(Obituary published in the November issue of Saevus Wildlife)
4 year old Vijaya was a bold, buoyant and a beautiful tigress. Like all striped kings and queens of Bandhavgarh she was a favorite for lens-men who yearned for her 1 shot. It seemed all rosy till the summers of 2010 but as the monsoons approached Vijaya’s ambitions grew bigger and bigger. She wanted to own one of the most pristine areas of tiger estate of Bandhavgarh – the stretch ranging from Chorbehra, Chakradhara right up till the Bandhavgarh fort. She wanted to be crowned as the new queen of the Tala range of the forest.
The thought was good for this has been the dream territory of any tiger of Bandhavgarh. Legends like Charger, Seeta and B2 owned this piece of land because of its abundant prey base, yearlong presence of water, superb hunting ground and lots of shady comforts for rest after a tiring day in the forest.
Competition understandably was quite tough for young Vijaya as 10-year-old Lakshmi (Langadi as she was locally called) was the limping tigress of this area and despite her physical limitations she was managing to rule Vijaya’s dreamlands. Lakshmi’s weakness apart from her sore leg were her young 10 month old cubs and since she relied on livestock kills her movement was restricted in the peripheral areas of the forest.
The rains of 2010 turned the fortunes of Chakradhara. Vijaya knew of the soft cords of Lakshmi and she advanced towards her in what seemed like a lost battle for Lakshmi. However the aging mother put up a fight and the beautiful looking Vijaya lost her eye in this fierce battle. Vijaya’s aggressive streak was evident from this battle as in her fury of anger she not only killed Lakshmi but consumed more than half of her body. It all happened in a dark night of Bandhavgarh and all the forest department could find the following morning were the mortal remains of Lakshmi. The orphaned cubs are still fighting to establish themselves in Bandhavgarh.
With just one eye and a huge territory that she won, survival for ambitious Vijaya seemed tough as tiger history across India has very few warriors who have been able to survive with such critical physical limitations. There was not a change in the attitude of lens-men too. The once beautiful female of Tala range was now being avoided because she wasn’t photogenic enough.
Vijaya, however, had her strategy laid out. She knew that in order to survive and retain this estate she would need the company of a dominant male who could give her adequate protection. She hit the nail on its head by making the right choice as she eyed Shashi (Bamera male).
The dominant male of Bandhavgarh with genes of a legendary family in the form of Charger (his grandfather) and B2 (his father), Shashi (locally known as Bamera male) was expanding his territory at an astronomical rate. He cornered his dad in one area of the park and acquired his legacy and added more land which he acquired on his own to roam about freely in more than a 100 square kilometer area. His rule was unquestioned and he was already the king of Bandhavgarh National Park.
His frequent ventures in the Chakradhara and Chorbehra areas brought him close to Vijaya and in summer of April 2011 they were seen together for almost a week. Their 1 week honeymoon raised hopes for Vijaya’s legacy and she was set to be crowned as the next queen of Bandhavgarh.
The news of Vijaya’s pregnancy was eagerly awaited as the timing of mating was perfect and it seemed that she would deliver before the forest closes for monsoons. Surprisingly within a couple of months the couple was seen together again in first week of June 2011. Was the previous mating just a strategy by Vijaya to bide some more time with Shashi or did the April honeymoon end up into a failure? There are some mysteries in the mysterious world of tigers that are hard to solve.
Post the mating in June the forest closed for monsoons and the forest season post the rains started with a lot of anticipation. As the days of October 2011 passed the search for Vijaya was on and it was a sheer delight to hear the news of Vijaya licking her small 2-month-old cub on the rocky area of Chorbehra. Rigorous elephant patrolling revealed that she was raising a family of 3.
Under the shadow of a father like Shashi the cubs had minimal risk of being killed by another male of the region. However tigers were not the only threat to these young siblings. Vijaya’s area had good movement of leopards and now the question was if Vijaya could see off the crucial period of the first few months when tiger cubs start exploring the world of tigers in the wild.
The cubs were mostly in the bamboo thickets around Chorbehra and their sighting was infrequent. Vijaya was again gaining popularity amongst lens-men who knew that she was another legend in the making. Summers of 2012 was a season everyone was looking forward to as by March 2012 the cubs were growing up well. Mom Vijaya was now the supreme ruler of Chakradhara and her efficiency of hunting was at par with any other fully fit tiger. From large sambhar stags to wild boars she was hunting every prey though with some amount of difficulty but her perseverance was unmatched.
