Angry birds

The jungle babbler (Turdoides striata) is rather common. You can see them easily in any jungle or copse of trees near farmlands. They travel in flocks of several individuals which chatter constantly with each other. Listen to their constant calling, and you can follow the sound to see them hopping from branch to ground and back again, looking for insects to eat. They are supposed to have beautifully coloured eggs, but I’ve neither seen an egg, nor a nest.

The uniform grey specimens with yellow beaks which we saw in and around Pench National Park belong to the subspecies T. striata orientalis. These are the quintessential angry birds. They look so much like some of the birds in that game that I wonder if the creators took inspiration from these birds. Apparently they coexist with T. striata somervillei, which are a little darker and have a rufous rump and tail. I didn’t notice any, but they could have been around in Pench.

Jungle babbler in Pench National Park

I’ve most often seen these birds flit about in the semi-darkness beneath trees with a heavy canopy, making it hard to photograph them. I was lucky with these specimens. It seems that the more birds there are in a pack, the larger the area they commonly use for feeding. I saw the individuals in these photos perhaps just after their breeding season. A large fraction of the female chicks (but less of the males) usually leave the flock at the end of a year. As a result, flocks are a mixed group of related and unrelated individuals. The related birds would usually be the males. This means that territory is inherited by males within a flock!

The mixture of genetically related and unrelated birds in a flock would also make babblers an useful group for studying the spread of altruism. Indeed, non-breeding members of the group share time in incubating eggs, although they do not participate in the building of nests. Are these helpful non-breeders related to one of the breeding pair? I don’t know of a study.

Many such unanswered questions make the babblers an interesting group of birds for further study. DNA analysis indicates that the group as a whole may have evolved around 5 to 7 million years ago in the middle east. From here the group probably radiated out: one branch into Africa and another into southern Asia. Understanding the natural history of the evolution of families may eventually depend on our understanding babblers better. In fact, angry birds defending their eggs may not be such a bad metaphor for babblers.

The World’s largest Cattle

We saw a herd of about ten Gaur (Bos Gaurus) and stopped to watch. They looked around, saw us, and went back to grazing. Maybe they are used to humans, but part of the reason is also their sheer size. An adult can weight as much as a ton, so they seldom have to worry about other creatures. Tigers and leopards do attack Gaur, but they usually pick the youngsters. For a tiger against an adult Gaur, I would give them even odds. I’ve seen a tiger unable to drag away a Gaur which it had killed, because it was so heavy. I’ve also seen reports of tigers killed by Gaur.

Older Gaur calf in Pench National Park

The IUCN Red list considers the Gaur to be highly vulnerable to habitat destruction. If you want to know more about the natural history of Gaur, this is the best document to read. It claims that in the last 50 to 60 years Gaur population worldwide has decreased by 70%. Since it has decreased by only 30% in India, it must have decreased tremendously in the rest of its range. It was found in India and south-east Asia, but has gone extinct in Bangladesh in the last couple of decades. In parts of India, such as Valparai, it is still under threat.

The Bos genus, to which domestic cows also belong, probably diverged from other bovines about a million years ago. Earlier studies had claimed that the European Aurochs (which went extinct in the 19th century CE) are the original stock from which other Bos species diverged. However, recent findings in Eritrea seem to push the origin of Bos back to around 3 millon years ago, and indicate a close relationship between humans and Bos. These studies indicate that Bos and humans left Africa together. Tigers would have started preying on Bos only after their dispersal into Asia. So, the enmity between human and tiger predators of cattle seems to be ancient.

Gaur with young calf in Pench National Park

In a well-managed park like Pench, the Gaur population seems to be stabilizing, and probably also increasing. We saw evidence in the form of small calves (photo above) as well as older calves (photo before that). Interestingly, in the early part of the 20th century CE, observers reported that calves are born in August and September. Nowadays, it is common to see calves at any time of the year. The herd we saw followed the common pattern of having some females with calves, some sub-adults, and perhaps a few males. If you know enough about Gaur, then you would be able to tell the male from the female by differences in the horns. I’m not expert enough.

We stood there and watched the herd graze. It has been several years since we saw these wonderful creatures with brown coats and white socks.

Tiger Culture and Biology

Just before dusk the tiger called Collarwali in Pench National Park made a kill. She was walking with her three cubs when she suddenly changed direction. There must have been a signal to the cubs. Instead of following her, as they normally do, they stayed together, milling around for a while before disappearing into bushes. I managed to take a photo (see below) of the three of them together just before they walked into the undergrowth. You can see how the good a camouflage their coat makes. Another two steps into the bushes made them essentially invisible.

Collarwali's litter of 2017 in Pench National Park

A hunting tiger uses this invisibility. Our jeep rolled forward slowly until we were directly behind the tigress. She was positioned in front of a little gap in the bushes. Although we could not see beyond it, she must have seen prey nearby, because she was totally still. I clicked a series of photos, and there is no difference between them at all. Her tail was down, she was perfectly balanced for a quick take off, as you can see in the featured photo.

