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My Tribute To An Unsung Hero
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The birth, life and death of an extremely shy tiger.
Even when the sweat started clouding the lenses, I refused to put the pair of binoculars down. The September sun in Ranthambore National Park can be quite unforgiving.
But to lose sight of T36, that too after four days of intense search outside the periphery of Ranthambore, was an unacceptable proposition. So I let the sweat-bath continue.
I remember the day vividly – September 20, 2008. I also remember October 18, 2010 equally well, but with sadness. This was the day T36 completed his circle of life and returned to the happy hunting grounds of his forefathers.
To me, T36 would always remain an unsung hero. One of the most graceful tigers to straddle the hills and grasslands of Ranthambore, he was sadly, never a photographer’s delight. No television channel ever made a documentary on him, nor did he feature in any magazine or newspaper. He simply wasn’t considered hot enough.
But all this inattention will not take away from the immense, almost immeasurable, charm of T36. For three years, right from his birth to death and the turbulence he suffered in-between, T36 would hold me spell-bound, and therefore, I feel his life story deserves a few words. It is not a happy story, but one that T36 scripted and lived out in the spirit of a true tiger.
T36 was an extremely shy tiger (one reason why he could never become a celebrity tiger). Difficult to spot, he would bolt at the slightest hint of human presence.
There was a reason for this odd behaviour, a striking contrast from the normally camera-friendly tigers of Ranthambore.
Born sometime in January 2008, T36 and his sister opened their eyes to the chilly but friendly forest of Ranthambore. The Guda area of the park, where he was born, harboured sufficient shelter and prey animals for a family of three tigers to live happily.
For eight months, Ranthambore granted peaceful existence to the family. It was during this period that T36 imbibed some of the hunting skills from his mother – skills that would save his life in the dreadful years ahead.
But, peace in the forest is often temporary. Meant to be savoured as long as it lasts, peace is an unsecured loan granted to the denizens of a forest, and is usually taken back as swiftly.
On September 1, 2008, T36 got the shock of his young life. In one stroke of bad luck, the Gods snatched away peace and comfort from T36, and hurled him down the path of an almost daily battle for survival.
On one fateful day, T36’s mother died. Rather, she was killed by another tigress while defending her territory and her cubs. The forest authorities at Ranthambore, aware that the motherless cubs were hiding somewhere in the rocky terrain, launched a massive search-and-rescue operation.
Three days later, T36 and his sister were found in dense undergrowth. They had probably not eaten anything for 10 days, and might not have survived the ordeal for long.
“Now what?” asked the authorities. Faced with two grown-up cubs that had not yet carved out their territories or established hunting techniques, it was a tough question to answer. Such were the state of affairs, that an ad-hoc forest control-room and headquarter were set up in the area by Forest Ranger Sh. Daulat Singh Shekhawat that allowed his staff and him to keep a constant watch on the cubs. Finally, after much deliberation, the senior officials of Ranthambore decided to let mother nature decide the fate of the duo.
On September 10, the forest ranger took upon himself the task to radio collar T36 and to be taken to Sawai Mansingh sanctuary, bordering Ranthambore. The fact that the sanctuary had few resident tigers, and that the male tigers of Ranthambore used it mainly as a passageway, would make it suitable for T36 to establish his domain there. Whenever I managed to find some time apart from my busy schedule as CMD of Raheja Developers, I, along with my trusted friend M D Parashar, would scout Sawai Mansingh sanctuary on the lookout for T36. He crossed our paths several times, and each encounter is deeply etched in my memory.
From day one of his forced freedom, T36 started displaying reckless behaviour. Within weeks, he acquired the reputation of a cattle-lifter. This trait gained him immediate dislike with a large number of villages dotted along the boundary of Ranthambore. Naturally, it also made the authorities jumpy, for now they had to keep a sharper eye on the young tiger.
On March 21, 2009 matters came to a head. A few days before, T36 had taken shelter in a field behind Oberoi Hotel. He had not made a kill for several days. A desperate and foolish step it was, but hungry T36 took it anyway by attacking a human being. It happened at Karvoda village, and the woman T36 thought would make for a nice meal was bleeding profusely when we reached Karvoda.
Two days later, T36 attacked and injured a forest official, Mohan Lal. The same day, the forest authorities, by then in panic mode, tranquillised the errant tiger and took him to Falaudi forest range near Ghazipur, some 40 km away froam Ranthambore National Park.
It was at Falaudi that I had some of the most memorable encounters with T36. It was clear he was coming out on his own, and had started pursuing natural prey like chital, sambar and wild boar. I would often meet T36 on narrow jungle by-lanes early in the morning. Initially, as was his habit, he would take cover the moment he spotted Parashar’s Gypsy. At times, we spotted him quenching his thirst at a waterhole. Over time, he started accepting my presence, or so I thought. Had I finally managed to connect with T36? Who knows? But his behaviour showed far less hostility than before. I felt privileged.
By June 2010, I managed to establish what can be called a rough connect with T36. One afternoon, with the temperature soaring to 45 degree Celsius, I saw T36 approaching a waterhole. We were some 50 feet away, but he took no note of us and jumped headlong into the pool.
For the next 30 minutes, as T36 continued his battle with the rising mercury, I found myself gazing at his superb form. Time lost all sense of meaning. Suddenly, the unforgettable words of American curator John Seidensticker came to mind: “The tiger lives in a world of sunlight and shadow. Always secretive, never devious. Always a killer, never a murderer. Solitary, never alone. For it is an irreplaceable link. In the process and the wholeness of life.” Seidensticker might well have been speaking about T36.
Things were going rather fine for T36 at this stage. Now approaching his third birthday, he had effectively made Falaudi his home turf. The skirmishes with villagers and cattle-lifting had become a thing of the past. T36, it seemed, had finally learnt to balance freedom with responsibility. “He is now ready for a mate,’’ a beaming Parashar told me in the first week of October that year. When Parashar called me a few weeks later, I answered the call with a smile. So finally, T36 has successfully mated, I told myself. But within seconds, my hope was shattered. T36, I was informed, had been killed by another male tiger in a territorial fight. Parashar gave me details of the deadly fight, but I was not hearing the words. I was elsewhere, in a secluded patch of Falaudi, watching T36 as he ambled majestically towards me. (With inputs from Shri M D Parashar)
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