All happy families are alike

The opening words of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, are the title of this blog post because they apply to tigers as well as humans. When you see the famous tigress T15 of Pench National Park, known locally as Collarwali, with her cubs, you can hardly question this insight. I hope the featured photo captures this sense of ease within the family.

It was 42 degrees in the shade. The mother eased herself into the water. The cubs came running, and walked into the water. They nuzzled their mother, and she licked them. I’ve never seen The Family look more content than when she is watching tigers. She stood up on the seat of the open jeep, binoculars glued to her eyes, as I stood next to her and clicked away. The field of view was restricted because we had to look between trees to see the tigers. Still, it was a magnificent view.

Tigers love water. The mother took a long time cooling off. The cubs are smaller, so the heat affects them more easily, but they also cool off faster. They sat quietly in the water for a while, drank some. But soon they were climbing and scrambling over the mother. Very soon after that, like the impatient six month-olds that they are, they were out of the water and exploring their surroundings. The mother continued to sit in the water for a while. In the photo below you can see the streaks of mud left on her coat as the cubs clung to her.

Collarwali continues to sit in the wter in Pench National Park

Collarwali is a legendary mother because she has brought up six different litters, and managed to keep most of her offspring alive in the time that they were with her. This requires continuous hunting and feeding, especially in the last year or more. Tigers are quick breeders, but the cubs cannot live without a large base of prey for the mother. Pench, and a few other national parks have succeeded in stabilizing and then increasing the tiger population by keeping the rest of the ecosystem stable: the deer that the tigers feed on, the vegetation that the prey eat, the insects and birds which pollinate and disperse seeds, and many other strands in the web.

The Family was thrilled by this display of affection between the mother and the cubs, and very surprised when she found that the bond breaks completely when the cubs are about two years old. During this time the mother teaches them to hunt. I found it surprising that hunting is a learnt skill, not an inborn talent. To begin with, the cubs are taught to hold still so that the prey can come up to them. At the end they even have to be taught how to bite the neck of the prey to finish the kill.

The mother and children have to bond in order for this skill to be transmitted. But when the cubs are large enough to hunt for themselves, the mother pushes them out of her territory. They have to range out to find an unoccupied area, or take one over from an older tiger grown too feeble to protect its own range.

Tigers are lonely hunters.

Return of the Spy in the Jungle

We chanced on a small bunch of jeeps whose passengers were excitedly looking into the darkness below some bushes along a ridge line. It was a tigress and her cubs. We caught sight of her. Just as I was trying to get photos, a ranger came along and told us to move. Our guide figured out that the tigress was headed for a nearby waterhole, and drove there. I’d never seen rangers trying to control jeeps, so we discussed this with the driver and guide. I learnt that in Pench National Park the rangers try hard to balance tourists’ needs and the animals, especially when cubs are involved. Tourists are allowed only in about 20% of the park’s area, but this area contained the range of two tigresses with three cubs each.

Gray langurs on the alert in Pench National Park

There was a group of gray langur sitting in the shade around the waterhole. When we reached the waterhole we saw that they had probably sensed the approaching tigress. They were still on the ground, but looking in the direction from which we knew that the tigress was approaching. Interestingly, there had been no alarm calls. This meant that there were no deer or monkeys along the route the tigress and her cubs were taking.

The tigress we had seen was called collarwali by all the guides, because when she was four years old she had been fitted with a radio collar. Her official designation is a simple T15. I suppose she managed to get rid of the collar soon, because she was without one now. Collarwali is legendary, she has raised 26 cubs in seven litters. Although she is twelve years old, her confident walk and glossy coat indicate that she is in her prime. As a cub she starred in David Attenborough’s documentary Spy in the Jungle.

Gray langurs scatter as a tigress appears in Pench National Park

Within a couple of minutes (although it seemed longer) the band had seen the tigress and ran for the trees. You can see that the monkey in the foreground is running scared, with its tail held out straight behind it for balance, as it picks up speed. One just behind it has not taken off yet, its tail is still curled over its body as it looks in the direction of the approaching tigress. The others are equally divided between still keeping an eye on the danger, and searching for a safe tree nearby. Seconds after this, the langur had all fled. Collarwali came into view, climbing up from the ravine, majestic, well-fed, coat a glossy yellow-orange (see the featured photo).

There’s nothing else in the world like a tiger in motion.

