhura tigress, named Durga, was frequently sighted along with her three juvenile cubs who were around 20 months old then. We had some memorable encounters with the family.
Durga’s male cub agitated by our presence
On one occasion we found the family moving from a waterhole to the site of what remained of their kill. As the family neared our vehicle (and dozens of other vehicles bunched together) the male cub got agitated and growling away he thrashed around in the vegetation and angrily took a long semi circle behind our vehicle to avoid us.
The Jhurjhura female Durga unconcerned about the tourist nuisance
The mother, in all the surrounding commotion, remained an embodiment of calmness. Unconcerned, she authoritatively crossed the forest road immediately in front of our vehicle. Then it noticed that its cubs, out of nervousness, were holding back and she stopped and emitted a low comforting growl which encouraged the two female cubs to also rush across the forest road to join her.
…… but she has to stop because of the nervousness felt by her cubs following her
The three of them briefly rubbed their heads together for self-assurance that everything was all right and then carried on, joined by the agitated brother by now, across the grassland to the location of their kill. The incident was perhaps a little disturbing for the tigers but it certainly contained all the ingredients of a magical moment for us.
Jhurjhura female Durga accompanies her nervous cub away from the tourist vehicles
In the summer of 2009 there were as many as three male tigers in the tourist zone of tala in Bandhavgarh. The erstwhile dominant male B 2, who had around a decade back, violently taken over the territory from his legendry father, Charger, was already growing old and was being increasingly challenged by two new entrants into his area – his own son Bamera, born through the Chakradhara female and Bokha, so called, because his upper right canine was missing.
Bamera at rest, confident in his own prowess (2009)
B 2 was apparently not present in the neighbourhood at the time of our visit. We did see, though from a considerable distance, Bokha mating with the Jhurjhura female Durga, with the cubs also hanging around. The elephant mahavats located the Bamera male who had been named Sashi, and yes, he certainly was a magnificent young tiger. Later on we learnt that Sashi (Bamera) had successfully established his sole dominance over that prized area and that both Bokha and B 2 lost their territory and their lives. Change of guard in the tiger world is usually traumatic.
Bamera (Sashi) patrolling his territory (2009)
Fast forward to the summer of 2013 and our second visit to Bandhavgarh. A quick appraisal of the local situation brought to us both dramatic developments since our last visit as also tragic news. The Jhurjhura female Durga had died, having been fatally hit by a vehicle. Culprits had not been nabbed till date. Justice had been compromised because of a combination of denial and complicity.
Bamera (Sashi) patrolling his territory (2013)
Fortunately, Durga’s three cubs appear to be all right. The male continues to have an ‘attitude’ issue. He was being called Bhagora (the one who bolts), which is what he did at the very sight of tourists and their vehicles. He has, though, not been sighted for about a year having been pushed out by a stronger male named Jobhi. One of the female cubs has settled down in the same Rajbehra area and is now known as Jaya. The other daughter is Kankati, who has gained notoriety for indulging in cannibalism.
Kankati, having her evening drink, incognito
In 2013, a tigress, in the Banbehi area known as Wakeeta, was frequently seen in the tala area. She had three young cubs to whom she was calling out when we first saw her but, unfortunately, the cubs were too young for her to bring them out often. We could not sight them.
Banbehi tigress Wakeeta trying to locate her young cubs
Banbehi a.k.a. Wakeeta’s two grown up cubs from the earlier litter – a male and a female – were also around and she appeared to be impatient with their continued presence. She had her next litter to take care of but the grown up cubs had still not managed to carve out separate territories of their own.
Wakeeta’s male cub seeking out his father
On one occasion we saw the nuisance value of the male cub. Towards evening he was seen approaching a cave where his father Sashi was resting. He was enthusiastic about meeting his father but almost as fast he had to beat a hasty retreat in the face of his father’s angry hiss. Dominant males tolerate their cubs but still prefer to be on their own.
Wakeeta’s female cub stalking
We saw the semi adult female cub of Wakeeta also. She appeared to be stalking some prey but we could not locate the target of her exertions. She soon enough gave up, whatever she was up to, and decided to rest in the grass till the sun became unbearable.
…….. stalk given up but not the focus
The tigress, Kankati, was also active in the tala area with her three juvenile cubs. The name Kankati was on account of the upper part of her right ear being cut off. She had been given another name of Vijaya (or Victor, in Hindi) because she had killed and partly eaten another tigress, Lakshmi, in a territorial conflict and being victorious in that conflict had been given the name Vijaya. In the fight with Lakshmi she also had lost an eye but appears to be managing to survive, and to take care of her cubs, in spite of her handicap.
Kankati : The upper section of her far ear is cut off
Of the three cubs of Vijaya (Kankati), one had recently been found dead and the prime suspect for that killing was a new male who appeared to be aggressively intruding into the area. We were not able to locate or to identify this new male challenger but the forest guides claimed that he was Langdi’s Bacha. Langdi (lame) is another name for Lakshmi, the tigress who was killed by Vijaya. She had got that name because of an injury to her hind leg while crossing the chain link fence on one of her nefarious excursions in cattle lifting from outside the park. Perhaps the guides found this story line emotionally satisfying that the worthy son had come back for revenge against his mother’s assassin.
The two remaining cubs of Vijaya after tragedy struck the family
We may not know enough about a tiger’s psychology to give a definite answer on the ‘revenge motive’. My own understanding is that the new male (whether he is the son of Lakshmi a.k.a. Langdi, or not) is only looking to establish his own genetic imprint on the future tiger population of tala by attempting exclusive access to all the female tigers in the area. Satyendra Tiwari of Skayscamp informs me that this is Indrani’s son and has been named Rahasya (Mystery, in Hindi).
Sashi continues to patrol his territory
The new male Rahasya is tentatively testing the strength of the resident dominant male, Sashi (Bamera), who is ageing. The two of them appear to have already had a few skirmishes, and Sashi came off worse, needing medical assistance from the forest department personnel for his injuries. A conclusive battle seems to be on the cards and the odds favour the challenger.
Flehmen gesture by Sashi (Bamera)
On the 3rd. of June, 2013 some tourists heard menacing growls in the bushes and saw Vijaya’s cub rushing out as if the devil was on its tail. Moments later, the new male followed, at a more relaxed pace. My conjecture is that the new male would have been wanting to mate with Vijaya but was not comfortable with the presence of the cub, trying to hang around its mother, after the traumatic loss of its sibling. Aggression towards the cub was possibly resisted by Vijaya intervening. That would explain the commotion of growls between the new male and the protective mother, Vijaya.
Sashi is not only scent marking his territory but also smelling for intruders
Poor Sashi (sad to use such an adjective for a magnificent tiger but, unfortunately, the ageing process in life is cruel) is in the meantime desperately scent marking his territory in an assertion of his continued control.
Assertion of control over his territory by Sashi
During the June 2013 visit we had several encounters with Sashi. On one poignant occasion we found him scent marking the caves (carved out by hermits, possibly, in some bygone era, and now, a part of the tiger’s domain). The setting was perfect. Total control over his environment, being reiterated by, the dominant male tiger of the area.
Bamera a.k.a. Sashi : A Portrait
In that glorious scenery, unfortunately, we could not help feeling a tinge of sadness. The continuity of Sashi’s reign (and, in the world of the tiger, his life too) hung in balance. The park would soon close down for the monsoon. Would he still be around once the park reopens ? Would he still be the monarch of all he surveys ? Sadly, time and tide wait for no man, or tiger. But then, here and now, Sashi is a beautiful specimen of a species threatened with extinction.
Let us savour the moment.