Moments spent in the wild will always bring to you experiences that will astound you; when you think you have seen it all, you are surprised by events that you never thought you would hear about or see. Our author, the ex-Field Director of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve,brings to you this unique, never-before-seen behaviour of the tigress Sundari or T17. This fearless tigress is now no more, having passed away a couple of years ago and this article is a tribute to her and her life.
Text and images: Rajesh Gupta
Sundari (T17), the Queen of Ranthambhore has been reigning in the majestic resource blessed area for an year now. T17 was born as one of the three female members of the litter of T16-the Jhalara female, known world over for the famous crocodile fight near Padam Talab in Ranthambhore,to defend her cubs-T17,T18,T19.
T 17 had evicted her two sisters (T18 and T19) and mother, Macchli (T16) to dominate in the zone of the lakes including Malik Talab, PadamTalab and Rajbagh. She was now commonly referred as the ‘Lady of the Lake’. With the prime habitat in her custody, she was having the cake and the cream. All she needed was a partner to help her dominate better as commonly proverbial, “two is a team”. T28,commonly known as Gilaisagar Male, was a huge male tiger in the Jhalara,Rajbagh, Malik Talab area and a litter of T27. T28 proved to be her hubby. Together they defended a territory of more than 50 sq.kms.
Sundari had been radio collared in 2008 but carried the non functional machine for over one and a half years now. It was the sheer penchant of the newly elected the then Forest Minister, Bina Kak, that brought respite to the Lady of the Lake. The first task the Minister directed, was to relieve her most adorable tigress of Ranthambhore, from the weight of the collar.
Incidentally, Sundari was the only tigress with collar in Ranthambhore in 2011.There were thoughts that collars in Sariska tigers had become a reason for no cubs, though without any scientific explanation. This became co-related with Sundari, as her sister T18 was in Sariska with another collar. T18 was shifted to Sariska as part of the Tiger Reintroduction Programme in 2009. Both the tigresses had mated with their partners but amazingly, never bred!
Sundari was to be liberated from the foreign object around her neck. The day was decided as 24th November 2011. With a team of Wildlife Institute of India, Dr. Parag Nigam and I, started the much awaited search for the queen. The first day, we could not sight her. The next day, three teams searched in
different areas but it was the call from the Minister from Bhutkhora that brought the team close to the target. Immediately we reached the spot and found Sundari. She appeared to be waiting for the day to happen. She did not run. Instead she offered the best position to hit the dart. It was done. A second dose was given by Dr. Nigam to smoothen the task. The necessary physical tests were done and the collar was removed. Revivon was injected as we retreated in the gypsy, waiting for her recovery.
Finally Sundari stood up with trembling legs and fell on the ground, with the sedation still effective. She tried again and walked a few paces to fall again. We followed her to see her finally controlling herself as she walked slowly rejoicing the removal of the foreign body around her neck. The whole day she was untraceable but she gave the perfect frame the very next day, showing a new liberated Queen. She was free and she loved it.
Sundari had been moving in large territories with 3 males in her territory. In Tiger behavioral ecology, the reverse has been documented , with one male keeping 2-3 females in his territory. In Ranthambhore, Sundari was maneuvering in the territories of big males like T25, T28 and T24. Such behavior did have relevance which research had not documented till now. T24 and T25 were born as male cubs to T22 female. T24, commonly known as ‘Ustad’ inhabitated the area of Zone no.1 in Sultanpur- Singhduar area, adjacent to T17 and also shared relationship with another female T39 in his territory.
T25 , referred to as ‘Zalim’ occupied the Zone 5 near Tambakahan-Kachida area. T25 had surprised the tiger world by playing the role of father to his 2 orphaned female cubs of T 5 female of Kachida, forcing the conservationists to rethink on the ‘fatherhood role of Tigers’. T5 female had died in Feb 2011 due to a physiological problem, leaving behind her 2-3 months old female cubs in the Kachida area.
In December 2011, Sundari was seen making love with T25 in Kachida-Tambakhan area. It was the first mating after the removal of the collar. We were ecstatic since we wanted it to happen. Previous matings of Sundari with males have been unsuccessful. People thought the radiocollar as the devil. We started to believe the non scientific theory too. After the mating, Sundari separated from her partner and started moving towards Singhduar searching T24 in desperation. T24 was nowhere to be found.
She treaded along the tarred Ganesh Mandir road and moved towards Jogimahal. She could smell T28 close. To our amazement, she moved close to T28 and invited him for company. This was difficult to believe. A tigress having mated for 3-4 days with T25, has now moved in her territory finding another mate and spending time for the next few hours near Padam Talab. Such quick change in partners has been seldom observed in the wild areas. Was it polygamous behaviour of Sundari ? Promiscuity? We could not unravel the mystery.
Days passed. On 24th January 2012, message from Shivraj, a forest guard at Jogimahal reached the headquarters that Sundari has been sighted mating with T28 in Rajbagh area. We rushed to see her making love. This continued for 3- 4 days, when on 27th, she escaped from the house arrest of T28. We started counting days presuming this would be the commencement of gestation.