A long and lazy afternoon

When you try to spot a tiger in the wild you spend really long hours in one place. If you are lucky, you will have found shade. If this is near a waterhole, then there are many things to watch as you wait. On a burning summer afternoon, I watched a band of gray langur as I waited for a tiger. They had found a leafy tree to settle in, and, after the first couple of minutes, ignored us as they went back to their normal life. A few would venture cautiously down to the water’s edge now and then, after surveying the area for any sign of danger, dip their faces to the water to drink. They would then saunter back to the tree with their tails held parallel to their body, pointing forward.

A group of langur finds shade in Pench National Park

It wasn’t just tigers that would send them back up; it was also the burning afternoon sun. As I tried to photograph them, I realized that they were all huddled in the shade. As a result, they mainly presented silhouettes to the camera. Most of their time was spent grooming each other. I liked the sight of one with an arm raised, as another groomed it (featured photo). It looked so comfortable that I wished we could spend some time in the jeep scratching each other’s backs.

A langur mother with child in Pench National Park

I couldn’t figure our whether this was a band with multiple males or just one. The male langur are generally larger than the females, but in a band dispersed on a tree, some hidden, it is hard to figure this out. There were several young which chased each other round the branches. Two especially boisterous ones swung from the tails of some adults, who ignored them completely. There were several babies clutching on to their mothers. I managed to get a photo of one only when the mother moved from one perch to another (photo above). Langur are generalized herbivores, happy munching leaves, fruits, and flowers. They are also reported to eat larvae of insects.

A sudden commotion brought us upright. But it wasn’t a tiger. A small band of rhesus macaques had wandered into the tree. There was much chattering, and running around. In the shadows it was not clear whether the langur were more agitated than the macaques. But soon the macaques were gone and the langur were back to their quiet grooming. Their size allows langurs to dominate the smaller macaques in the wild. Nothing much more happened, and the afternoon was soon over.


In the sambar deer, dominant stags fight with others to retain control of hinds. The losing stags are pushed out of the herd. The IUCN red list says that sambar are vulnerable due to habitat loss across its full range. This includes southern China, south-east Asia and India. However, it is possible that there is a cryptic difference between the Indian population and the rest, which could split this in future into two species. If so, then the reasonably well-managed Indian national parks could convert the western population into the "near threatened" category, and the Chinese and south-east Asian population could then be plausibly classified as endangered. Since sambar is the main prey of tigers, it is impossible to stabilize tiger populations without first creating conditions for sambar to multiply.

In my lifetime sambar has become almost invisible outside of national parks. We saw few herds of sambar inside Pench national park this time around. I had only a couple of glimpses of a stag the fully developed antlers you expect to see this late in spring. We saw one defeated male grazing by itself in the shade under some trees. If you look carefully at the featured photo you’ll see that it has only one of the antlers. The other was broken off near the base.

Observations over many years reveal that the sex-ratio in sambar is heavily tilted towards femles. I also remember seeing, a few years ago, a sambar female in the wild who was so old that she was slightly arthritic, and her coat was greying. I’ve never seen a stag that old. Is it that stags are more vulnerable to predation? Or could it be that aggression within the species is such a source of stress that it kills off males. Looking at the male with one antler, we could not dismiss this possibility.

Later, at a waterhole, waiting for tigers to emerge, I overheard a conversation in a nearby jeep. One man said he had seen 45 tigers. A companion replied that he had seen only 25, but then, he started recently. A third chipped in to say that he writes down details of every sighting, and that he thinks he must have detailed entries on about 30. The Family nudged me to draw my attention to this bit of male aggression in Homo Sapiens. We are so lucky; I cannot imagine that stress at not seeing tigers in the wild can kill us.

Alarums and excursions

If you spend a day in one of the Project Tiger national parks, you may or may not see a tiger, but the one thing that you will learn about are alarm calls. Tourists like us move along designated tracks on a jeep inside the forest. Tigers seldom cross these paths. So the best way to find out whether a tiger is nearby is to listen to the jungle.

Wary cheetal and langurs at a waterhole in Pench National Park

Of the three animals which issue alarm calls, the spotted deer Cheetal (Axis axis) and the gray langur (Semnopithecus entellus) can be seen in the photo above, and the sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) is in the featured photo. The cheetal thrive in Pench National Park. They are easily spooked. Sometimes you see a herd grazing near a track, looking up at you warily as you pass. But very often you see them already running. A naturalist once told me that this is a good sign, because it shows that they are not habituated to humans. Cheetal alarm calls are the first thing you hear when a leopard or tiger is sighted. They may soon be followed by the alarm call of langurs. Usually, when you hear this, your guide will drop everything else and rush towards the sound. Since the calls carry easily in the jungle, you will find that there are several jeeps which arrive at the source of the calls.

