Less than 4000 tigers remain in the wild as compared to over 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century. The illegal trade in tiger parts, poaching and loss of habitat has resulted in tigers being severely endangered. After 20 years of visiting various national parks in India, I finally got a glimpse of wild tiger in 2000 at Ranthambore. After visiting Kenya and Tanzania and seeing an incredible diversity of animals without much effort, my parents and I came to Ranthambore. It is much more challenging to see animals in the national parks of India and tigers are very rare. We had 3 days to try and see a tiger at the most famous park in India. After 3 days, no tiger but we saw many other birds and animals. My father suggested that to see the tiger, perhaps extra effort was required (as with most good things in life). He changed our itinerary to stay for one more day. Unfortunately, there were only two spots on the safari vehicle and so my father opted to stay back. Amazingly with the one extra safari, a tiger walked right up to the safari bus and gave us a great look. I did not have good photo equipment at the time but I'm glad I have this shot to capture the memory: (click). It was the most amazing wildlife experience of my life. We first heard the warning calls and the tiger appeared out of nowhere. I really wish my father who made it possible could have seen it.
In 2006, Gowri and I decided to try our luck again. She had never seen a tiger and I wanted to see more. After some research, we decided to go to Bandhavgarh, the national park with the highest density of tigers. Although, there are no guarantees in seeing wild tigers. Here we really got lucky. Our jeep stumbled upon the Chorbehra tigress and her two cubs soon after she had just killed a Sambar deer. The family was well fed and we along with one other jeep (usually there are many more) got to observe them for over an hour which is almost unheard for tourists! The family was resting near the kill and did not want to leave the vicinity of the kill. The tigress was very relaxed (click) and the cubs were happily playing with each other and their mother. We got to see amazing behavior. Here is the 8 month old male cub right after he fed at the kill. You can see the blood on his whiskers (see above). He also walked right towards the jeep giving us the eye of the tiger (click). He also showed his athleticism lunging and jumping (click). The male cub even displayed the flehman behavior of cats when he caught an interesting scent at this tree (click). The male cub seemed very confident and I imagined that this fellow, the son of the famous B2 (I called him B2 jr), would rule Bandhavgarh in a few years. It was amazing to see brother and sister playing. The action was too quick in the low light to get shots of their play but here is the male with the female behind her (click). The female cub was much calmer. Here she is with a thoughtful expression (click) (click). After over an hour the park director arrived and told us all to leave so the tigers could enjoy the kill. We later heard the tigress moved the kill away from the road so others did not get good looks like we did. Even elephant safaris had no luck. Seeing the Chorbehra family was an unforgettable experience leading us to volunteer to help save tigers in the wild (click). We saw tigers on the second day of our trip. We had two more days of safari with no tiger sightings. We were down to our last safari assuming that any more tiger sightings would be getting greedy. But on our last safari we got this picture postcard shot of the two youngest cubs in the park. The 4 month old Amma-Nallah cubs (click). Here is a slideshow of the best tiger photos (Slideshow).
Ranthambore: Unfortunately, due to extensive poaching Rathambore's tigers numbers crashed soon after I visited back in 2000. Another sanctuary, Sariska, lost all of its tigers. A major effort turned the tide in Ranthambore and today the tiger population is healthy enough at Ranthambore for Ranthambore tigers to participate in the reintroduction of tigers to Sariska. Another interesting thing is that National Georgraphic did a documentary in 2012 on the most famous tiger from Ranthambore named Machli. She became famous since she withstood poaching, raised many cubs despite having to deal with many aggressive males, and even was witnessed killing an enormous crocodile. Machli would have been a young tigress when we visited in 2000 and for all I know, the tigress we saw was Machli. One reason for Machli's success is that she dominated the lake area in Ranthambore which is in the center of the park that is well protected from poachers and has a very good prey base. Chances are we saw Machli or one of her relatives since this is where we saw our tiger. Here is a link to the Tiger Dynasty documentary (click) and more information on Machli (click) who is amazingly still alive at over 17 years old. Today she has lost her teeth and is helped out by forest staff since in many ways she has shaped the future of Ranthambore as much as anyone by raising many cubs and spreading awareness of the plight of tigers in the wild. I'd like to think that the young tigress we saw in the lake area was Machli.
Bandhavgarh: For many years, I hadn't followed up on the fate of the tigers we saw since the birth of Aditya has kept life very busy. Also, part of me wanted to pretend they were doing great, ruling over Bandhavgarh and having cubs of their own. As he reached 5 years old, life was finally calming down so I decided to do some research and get my head out of the sand on the tigers that I had become quite attached to. I knew the odds are against cubs even under the best of circumstances when poaching and habitat loss is not an issue but Chrobehra's male cub seemed to be one who could beat the odds. Sadly, the fate of all the tigers we saw took very tragic and even headline making news showing that life is usually not a Disney movie. Often, one doesn't know what happens to a particular tiger but Bandhavgarh tigers are among the best documented. I was amazed at how much information was available.
