The Magnificent Tiger At Pench
© Copyright 2022 by Nayona Nag
Photo by Waldemar Brandt at Pexels.
At the very beginning, years ago, her life on the planet had stumped most of us tiger enthusiasts, as she had made a record of giving birth simultaneously to her cubs. However, as years progressed, we realized that her uniqueness itself was now a significant contribution to the tiger population of India and had an immense impact on the ‘Save The Tiger’ project. Born in 2005, she was initially known as T-15, before she was fitted with a radio collar at the age of three by the forest department in the hope of studying and learning more about tiger behaviour. Since she was the first tigress in Pench to be fitted with a radio collar, she was called Collarwali (the one with a collar). To this day, her cubs still roam free in the reserve as they wander and explore the beauty and absolute joy of their freedom. They prowl the mighty jungles of Central India on the orange yellow dirt track of the Reserve, elusive and yet sometimes stumbling across gaping human visitors in their noisy SUVs, with their cameras and camouflage attire. Perhaps, though contrary to their solitary nature, they may remember their dear mother and how she lived an exemplary life to bring them into the world. But there is something that I was keenly aware of, particularly the moment I received the news about Collarwali’s death as I sat here at the reserve, penning down all my thoughts and arranging them into a decipherable montage of a story.
Collarwali wasn’t poached, hunted, harmed, or slaughtered. She didn’t meet the fate of most tigers that had been previously endangered by man. The Pench Reserve worked from dawn to dusk for years at end so that the famed beast could live her life and die of old age just like a natural soul would travel into the next life. I am very happy that Collarwali, India’s ‘super-mom’ tigress, died in honour, respect, and dignity. This is indeed a win for the Tiger Conservation Project in India. Just like the story of Machli, the incredible Queen of Ranthambore and her cubs, Collarwali, too, deserved to sit on the throne of Pench with pride that her cubs will roam free in the wild. Born free and living free.
As I sit in my quiet, lamp-lit room in the Pench Forest Reserve, the night crickets in a musical rhythm to the click-clacking of my keyboard. While I pen down my thoughts on Collarwali, I can’t help but to narrate this story that occurred only a few days ago at one of the dense core zones in the forest.
It was close to daybreak. As a tiger conservation enthusiast, I knew the morning safari drill by heart. Wake up and dress at 4am, followed by a quick hot chocolate or a banana meal and into the open Safari King by 5am. As we huddled up in camouflaged blankets, the jeep hurtled through the dusty village roads. The cold wind lashed at our faces, and the excitement of heading out into the core areas of the forest at daybreak was palpable and thick. This was no zone for the faint-hearted. We were all hopeful of getting a sighting of the big cat, elusive and solitary. The morning was one of the best times to spot the striped beast as it roamed the dry jungles before the sun became unbearably hot.
After we completed the basic formalities at the gate, we entered the core zone and drove around in absolute silence, breathing in the fragrant new leaves of the Saal trees and gulping down the fiery blaze of the Palaash flowers- red, orange and feisty in this season. The jungle was silent, resplendent, and majestic in her unmanicured beauty. Here we were the outsiders, the intruders.
I remembered seeing this long queue of elephants and Mahouts (their caretakers) at the gate, with huge wicker stands and noisy cantankerous tourists atop the giant beasts, quiet and regal. I remember thinking how unfair it was to make these wondrous beasts do our bidding, whilst us humans, parasitic and selfish, know only how to take, plunder, and shatter the peace of these silent realms with our noisy unchecked selves, unabashed and arrogant in our understanding of the laws of nature.
As we drove along, my thoughts mellowed from the myriad to the present, hushed by the jungle sounds and the sights- the herds of Cheetal (the spotted Indian Deer) fawns prancing across meadows the Sambar (another Indian Deer and the favourite food of the Tiger), alert and watchful, wild boars snorting along the trails, and an occasional jackal running lightly in search of the night kill.
That’s when we heard the call of the barking deer! Loud and sharp, cutting across the silence.
In seconds, the jeep revved from a 10km an hour to a 100 km an hour as we nosedived into the jungle, the call unmistakably that of a Tiger on the move!
We drove at breakneck speed and arrived along with 10 other SUVs and 5 elephant safaris to a little clearing with, tall with elephant grass, a cliff jutting out obtrusively awash with rays of the rising sun.
Sitting atop the cliff, regal and majestic, her stripes glistening in the early rays, was Collarwali!
A pin-drop hush had descended upon the tourists, drivers, photographers and mahouts, each mesmerized and tongue-tied by the presence of the Queen holding court atop the cliff- her proximity to her subjects thrilling yet spine-chilling.
And then it emerged and destroyed everything.
Above the whirring clicks of the cameras and SLRs, rose this loud, whiny, needy, complaining voice of a man atop one of the elephants, incessant and unrelenting in his pursuit for a better view. The voice rose to a crescendo, and before anyone could react, the man had gotten up from his seat, wobbly and unsure, but entitled to get a better viewing, his foot having missed a mark. With a half-cry/half-yelp, the man had catapulted off the back of the elephant onto the floor of the jungle, right below the cliff, at the feet of the mighty Tigress.
A gasp and a shudder ripped through the group like a Mexican wave gone wrong.
The man had been reduced to a violently trembling leaf whilst Collarwali looked down at him disdainfully, her contempt stark and vivid.
As we watched, with bated breath and with tight knots in our stomach, the brave Mahout, established eye-contact with the beast. Sure of himself, his sense of duty over self, the Mahout, slowly yet sure-footedly, lowered himself from atop the elephant, onto the grass, nudged this specimen of a man to clamber onto his back. He then hoisted himself back onto the elephant, depositing his charge on the seat, without even the semblance of any drama- a quiet fortitude and understanding between his elephant and him, on this rescue mission.
Collarwali yawned, opening the jaws of death wide, sighed, got up, turned her back to our group and withdrew into the thickets beyond.
The whole episode lasted for only a few minutes but for us it was a lifetime. And for this man, his life.
Today, we talk about conservation, preservation, environmental degradation, human-tiger conflicts and more. For me, after this drama that unfolded in Pench, I have now decided to talk more on ‘responsible tourism’.
“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes
We miss the bigger picture, every passing day,
That the laws of the jungle are of a higher order
Survival of the fittest, predator or prey!”
As tourists, countrymen, citizens, and as Indians, we have to now learn to cherish our forests, jungles, and our heritage in a manner befitting their grandeur.
Whilst the irresponsible tourist behaviour of that one sordid outsider could have led to a potential disaster, the stupendous courage of the Mahout and how his duty towards the jungle averted the crisis, made a profound humbling impact on each one of us. We pondered upon the sheer magnitude of humanity displayed by this unsung hero, the caretaker of the jungle.