Tigers have gestation periods of 90-102 days. As months passed, behavior of T17 changed. During the entire monsoons of 2011, I never sighted a Tiger with apprehensions of what had happened. But on the first day of opening of the Park after the monsoons in 2011, it was Sundari that brought cheer on the tourist’s faces and relief to the Park Management. But now, she became more secluded and confined. A tigress which was the most revered ramp model in Ranthambhore jungles, posing before gypsies and canters without fear, was now seen seldom. Gradually we started contemplating pregnancy. The nature guides would see her and start noticing her bahaviour. In Ranthambhore, experience of the frontline staff, the drivers, guides are amazing. These are beyond the research papers and the coffee table books. They would observe her getting inside the karonjinala close to Rajbagh. Sundari rarely gave sightings then.
The most eagerly awaited news reached on the morning of 28 June 2012. A tourist vehicle had seen 3 cubs with Sundari. It was what we prayed for. The queen had her descendants now in her kingdom. The cubs figure had now risen to 25 with 27 adults. Our Minister rejoiced and she was here the next day to try a glimpse of her most adorable one. And Sundari blessed her, the very next day bringing her cubs to their ambassador. The days of happiness had touched Ranthambhore again.
The mystery of the promiscuous behavior, probably not documented elsewhere, seems to bear correlation in the social behavior observations in Tigers in Ranthambhore. During my field days in Ranthambhore, I had observed social behavior in Tigers, probably owing to increase in the carrying capacity of the Tigers in Ranthambhore. The male fathers have been observed to be in close proximity to the cubs born of the female partner.
The very low rate of infanticide in Ranthambhore seems to bear a testimony to the phenomenon. Sundari had mated with T25 in December 2011 and sighted together with T28 on the same day and mated with T28 in Jan 2012. With the increase in the cubs in the National Park area, probably she was in the process of the confusing either males T25 and T28 of the genetic offspring. In a way, it might have been a strategy for the survival of her cubs. T17 had its territory stretching into the area of T25, T28, and T24 males. T25 was not with any other female except T17. T25 was nurturing orphan female cubs of T5, an unobserved phenomenon of parenting in Tigers.
In order to ensure supremacy and establishing her genes, Sundari needed the parental protection from either of the males T28 and T25. Since infanticide might jeopardize the survival of her cubs, she wanted intelligently, to keep the situation manipulated in a way that helped her……
The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve opened after the monsoons and an interim ban by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the last week of October 2012. Sundari was sighted with her 3 cubs, walking majestically like the proud mother, in the territory of T28. But after few days, she shifted her cubs to Kachida area in the territory of T25. Such ‘switch-over’in the territories of two different dominant males is unexplainable by normal tiger behavior ecology documentations. Later she reared the cubs in the territory of T 25 before she went missing in Mar-Apr 2013, leaving behind the 3 orphan cubs, then 11-12 months old in the area of T 25.
|T17 : Commonly known as the Lady of the Lake, was born to T16-Machli, in a litter of 3 female cubs. The most commonly sighted Tigress in the Jogimahal -Rajbagh area by tourists. Was radiocollared but became dysfunctional. She pushed her mother Macchli, T16 out of the prime habitat of the Jogimahal Rajbagh area to gain control over the resource rich area. She also won over T28, a large male, known as Star Male, due to a Star like mark on his face over the eyes. T 28 also mated with T19, sister of T17, and beget cubs.||T 16 : Commonly known as Macchli, T 16 had littered 4-5 times and contributed to Ranthambhore Tigers’s population in a big way. T 16 had become famous with the fight with a crocodile along the Padam talab to defend her three female cubs. She is a very old tigress, having lost all her 4 canines. She was being fed with food supplementation but now she has exhibited amazing survival tactics by stealing kills from leopards and surviving. Pushed to the periphery of the Tiger Reserve due to old age.|
|T18 : One of the three cubs of T16. Translocated to Sariska in 2009 on 27th Feb, 2009 during the Tiger Reintroduction Project. Referred as ST 3 in Sariska.||T 28 : Commonly referred as Star Male, it’s a huge male occupying the Rajbagh- Manduk- Padam-Malik Talab area. Littered cubs with T17 and T19.|
|T 25 : Zalim – a dominant handsome male was christened with the dreadful adjective, due his aggressive responses to human presences in his territory. Numerically identified as T25, Zalim covered the peripheral areas of the ranthambhore National Park from Singhduar to Tambakhan-Kachida and Dhakra.|
Zalim was born with his brother T23 to T22- a Tigress of Nalaghati area. Stout and solid, his walk was gracious and dominant spraying King feelings. He was given love bites by the beautiful Tiger queen of Jogimahal- Sundari(T17) occasionally though……But Zalim astonished the Tiger world with behaviours never seen, heard or documented in Tiger history. On May 14, 2011 a camera trap picture revealed the unbelievable ! Zalim was seen following a 6-7 month old orphan cub. A new phenomenon had emerged in Tiger Conservation history…… Father behavior of a male Tiger. The staff would say that Zalim had mated with T5 and is now playing the father to his two female orphan cubs, tokeep his genes alive. Not a very convincing explanation but could not rule out, as it was actually happening in a world of known infanticide behavior among Tigers and Lions.Over the next few months series of events took place that surprised the Tiger world every day. Now Zalim was baptized as the Tiger Dad among his species. A new name for the Daddy cool in sharp contrast to his earlier one! Zalim was now sighted and immensely clicked by photographers .