If PG Wodehouse were to have heard the alarm calls of the cheetal stag which nearly punctured my ear-drums last Monday morning, he would have described it as “a sort of yelp rather like a wolf that sees its peasant getting away…” The stricken-anxiety palely obvious in the yelp of the said deer was instead signalling the approach of a tigress, who looked like a Goddess of Death clearly running late for work, on a manic Monday morning.
A quick look at her coming down the dry, stony nullah thirsting for a monsoon, suggested she had probably busted the belief that our tigers can walk up to 40 kilometres in a twenty-four hour day. This one looked like she had completed a parikrama (circumambulation) of Rajasthan overnight and had not secured as much as a squirrel to snack on. With the help of our binoculars we were able to identify her as Noor, less charmingly coded T-39, a female in her prime and a tigress with possibly the best kill-ratio in all of Ranthambhore. The objects of her disgruntlement came bounding out behind her, partially hidden from view by boulders in the dry-stream bed; her three cubs. This is Noor’s third litter and over the years she has hatched some stunning sprogs. Her first cub, Sultan – now finally settled in the gorges of the neighbouring Kela Devi – was a brat if ever there was one and you can read all about his childhood here.
The current litter of three are barely the size of overfed spaniels but display all the vigour of a trade union bent upon hellish demands, from their mother. As her cubs grow, a tigress needs to find prey almost daily. An average sized cheetal that weighs in at approximately forty kilograms (or if she’s lucky the larger sambar deer) is just the ticket she is looking for. But that Monday morning, resigned to her round of bad luck at bagging some nosh for her cubs, Noor was not looking forward to an afternoon spent mummying her brood of three hungry cubs. Of course, some of our guests found this narrative of motherhood not just riveting but something they could empathise with. That has been the trend through most of this season with anyone who has come upon Noor. But before we depart from the forests of Ranthambhore to another wilderness and its own resident mother, an update on that particular day’s sighting of Noor. That very afternoon, our guests came upon fresh tracks of what looked like “a herd of tigers” (though properly the collective is a ‘flash of tigers’). The tracks led them to a scene of familiar domesticity; of a mother trying to get her children to feed without creating too much of a ruckus – in this case in order to not attract the attention of a new male in part of her territory.
That is where we leave Noor and her family for now and travel to JAWAI, where guests have been witnessing the life of another mother – a leopard we call Nagini – who has been busy bringing up her set of cubs, old enough to be identified as a male and a female. Many of our guests who have travelled between our two camps this season have seen and observed these two mothers, allowing them to learn the subtle behavioural differences in the way leopards and tigers bring up their cubs and of course, the similarities too.
Nagini is a beauty, a young girl – barely three Big Cat years old – who combines good looks, with “a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.” The JAWAI Field Team know her intimately, from the time she was a wee three months old herself. A daughter of the much-loved Naina, whose premature death left Nagini to fend for herself from a very young age, she has fulfilled her role as mother with great aplomb, not an easy job to do with two young ones, in a wilderness where other territorial males are frequently on the prowl. This season, Nagini has limited her movements to an area of approximately seven kilometres due to heavy seasonal rains in the preceding monsoon. Though this does not sound like a very large space for a Big Cat to operate within, the territory she has chosen is a dizzying complex of lightly-wooded areas and granite rock formations with several interconnecting crevices, caves and crannies. But even Nagini, with all the intelligence of one of the smartest members of the cat family is sometimes at a loss to keep her position a secret with two growing and boisterous cubs at her side.
With a diverse menu of prey to choose from – as leopards will eat almost anything they can get their paws on, however small – the family are not short of food. The greater habitat available to leopards around Jawai is massive too. Bound by Kumbhalgarh National Park to its east and the hills of Jalore to the west the leopards have large swathes to range over, should they be pushed out by their competitors. Nagini’s challenge is to keep her cubs safe from other territorial males. The Sena male, the father of the present brood is in his prime, and is sometimes seen with the family. He has not been challenged so far and may continue to hold his own for a few years yet. With only a few month’s to go before they are ready to leave Nagini and make their own way in the wild, her cubs have a good-shot at pulling through the critical transfer from adolescence into adulthood. For, “unlike the male codfish which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all”, a mother leopard will push away her cubs the moment they are ready to leave, so she may breed again. For now, there are few things as enjoyable, and moving, as the visual feast of a Big Cat mother and her cubs, at both Sher Bagh and JAWAI.