Encounter with a Tiger

We spent a large part of a day watching the tiger called Collarwali in Pench National Park. Here is a selection of photos from our encounter.

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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, the same 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 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 on the ground still, 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 those still keeping an eye on the danger, and those 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.

Aggression

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.

Snow Lions and lotus: a gallery of paintings from Bhutan

Bhutan’s traditional religious paintings appear in many places. Trucks bear the image of the lotus (padma or pema). The tiger, the snow lion, the dragon and the Yamantaka are seen in murals in temples as well as people’s homes. Dzongs, monasteries and temples contain magnificent murals. A sampling of these is in the gallery below (click to see a slideshow).