Amma-Nallah (aka Banbehi) cubs: All three Amma-Nallah cubs disappeared after the monsoon just a few months after we saw them. This likely means they were killed in some manner since there just isn't enough tiger habitat for these tigers to disappear unmonitored.
Chorbehra's male cub (named Chobana): Chobana made news soon after we saw him. Just four months after we saw him, he killed a woman who illegally entered the park to gather tendu leaves. The government decided the entire family should be taken to a zoo due to this man eater behavior. However, in admirable fashion, the park rangers, guides and villagers felt it was not his fault to kill someone who had entered his territory. A year passed and Chobana grew into the tiger that I thought he would. He became the subject of several award winning shots: (click). He started challenging the current dominant male Bokha. Then in Dec 2008, tragedy struck. He was accused of killing another person outside the park boundary and due to his history, he was shipped to the Bhopal zoo. The reports on this incident are quite mixed. Many say Chobana was nowhere near the incident (based on where he had been seen leading up to the incident) and was just a scapegoat due to his past history. Getting the real story is no easy task and may not even be known by anyone. What happened to Chobana at the Bhopal zoo is also not clear. Some reports say he soon died whereas others say he is still there in a small cage reserved for man eaters. I wrote to guides Butch Lama and Susi Alison who based on web forums knew about this incident. Incidentally, they have taken countless pictures of wildlife around the world but the pictures they choose for their website is Chobana (click) . Susi said that next year they will be visiting the Bhopal zoo and will let me know if Chobana is there. It turns out a few more Bandhavgarh tigers also have been accused as man eaters and have also been sent there. The news was tough to take. Thinking of Chobana in a tiny cage is unbearable after remembering him strutting past us with amazing confidence in such a beautiful place like Bandhavgarh. The alternative that he quickly died in captivity is also terrible. The possibility that he was falsely accused adds to the frustration. It seems the qualities that could have him become a dominant male tiger were not compatible with human encroachment. His supreme confidence and fearlessness of everything incluidng humans cost him.
Chorbehra: Chobana's mother's story was also sad but much more in line with what happens in nature so it was easier to take. In 2009, Chorbehra injured her leg badly. She had mated with the Bamera Male and had two new cubs. Chorbehra struggled for 2 years limping and still managed to hunt and take care of her cubs. The guides remarked that they had never seen such mental toughness in a tiger. She managed to raise these cubs to independence. Then as often happens with tigers, a new tigress, Vijaya, invaded her territory and several major battles occurred. Usually the weaker tiger will give up but perhaps due to her injured state, Chorbehra felt she had to fight to maintain the territory she had which had enough resources to keep her going in her injured state. Even with her hurt leg, Chorbehra managed to severely injure Vijaya's eye. However, in 2011, the final battle occurred with Vijaya killing Chorbehra and then unusually eating Chorbehra (cannibalism is not common for tigers). Vijaya then went after the cubs but they were big and strong now and the male cub protected his sister and they made their escape. When Chorbehra died it also reverberated throughout the park. Photographers Sachin Rai and Santosh Saligram wrote that they believed Chorbehra was the prettiest tiger they had ever photographed (and they have photographed an amazing number of tigers). Looking at my picture of Chorbehra and comparing it to other tigers on the web, I'd have to agree with them.
Chorbehra's female cub (named Chobania): Chobania's sad fate was more typical of the tigers of Bandhavgarh. She found her own territory and mated with the Bamera male and successfully raised three cubs. Unfortunately, she was then poisoned as she wandered outside the park. Due to the large territories needed by tigers and the limited habitat, this fate is unfortunately common. I really hope some of her cubs continue her line.
Summary: When reading up on the fate of our tigers, it became clear we really saw a special family of tigers in Bandhavgarh. The entire incident did seem out of the ordinary. First, our jeep broke down so instead of being first to enter the park, we were last meaning we got the worst route for seeing a tiger. With the worst route, we end up seeing a tiger kill right next to the road and got to watch Chorbehra, Chobana and Chobania for a full hour with just one other jeep present. This was probably the rarest event I've seen. The beauty of Chorbehra, the magnificence of Chobana, and cuteness of Chobania were clearly evident and confirmed when I read up on them. The fact that they all met tragic ends is difficult to take but definitely motivates me more to think of ways to improve the fate of tigers in the wild. Here are high resolution pictures of these amazing tigers: (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res). Click here for a high resolution version of the entire family: (Hi-Res).
UPDATE 1/16/2016: Aditya was now 7 years old was old enough to go on Safari in India. We decided to take him to Tadoba since when he was 6 Gowri took him to Kabini where he saw elephants, barking deer and a sloth bear and really enjoyed it. Tadoba has become one of the best places in India to see tigers and leopards. We decided to go in December which is when the weather is nice but tiger sightings are not necessarily great since there is plenty of water so the tigers do not congregate around the water holes. We went on 6 safaris and managed to see tigers twice. Both times we saw the Maya tigress and here 3 six month old cubs (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res) (Hi-Res).
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