Sambar wade into a waterhole with extreme caution in Pench National Park

Tiger spotting requires patience and persistence. Sometimes the calls stop, and you do not know whether that is because the predator has stopped moving, or because it was a false alarm. The lore amongst guides is that cheetal calls could be false alarms sometimes, but the alarm call sounded by sambar deer is always correct. I saw sambar approaching water holes on two occasions. Both times they were so cautious that it was a wonder. The featured photo shows a lone sambar moving between trees at the edge of a clearing around a waterhole. It spent almost twenty minutes walking a distance of about a hundred meters. The second time I saw a group coming to a large pond. There were wary groups of monkeys drinking water, taking turns to keep watch as the rest of the group drank. A couple of spotted deer were also drinking water (see photo above). They were quiveringly tense as they drank, but they walked to the water very quickly, drank, and walked away again.

The sambar are different, they took a long time to approach the water. Then after drinking, they waded into the water (photo above). Even inside the water they were extremely cautious: scanning their surroundings with every step they took. The two scouts were soon joined by others, including young. Their coats were matted, as if they were already wet. Sambar like to wade, but they were so wary that they stood in knee-deep water until the light began to fade and we were forced to leave.

From the difference in behaviour that I saw, I could believe our guide when he said that a sambar’s alarm call is always correct.

A sedentary acrobat! Really?

Several times in my forays into Pench National Park, I noticed a bright blue flash of wings at the edge of dusty meadows full of dried grass. If I’d seen this colour near a pond or soak, I would have thought of a kingfisher. But in this habitat it was the Indian roller bird, Coracias benghalensis. True to its name it twisted and rolled in soaring flight each time I saw one. The spectacular flight is a mating display; something that is visible during its breeding season, between March and July. Unfortunately, the camera I had with me compensates for its enormous zoom by an equally enormous shutter lag. This rules out taking photos of such displays.

In any case, I was at first very surprised to find a paper which reported that roller birds were observed to spend 90% of their time sitting, at all hours of the day. It seems that foraging and feeding took substantially less than 10% of its waking hours. Such a lucky bird!

The time spent foraging may depend on the kind of terrain the bird is seen in. In the agricultural land where the study was performed, rollers were found to eat insects almost exclusively. However, in the wild it is known to prefer lizards and frogs, and sometimes is even seen eating small snakes. The larger prey may keep the bird full for a longer time, but it may also change the amount of time spent foraging before it feeds.

On second thought, I should not have been very surprised when I found that the roller is a sedentary bird. After all, I have so many photos of a roller perched somewhere (the photos here are examples). Indian roller bird in Pench National ParkOnce you get one in your viewfinder, you can go on taking photos to your heart’s content. With its wings closed it will seem to be largely reddish brown, with the blue colouring appearing only on the head, tail and part of the chest. In the 1930s, the Indian physicist C.V. Raman studied the blue colour of the roller’s wings and found that the colour was due to double scattering of light from the feathers of the bird, and not from a pigment. He moved on to study the blue colour of the sea, and won a Nobel prize for that work. Today, the nano-structures on the feathers of the roller that produce the colour are very well understood.

The Indian roller is not a threatened species. It is seen over all of India and south-east Asia, and westwards along the Arabian sea and the Gulf of Iran. Dedicated bird-watchers ignore sightings of the roller, and would roll their eyes if they saw me taking photos of one. But recent fossil finds suggest that about 30 million years ago its ancestors were spread even more widely across the world. Ancient climate changes then seem to have restricted the populations of roller birds to (roughly) their present geographical range. There are such wonderful histories behind every bird!

Sexual politics in the jungle

A couple of days ago I wrote about how gender shapes chicken and their ancestral relatives, the red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus. Males fight each other to try to monopolize breeding with groups of females. This leads to larger sizes and extreme combativeness among males. The female is solely responsible for rearing chicks. Not only is she smaller, she is also drab coloured, so as to be less noticeable. The pattern of males being larger and more aggressive than females is also seen in other animals with similar social organization, for example, spotted deer (Axis axis), lions (Panthera leo), monkeys such as Northern Plains Langurs (Semnopithecus entellus). There are conjectures that sex-linked size and aggression in Homo sapiens is also due to social organization of this kind when our ancestors roamed the grasslands of Africa.

