A tigress is quite unlike Amy Chua’s tiger mother. If she is demanding of her little ones, nature is far more demanding of her in the jungle out there. Tiger cubs are born blind and remain entirely dependent on their mother for the first two months. “At this stage, they are vulnerable to every other predator. That is part of nature’s balancing act, which allows a fair chance to others against the apex predator. Only one out of two tiger cubs grow up to rule the forest,” says P K Sen, former director, Project Tiger.
As is customary in the wild, a tigress does not usually waste resources on a weakling and focuses on the dominant ones. She must teach them to stalk, chase and kill by the time they are two. No matter if that training is fraught with risks.
If that makes tigresses demanding mothers, they are also the most efficient single moms in nature. Wild dogs, wolves, hyenas and even lions operate in groups, which makes survival a shared responsibility. Tigers and leopards are solitary wild cats. During every family cycle — 13-16 weeks of gestation followed by a couple of years of cub rearing — a tigress is very much on her own.
“As a single mother, she must protect her cubs by keeping a close watch and frequently changing hiding spots. All this while, she must also hunt to stay alive. Once her cubs stop suckling, she must pick up small prey to serve as ‘baby food’. If the male that fathered her cubs is dispossessed by another tiger, she must fight the new suitor desperate to kill her wards to establish his own bloodline,” says Dr Dharmendra Khandal, who has been studying tigers in Ranthambore for over a decade.
Against such odds, it is no small miracle that most tigresses successfully raise multiple litters. At two-and-a-half year per average family cycle, a tigress can potentially raise four successful litters, conceiving between the fourth and the twelfth year of her lifespan.
Some are exceptions, though. Sita, the famed matriarch of Bandhavgarh, gave birth to her sixth litter at the ripe age of 15. “She was born in 1982 and had her first litter in 1986. In all, she had six litters, one of which did not survive. Her last litter was in 1996. Two years later, she disappeared,” recalls naturalist and wildlife photographer Satyendra Tiwari.
Machli, who died in August 2016, raised nine cubs in four litters between 2000 and 2007. Even after losing two of her canines in combats with crocodiles, she continued to hunt successfully and raised five cubs in her last two litters. Her bloodline produced at least 50 tigers, in Ranthambore and Sariska.
After Machli had her fourth litter at age 11, Fateh Singh Rathore, the founding director of Ranthambore, observed, “She is a special cat. You can tell from the way she uses tourist vehicles as cover while hunting, her poise with thousands of pilgrims walking around her cubs during the annual Ganesha festival, the respect she commands from her cubs even after they have grown up and separated.”
While Sita and Machli became icons, many other tigresses have been as accomplished mothers. “Under stable circumstances, we have found that three litters are common in the wild. With greater longevity, a tigress can go on to have four or even more. Like all cats, they are prolific breeders,” says Dr Rajesh Gopal, secretary general, Global Tiger Forum.
That is good news for India’s tiger conservation efforts aimed at population recovery. “All they need is good protection to survive and sufficient prey base to avoid frequent territorial fights that hamper natural succession. Frequent change of guard — a new male displacing a father — doesn’t allow the stability required for successful cub-rearing,” points out Sen.