Through the month of April the cubs were seen more regularly. One of the cubs was already showing signs of less dependency and always used to be away from the siblings. At times all 3 were seen together but most of these times mom Vijaya was out for her hunting expeditions as satiating hunger of ever growing tiger cubs is a tough ask.
Finally in the first week of May 2012, Vijaya did something that is not a regular sight in Bandhavgarh. Early in the morning as the cubs were playing in Chakradhara grasslands, Vijaya made a deep throated growl and her entire family followed her. For the first time since they were born, Vijaya boldly displays all her cubs together as she marched alongside them. They marched like an army right up to the Vishnu statue and after seeking the divine intervention she climbed the hills of Bandhavgarh fort.
The cubs survived through the monsoons of 2012 but with the springs of 2013 some new challenges unfolded for Vijaya for her protector – Shashi – the king of Bandhavgarh started loosing his battles with males intruding in his territory and was gradually pushed out of Chakradhara. During the months of March-April 2013, Vijaya boldly stood her ground with her battalion of 3 beautiful looking sub-adult cubs and even tried to deceive this mysterious new male by mating with him and making an attempt to draw him out of the reach of the cubs. However this futile attempts to shield her family went in vain as in May 2013 one of Vijaya’s cubs was found dead in the fort area. This was followed by the death of another cub in the subsequent days.
A number of theories came into place post the death of the cubs. While the forest officials claimed that the cause of the death was the mystery male, another section of local naturalists believed that since the body of the cubs was partially consumed in the same fashion as Lakshmi a few years back, Vijaya – the brave mother – herself decided to sacrifice her family in order to retain her territory for she knew that survival would be tough outside this prime territory specially with her physical disability. The male cub from this litter who was also declared dead however separated from his mother and had set out on an independent journey in the adjoining areas of her mother’s territory.
The hysteria around Vijaya died down for a prolonged period post the monsoons of 2013. Her sighting statistics dropped drastically and the entire focus shifted towards Rajbehra where a female was raising a litter of 4 cubs across the hill.
As the saal bloom dried with the temperatures rising during the summers of 2014, Vijaya made a dramatic comeback by walking down the fort hills, with tiny little cubs. The scarcity of water in the upper areas of the fort forced her to come down to the low-lying areas with natural water bodies in order to beat the scorching heat of May 2014. The queen of Bandhavgarh had again fought her battles against all odds to come up with fresh blood for the park. The meadows of Chakradhara were looking forward to be the playground for yet another litter and Vijaya was all set to be etched as one of the legendary tigers of India at par with Machali because of her resilient spirit. As the park closed for monsoons in June 2014, she had a challenge to face a tough period of 3 months and feed the 3 little striped souls.
Tragedy struck again in Bandhavgarh when the forest department reported that a decomposed body of a tigress was found and a post mortem report revealed that Vijaya was declared dead. Post search operations by the forest department, 2 cubs were declared dead as well. While the entire wildlife fraternity of India mourns the death of Vijaya, her journey and her life showcases some of the true characteristics of this creation of God called The Tiger. A specie which has braved against all odds and continues to strive and survive amidst dwindling forest covers and increasing human habitation. A specie that can adapt brilliantly to changing environmental scenarios and has the grit and willingness to survive. Vijaya’s contribution to Bandhavgarh will be remembered for the longest time and stories of this one eyed queen would echo in my memories whenever I will be traversing through the woods of this tiger heartland of India.
Could her death be averted?
Though Vijaya died in a territorial fight with an intruding male but could her death been averted. For a minute if we close our one eye and try to live that minute with that partial blackout, we would probably want that minute to pass at the earliest. The warrior queen of Bandhavgarh spent 4 long years with this handicap. Tigers are killing machines but their hunting capability goes down drastically in case of any physical ailment. Physical limitations are the main cause of deaths of tigers in old age but in Vijaya’s case it was something she was living with these limitations every day. With the birth of cubs, the hunting pressure on a tigress increases as she has to feed the cubs on the regular basis and take care of her own dietary requirements as well. Having closely observed this tigress for the past so many years, hunting was definitely a painful process for her and there were days when she went without food for days and weeks. The family was going through this stress in the summers of 2014. When a 18 year of tigress in Ranthambhore can be fed and kept alive because she qualifies as an iconic tiger of the park, could partial baiting of Vijaya (specially in the initial months post the birth of the cubs) averted her death? Food for thought for Saevus readers…
© SHIVANG MEHTA
Shivang Mehta is a nature photographer and has spent more than 150 field days in Bandhavgarh documenting Vijaya’s journey since 2010.
