– Bhaskar J. Barua
The early afternoon on the 6th of February, 2017 was pleasant enough for me to decide to accompany a young doctor from Sweden for a jeep safari to the Agoratoli Range on the eastern flank of Kaziranga. Dr. Johann Wallman Karlsson is a keen wildlife watcher and a passionate musician. Papu, the birder per excellence also accompanied us.
The Agoratoli Range is normaly better known as a birdwatchers paradise but of late has become a den for tiger sightings. It was here on Christmas eve last, that I and two of my wildlife buddies – Roon Bhuyan and Dhritiman Barooah came across six tigers. On the flat grassy expanse in front of the Muamari Anti-Poaching Camp, we had spotted a tigress with four cubs preying on a wild hog, while a solitary male tiger was watching from a safe distance some 300 meters away to the south.
Running a resort at the periphery of the park has its perks. I am privy to the interesting wildlife activities in the vicinity – courtesy the forest guards and the safari drivers. So it was a tipoff on a buffalo kill near the Sohola Beel (Beel means a perennial water body) tower the previous night that set us off stalking for tigers in that direction.
The Sohola watch tower is about a mile east of the Muamari Camp. The large water body (Sohola is the largest water body in Kaziranga) attracts birds of various hues and shades, which on any other day would have been my prime focus area. But today was different – we were waiting strategically to see if the tiger(s) comes out to claim its prey.
We parked our vehicle a little left of the tower facing the grassland with a 180 degree view of the surroundings. As the other safari vehicles zoomed ahead, we waited and scanned the landscape.
We could see a circle of vultures picking on the buffalo carcass (See Picture No. 1). To the right of the carcass, a herd of elephants were grazing peacefully. Two placid rhinos were minding their business towards the north of the kill on the opposite bank of the water body. A flock of nine Swamp Deer’s with their dramatic headgears were also lazing away right near the kill. A few buffalos were enjoying their mud spa right in front of us.
As we continued to wait for a couple of hours – as luck would have it – out comes the tigress from her den- hidden in the thick forest under growths about 900 meters west of the kill (Picture No. 2). And what we witnessed in the next ten short minutes – a kaleidoscope of moving sequences of a tigress in action – felt like an eternity.
On seeing (or rather smelling) the tigress approach, the elephant herd was the first to react. They suddenly began to move west in the direction of the tigress at a brisk pace, very unlike their usual lazy gait. We couldn’t figure out this sudden change in their behaviour (maybe Lawrence Anthony of The Elephant Whisperer’s fame could have enlightened us). (Picture No. 3)
The sole motive of the tigress was to protect her kill but the marching elephants posed an immediate threat to her plan, that of chasing away the scavengers. No mother with four cubs would appreciate a gang of vultures feeding on her family dinner.
The tigress then, right on the path of the elephant herd, first stood and then squatted fearlessly to block their march (perhaps as a token gesture of respect towards the gentle giants!) ( See Picture No. 4)
The elephants, intelligent species that they are, may have sensed that it was not prudent to engage a tigress with cubs. They diverted their path to avoid a confrontation.
With the passage to reach her kill now clear, our tigress wasted no time. She went after the vultures, charging at an incredible speed for a full stretch of around 500 meters right before our eyes (See Picture No. 5 & 6).
The leaping tigress produced a flutter of commotion, lending a theatrical quality to the scene. On seeing the speeding tigress, the vultures scattered in all directions. Smaller birds on the beel – who too are easy prey for the scavengers, sped to the sky in fright.
With her meal now secure, the caring mother hat our tigress was, didn’t wait to inspect the remains of her kill, for the moving elephants were by now very close to where her cubs were. As it is, she had exposed them by hanging out in the open daylight. Sensing danger, she immediately retraced her steps, first breaking into a trot on reverse and then sprinting at full throttle to be with her babies.
The aim of the tigress was to protect both her kill and her cubs – who on seeing their mother returning, came out of her den to greet her, just maybe to congratulate her for her unconditional love!
It is worth noting here that this is the second litter of this brave tigress in two years. The cub that you see in the picture number 8 is the lone survivor of her previous litter. The other three cubs are from the new litter.
Animal instinct plays out in its own strange ways. As the spectacle of the sprinting tigress was unfolding, we couldn’t help but notice that the other animals in the vicinity showed absolutely no interest in the proceedings, and went about their jobs as if nothing has happened. The most interesting was the nonchalance displayed by the herd of nine swamp deer’s, as you can see in the picture no 6. Usually the first to sprint away at the whiff of a tiger, the deer’s acted cool, and did not even bother to stir, perhaps well aware that they were not the focus of this tigress. Rather they watched the spectacle without flinching – just like the three spectators in the vehicle, for we too sat motionless inside the jeep for a couple of minutes, collecting our thoughts on what we had just witnessed – the chronicle of a flying tigress.