IN the heart of the 411-sq-km core zone of Madhya Pradesh’s Pench Tiger Reserve, about 500 metres from the last point where tourists are allowed, lies a “tapu (island)”. Summer has set in early this year, and the Pench river amidst which this island lies is no more than a few puddles. The heat has also stripped the teak trees around of their leaves, but patches such as the tapu never lose their green foliage. Which, right now, makes this 6-7 hectare area one of the world’s most precious.
Somewhere inside sits ‘T15’ with her four cubs. Those cubs marked her seventh litter —most tigresses stop at four. They also took the total number of her cubs to 26 — unheard of in India, and possibly the world. At 12, she is expected to have at least one more litter.
The Land of Mowgli has a new Queen of the Jungle. They call her ‘Collarwali Baghin’.
The radio collar that lent her her name had been fitted on her in 2009, when she was four, for monitoring her movement. Just four of the reserve’s 50 tigers and tigresses are radio-collared. The collar fitted on the Collarwali Baghin worked for about two years, and fell off her neck in August 2016.
However, the name stuck. Her sister was called Nalawali Baghin as she lived close to a nullah (drain) in the reserve’s 758-sq-km buffer zone. Nalawali and three of her cubs died a couple of months ago, of suspected poisoning by locals.
Collarwali Baghin’s latest litter therefore is being zealously guarded. Since the past three months, when the cubs were discovered, visits to the tapu have been strictly curtailed.
Deputy Range Forest Officer Santosh Patel is among the very few to have seen Collarwali with her newborns. “Only our patrolling staff on elephant back can go there,” he says. “They were the ones who first saw the cubs. They reported four, I have been able to see only three. The cubs don’t all come out together.”
Patel has been posted at the Pench reserve for 35 years now, starting out as a forest guard. He was around when Collarwali was born in October 2005. “She was born to another famous tigress, called Barimada (big female),” he says.
Barimada featured in the celebrated BBC documentary Spy in The Jungle by David Attenborough, which filmed her and her four cubs as she reared them, over two years, in Pench, using secret cameras carried in elephant trunks. Attenborough described it as “the most intimate portrait of tigers ever”. One of those four cubs was Collarwali.
Nobody remembers now when Barimada died, just that it was a few years ago.
Patel recalls that Collarwali gave birth to her first litter, of three cubs, in May 2008, when she was 2 years and 7 months old. “A first-time mother, she didn’t know how to care for them and they died soon of pneumonia. She went into heat soon after and gave her second litter, of two males and two females, in October 2008. They stayed with her for two years.”
The third litter was a bumper five cubs — one male and four females — in October 2010. Barely 19 months later followed the fourth one — this time of one male and two females in May 2012. Another 19 months later followed the fifth one, all three males, in October 2013. The sixth one was in March 2015, when two males and two females were born.
Patel says Collarwali has had all the litters from three mates — T30, Chhota Male and the latest, Rayyakasa, who has been with her since 2012.
Apart from Collarwali, two other tigresses have given birth at the reserve in the past six months.
Tiger experts say seven litters in a lifespan of 12 years is rare as a tigress normally has her first litter at the age of three and waits at least two years before the next one. Plus, the number of cubs per litter is purely a biological phenomenon, and tigresses can have as few as 12 cubs from six litters. In Collarwali Baghin’s case, therefore, it’s not just the number of litters but also the number of cubs that make her special.
Says conservationist and tiger expert Valmik Thapar, “At that age for a tiger to have seven litters and 26 cubs is a world record. It is only possible if a tigress loses one and more likely two litters. In 41 years of tiger-watching, I have observed 50 litters, with a maximum of five litters in a lifetime. If this tigress’s ability of raising cubs till adulthood is proven, she is an exception, and a fantastic hunter.”
Elaborating, Pench Tiger Reserve Field Director Subranjan Sen points out that while T15 would need to hunt largely for herself — approximately a cheetal a week — till the cubs are about three months old, as they grow, her job would become harder. By the time the four cubs are 1.5 years old, Sen says, T15 would need to kill one or even two cheetals a day. No mean feat for a 12-year-old.