Tiger Diary – Published by Tiger Nation
BANDHAVGARH, MAY 2012: Vijaya, like all mother’s, has up till now taken a careful approach to bringing out her gangly 6 month old kids in any formal way. She has preferred to keep them off roads skirting forests and meadows in her bid to protect them.
Not anymore. She set out to lead her family on a distinct Royal tour, sauntering contentedly along the very road that she has watched thousands of pilgrims move on high days and holidays, as well as countless visitors every day.
Her merry band of youngsters followed her quite contentedly, often stopping to play with one another, bite each other tail, or sideling up to mum to complain that they are bored of walking.
Mum though was on a mission, and from the Chakradhara meadows, she proceeded up the hill towards the fort’s main entrance and then up the 10th century carved stairs at Vishnu’s temple before vanishing into the forested hills behind.
Vijaya’s Royal walkabout suggest that she is perfectly comfortable with her ‘Princess’ status in the Tala range.
It was my 18th consecutive drive in Bandhavgarh National Park. Excessive VIP pressure in the premier Tala zone of the park had disturbed my tiger cub hunting project which had started with a bang during the first half of my visit. The development unleashed the explorer in me as I spent considerable time exploring and discovering lesser tracked areas of Bandhavgarh. The satisfaction of emerging with first photographic records of unrecorded stripes in these areas was immense.
The Easter weekend got the Nature Wanderers (NW) and Canon photography shutterbugs in the tiger land. A group of super enthusiastic photographers across the country and across age groups and since over the last 2 weeks my risks were paying rich dividends I decided to ride my luck again. With over 70 vehicles expected to crowd the Mahaman area during one the evenings of the Easter weekend because of the guaranteed presence of mating couple in the Mahaman dam area, I was wondering if it was a good idea to go after this couple.
The tourist pressure in the area forced me and my team to lay down a strategy of entering the Makhdee zone from a less accessed gate quite far of from the main entrance. Reports of the Blue Eyed male being sighted in the afternoon by the forest post further reinforced the decision to take the risk for if we manage to catch hold of the male it would be an exclusive sighting away from the crowd. The NW group was cooperative and agreed to jump into this plan and we all entered the forest with anxiety and anticipation.
I always believe that Nature plays an equalizer and 2 weeks of positive decision making and risks that were hitting the bulls eye backfired that evening. The Blue Eyed male had walked out of the park area to the nearby village. Vehicles around the Mahaman dam had a good sighting of the mating pair of tigers. However the spirits were still up because when in the wild, you need to be prepared for failures.
The next morning I decided to stick to the books and since the movement was evident in the Mahaman area we entered the forest in a routine manner. Within minutes of entering the park, frantic langur alarm calls at the Charger Point attracted our attention. I could faintly see a male tiger in the foliage and his trajectory was towards the road. The elephant mahout who was tracking the tiger had other ideas as he blocked the male and pushed him inside the forest. During the months of March and Apr this was the 8th incident I witnessed when forest officials obstructed the movement of a tiger without any reason.
As I was watching and cursing the dramatic turn of events at Charger Points a series of faint cheetal and sambhar alarm calls excited my driver. “Mahaman area sahib” he remarked. With just a exchange of glances we decided to quietly sneak off the area and rushed towards the Mahaman dam. A fully grown male and female were royally enjoying the early morning breeze. As more and more vehicles piled up at the location, the couple moved towards the foliage.
I had witnessed the legendary mating of Sashi (Bamera) and Vijaya (Kankati) last year but this particular act of mating looked very different. The female seemed to be disinterested and walked off as soon as the male made advances towards her. Every few minutes the female would walk away and for around a couple of hours we hardly saw any actual round of mating.
The identity of the pair was still in question. A section of the naturalist crowd present onsite felt it was Mukunda but the apparent body markings on the male were different from Mukunda (who later turned out to be the tiger blocked by the elephant early in the morning). The female was another question?
Tiger Nation reported later that the female is I9 (Indrani – last litter of Badhrashila female cubs). The male is reported to be Jobi (M9).
The sighting of the this couple continues to be prominent around the Mahaman area as I write this blog. Increasing tourist patrols and awareness levels definitely impacts wildlife positively. As the tiger season has progressed more and more new tiger identities have come into the limelight signaling the presence of stripes in the fringe forests of prime tiger habitats around the country.