Thurber's cartoon

One of the more commonly visible birds in Pench national park was the Oriental honey buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). The first one we saw was sitting on a nest, probably incubating a clutch of eggs (featured photo). The Family saw it instantly since she was looking through her new binoculars. I was peering through my camera, and I saw the nest but not the bird, until I zoomed the image. We kept seeing these birds through the next couple of days: flying low over us, sitting on a branch, diving into the grass. Once I photographed it on a branch (photo below), just before it dived into the dry grass below the tree. I could see it wrestle and worry something in the grass, so I waited for it to emerge with something in its beak. Unfortunately it appeared without anything and flew away.

Male oriental honey buzzard in Pench National Park

This was the breeding season, and clearly the intense activity was related to that. The females sat in nests, either brooding over eggs, or looking after hatchlings. I guessed that probably the males were doing most of the flying. Later reading told me an interesting fact: apparently in this, and many other species of hunting birds, the male is smaller than the female. The reason again seems to do with social organization.

In honey buzzards and other raptors, a male and a female bond as a breeding pair. The pair cooperate in raising the young. The mother spends more of her time in the nest, while the father spends longer periods foraging for the family. The wing span of male and female honey buzzards is about the same. So the smaller body of the male makes it more manoeuvrable, and a slightly better hunter. The same holds true for other hunting birds. Interestingly, those which hunt faster prey have relatively smaller males. Vultures show almost no size difference between the sexes.

Traumatic beginning of adulthood

Interestingly, all birds abandon the young once they are grown. This is again a theme that recurs throughout the animal kingdom, even among H. sapiens. To get back to our main theme, the full story of sexual dimorphism among birds may be more complicated than this. Studies show that strongly coloured males and drab females arise in bird species where the male tries to dominate a breeding group of females, but a significant fraction of the offspring are not the dominant males. This is extreme sexual politics. However, the mutually supportive roles of the two parents in the cooperative rearing of offspring prevents sexual politics from arising amongst honey buzzards.

The post-extinct Elephants

I read in a document from the Zoological Survey of India that the Ain i Akbari mentions wild elephants in the area that the Pench National Park now occupies. These annals of the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar were written in the 16th century CE. I looked at my copy. Pench gets no mention, of course, but a larger geographical area around it is said to have these beasts. The ZSI document goes on to say that books from the 18th century about this area no longer mention these animals. The document concludes that elephants must have gone locally extinct in these centuries. It is interesting that the temperature minimum of the Little Ice Age occurred roughly at this time. This caused changes in rainfall patterns, and resulted in a sequence of droughts during the 18th century. Could it have been climate change of this kind that caused the extinction of the local population of elephants in this region?

Elephant patrol in Pench National Forest

So it is a little surprising to see elephants in the jungles of Pench, until you realize that there are only five elephants, and they are domesticated. The forest department uses them to patrol the jungle, especially areas which are otherwise hard to reach. We were in the usual open jeep when this patrol passed by. Our driver asked about tigers, and one of mahouts said that he’d seen one nearby and it might come down to drink water shortly. It didn’t. As they talked, I saw the elephant break one large branch off a small tree and munch on its leaves.

Intrigued, I searched for elephants in Pench and found the following paragraph in a book for a former forest ranger, R. C. Sharma, in a book called "The Wildlife Memoirs, a Forester Recollects".

R.C.Sharma, memoirs

This is a possible clue how climate change could eventually lead to disastrous denudation of flora, which cause large herbivores to die out. I’m sure an event like this has cascading effects through the whole ecosystem. The landscape that we see in Pench today must have been shaped by the climate of three centuries ago.

The Chicken and Tyrannosaurs

We eased into the jungle with a sighting of the red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus. There are two interesting bits of information about these birds. The first is an insight due to Darwin himself, who realized that this is the ancestor of all the chicken which run around in farmyards across the world. This story has been enriched by modern molecular data. These established that there were gene exchanges between domesticated and wild populations, probably due to chicken which fled the coop. It is likely that chicken were domesticated multiple times in different places, and the domestic variety was crossed with other related wild species. The first domestication probably happened about 8000 years ago in India. Although chicken is the default meat in India today, my grandparents never liked it. Their generation thought of chicken as faintly unclean. I wonder how many cycles of food fashion have affected the chicken in its millennia of association with humans. The second fact is that Gallus gallus is the closest living relative of Tyrannosaurs, a fact that was only discovered in 2008 after T. rex tissue samples were first found.