The tiger is not born knowing how to hunt. Mothers teach their cubs this skill through a series of exercises which begin when they are about a year old. The first exercise is to hold still, as she was doing. Then come lessons in stalking and sprinting. Finally the cubs are taught how to bite through the prey’s neck to kill it. Then, at about age two, when they have learnt all this, they are driven out by the mother to find their own hunting range, and defend it against other tigers.

Later The Family and I argued our way through to some understanding of how such learning could have developed. The tiger is born with the muscles, claws and jaws which enable it to hunt. It is also presumably born with the mental equipment which enables it to stalk prey. What exactly does it have to learn?

Later we came across an article written by Rafael Nunez in which he asks a similar question about the human ability with arithmetic. The number 77 is odd and the product of 7 and 11. Is this knowledge hard-wired genetically into human brains? No, we know that children have to be taught this. Nunez argues that there are biologically evolved preconditions necessary for us to learn such things. He writes “I suggest that numbers and arithmetic are realized through precise combinations of non-mathematical everyday cognitive mechanisms that make human imagination and abstraction possible.” There is, possibly, a similar kind of mechanism at work behind a tiger cub’s ability to learn hunting. We think of human learning as cultural. In an intensely solitary creature like a tiger, do we see the rudiments of culture and learning? We speculated about all this later.

At that time, as the horizon moved up rapidly to obscure the sun, we were silently focused on the still form of the tigress. Then, in the blink of an eye she was gone, crashing through the bushes, and out of our sight. We learnt later from forest rangers that she had made a kill. The next day there were many jeeps clustered around this area hoping to catch a glimpse of Collarwali and her litter as they came back to feed.

The earliest tiger remains were found in southern China, and are about 2 million years old. However genetic studies of different tiger populations indicate that the Indian and Sumatran tiger diverged from the Chinese stock about 12 million years ago. At this time the collision of the Indian plate with Asia had already raised the Himalayas, and the collision of Africa with Eurasia caused a fall in sea levels around the planet. As a result land bridges opened up between many previously separated geographical areas. At the same time there was a global cooling, causing aridity in formerly wet zones. Northern parts of Asia and Europe began to get their ice cover at this time. Extensive grasslands formed a little before this, leading to an explosion of grazing animals, and the evolution of fast hunters. It is likely that ancestral tigers moved into new ranges during these climate changes and then became isolated into the populations we see today. This era could well be ending today.

When we travel I seldom think of the future beyond our own brief lives. The one exception is when we watch tigers. These sleek animals are so elegant, such perfect hunters, that I hope that future generations get to enjoy the thrilling sight of a tiger walking past them.

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.

The Tale of the Jackal and the Monkey

If you strain your eyes a bit, in the featured photo you can see a bloody cut on the muzzle of the jackal, just below the eye. The incident that ended with this photo is a wonderful story: every bit as interesting as the folk tales you get to if you Google monkey versus jackal.

Jackal in the distance in Pench National Park

Early in the afternoon we reached a part of Pench National Park which is at the edge of the reservoir formed by the Totladoh dam over the Pench river. It has been a long and hot spring. There was little water to be seen. We came to a stop at a high point which would be the edge of the water after the monsoon. Below us was a small shallow body of water. On the far side we spotted a jackal trotting along (photo above). As it approached the water, it came within extreme range of my camera. I thought I would get a better photo as it came to drink water.

Through the viewfinder, I saw it speed up. I heard our guide say, “It’s going after that monkey!” I looked up and saw the jackal racing after a young langur which had come to drink water. The nearest tree was quite a way off. When I spotted the langur, it was already in flight: away from the water through a patch of rocky grass towards the nearest trees. The jackal was sprinting fast.

Monkey versus jackal in Pench National Park

The langur hopped on to a rocky outcrop. But it was easy for the jackal to climb this. The Family, the guide, and the driver, all were following this unusual incident with their binoculars glued to their eyes. I had only my camera. I could hear their excited chatter as I looked through the viewfinder again.

The jackal was snapping at the monkey, as it hopped desperately from one rock to another. I completely forgot that I could set my camera to record video. This was happening at the extreme range of my zoom, equivalent to 1200 mm. I shot off a series of photos, trusting in my luck, as the chase became desperate. In my excitement, my hand was not at its steadiest. The best photo I have is the one above: where you can see the reddish blur of the jackal’s fur on the far side of the langur, as it tries to bite the monkey’s rear leg. This was just before the jackal caught the langur by its tail!

We thought this was the end of the story. I was waiting to see whether the jackal would drag its kill towards us or away. But the desperate langur smacked the jackal across the face. It let go of the tail and jumped back. The langur remained perched on the highest rock. The jackal walked away.

As it emerged from the tall grass into full view, we could see its bloodied muzzle. It stood there, far from the water, and in the open for a long time. Our guide said “It cannot face its brothers any more.” This time around the proverbial trickster did not win. The monkey is not as much of a simpleton as folk tales would have it.

This was such an unusual sighting that it overshadowed the tales of sightings of tigers and leopards which were being exchanged when we returned that evening to our hotel for tea.

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.