Wildlife scientist Ulhas Karanth, who has spent over three decades monitoring tigers, says he wouldn’t like to make any “off-the cuff” remark about T15 “since I have no data on her”. But he adds, “The typical population dynamic pattern in high-prey-density, well-protected tiger habitats is: a female acquires a territory around three years of age, holds it for eight-10 years… She raises three-four litters (say, 12-16 cubs) to dispersal age of 18 months, that is, one litter every three years… And she lives 10-14 years, although a few, like a tigress in Bandhavgarh, and the artificially propped-up Macchli of Ranthambore, have hung out longer… say, like 100-plus-year-old humans.”
There are other tigresses known for their many litters, including as many as six. Mai, the grand old tigress of Maharashtra’s Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve, had six before she died last year at the age of 17 in a fight with a gaur, mothering about 12 cubs. Jai, whose marathon 120-km walk from Navegaon-Nagzira to Umred-Karhandla for a mate was reported by The Indian Express, was one of the two cubs from Mai’s last litter.
Chandi, a 10-year-old matriarch of Umred-Karhandla, is expecting her sixth litter any time now. So far, she has mothered 18 cubs, but not all have survived.
Trying to explain Collarwali Baghin’s success, Field Director Sen says, “Both the number of litters and the number of cubs are a function of conservation and availability of a habitat with abundant prey.” He cites “levels of natural stress” as an important factor in tiger breeding. “In reserves like Pench and Panna, tigresses giving litters at quicker intervals have been observed many times earlier too. In Pench, we have the best-possible average size of preys, 100 in every square kilometre, which include sambhars, cheetals, wild boars, Indian gaurs. Add to it no human interference, good hideouts. In T15’s case, she is occupying the best area of the park (the tapu offers hideouts, it is cut off from the rest of the park, while the Pench river is nearby). She herself is a very agile and efficient animal.”
He adds, “Why would a tigress not breed as profusely in Sariska as in Pench or Panna? It’s because there isn’t a good prey base in Sariska and hence the animals would have lesser inspiration to breed. In Pench, we have 50 tigers of more than 1.5 years of age and 11 of them are breeding tigresses. Ideal is 20 breeding tigresses for an area of 1,000 sq km.”
As for the apprehension that she doesn’t look after her cubs for as long as she should, Sen says, “It is not necessary that a tigress keeps the cubs with her for at least 24 months. It could even be 15-18 months depending on the environment for supporting the early release of cubs. Also, there could be an overlap between two litters and a tigress may tend to both litters at the same time for a while. Like in T15’s case, she was seen moving with her second and third litters simultaneously.”
In a 2013 article in Sanctuary Asia magazine, K Shanker, a former Wildlife Institute of India scientist who had radio-collared T15, wrote about how she would protect her three weak cubs from the second litter by herself moving away from them for days together since a male called T30, who wasn’t their father, had come to mate with her.
Sen adds that it is impossible to tell how many of the cubs from Collarwali’s litters have survived, and notes that it would be wrong to presume they may have met an unfortunate end. “Our men have seen them grow to adulthood. But once they are on their own, they move out. So it is not possible to keep account of all of them. Many Pench cubs are known to have gone as far as Nagzira in Maharashtra (about 150 km away).”
Patel, who saw Collarwali from close quarters during the collaring exercise, can’t hide the pride in his voice as he says, “If you see her, you will marvel at her young, fit looks, her perfect canines.” Range Forest Officer Raju Rajput says, “She is the darling of tourists. She is fearless and nonchalantly walks past their vehicles, giving them a gratifying darshan.”
Collarwali was born in the year that saw tiger decimation in Sariska. Subsequently, the tiger got vanquished even from Panna. While poaching of tigers is rare at the Pench reserve, five were killed in 2016. Stories of high-breeding tigresses like that of Collarwali thus hold out hope for India’s tiger story.
Talking of her latest cubs, Rajput says, “We are not sure yet of their gender or their exact month of birth. It could be December 2016 or January 2017. She won’t venture out with the cubs till they are at least six months old.”
The Pench Tiger Reserve, and the world, will wait.