These ancestral chicken wander around the undergrowth in the jungles of Pench National Park, kicking up leaves and pecking at things like thuggish dinosaurs. They are wary of humans and disappear quickly into thickets when they see people. So the photos you see here are about the best I have ever got. The large male (featured photo) has a glossy black tail which shows iridescent greens and blues, rich dark brown and orange back, dark and glossy underparts, and an orange and yellow neck and crown feathers. The individuals we saw had big red combs, small wattles, white ear patches, red eyes and a strong curved beak. I always thought the much smaller females were drab, until the light caught the one whose photo is below. Then I realized that they are a lovely golden-gray in colour.

The remarkable sexual dimorphism is selected by the life style of this bird. The dull colours of the female serve to camouflage her as she tends to eggs and chick, a task that she performs alone. Selection pressures, on the other hand, drive the male to be larger, in order to be able to overcome rivals and maintain its harem. The same pressures make it aggressive enough to be the stars in cockfights around south-east Asia. Interestingly, the comb and wattle are subject to sexual selection. Apparently the females of the wild species prefer larger combs and are indifferent to wattles. You can see the result of this preference in the featured photo.

Female red jungle fowl in Pench National Park

With the intense heat it is hard to accept that this is still spring. The big male had chased away all other males from its winter’s flock, and was surrounded only by a few females. Moreover, it still had its breeding plumage. From June to the end of the monsoon its warm gold neck feathers will be replaced by dusty black eclipse plumage. Except in springtime, the red jungle fowl lives in mixed flocks in which males and females have separate but strict “pecking order”.

It seems that there has been little study of the social structure of these birds, although it is recorded that there is a variety of different calls. Some of these calls are communicative. Our guide was of the firm opinion that these birds are good negative predictors of the presence of tigers, because they run away before a tiger appears. I did observe this on one occasion when some of these ran from a muddy pool before a tiger family came along. Chicken will be chicken, I suppose.

That left me with the question whether Tyrannosaurus rex was also chicken, at least in the sense that it ran away from confrontation.

Into the frying pan

Pench National Park is about 80 kilometres north of Nagpur. This week the temperature in Nagpur varied between 44 or 45 Celsius in the day and 30 to 31 Celsius at night. We reached Nagpur at about 8 in the morning. It was warm, but about the same as the morning’s temperature in Mumbai. There wasn’t much traffic at this time, and it was a short drive to the highway.

By 9 we could feel the heat even inside the car. The sun streaming in from the window felt hot on the skin. The air conditioning laboured, without being able to cool the air inside to a comfortable temperature. By the time we reached our destination near the village called Turiya, the roads were deserted. There was a little check-post near a minor gate to the park (photo above). A boy came out of the gate. Apart from the two forest guards at the checkpost, he was the only person we had seen for a while. We sped past the empty-looking village. A few water buffaloes lounged in the shade of a spreading banyan tree.

The heat hit us when we reached our hotel and stepped out of the car. The reception area was shaded by a large tree full of birds. As we signed in, we were handed a cold mango drink: the sour mango, jeera and pepper taste was very welcome in the heat. We would leave a little after 3 for our first trip into the jungle.

The market in Turiya village near Pench National Park

In this extreme dry heat we had to make sure that we did not lose moisture. You had to cover as much of your body as possible, so trousers and full sleeves were needed. I had a cap and a cloth to wind around my face, leaving open only my eyes and nose. I realized later that you could cover your face in a layer of cream and do away with the cloth. At least a litre of water was needed for a three-hour long trip into the jungle. You can forget the heat after a while, and without these precautions you could be dehydrated pretty badly in a couple of hours. Even tigers obey similar rules, which makes it easy to spot them in this weather.

Pench National Park is said to stand in the rough geographical location where Rudyard Kipling set his famous story called The Jungle Book. As we passed the empty bazaar in Turiya village, the gate posts marking out the bazaar (photo above) recalled parts of this story. Even now, if you are lucky, you can see bears, tigers, wolves, jackals and snakes in and around the park. Over the next few days we would test our luck.