Saluting the resilient spirit of Vijaya -The one-eyed queen of the jungle
Bold, buoyant and beautiful, Vijaya—like all striped kings and queens of Bandhavgarh—was a favourite among shutterbugs during her days of glory. A lensman fondly remembers the fiery tigress.
Just before the monsoon of 2010, four-year-old Vijaya—who had so far lived peacefully in the forests of Bandhavgarh—set her eyes on one of the most pristine areas of the tiger estate—the stretch ranging from Chorbehra, Chakradhara right up to the Bandhavgarh fort. Legends like Charger, Seeta and B2 preferred this location because of its abundant prey base, the year-long supply of water, superb hunting ground and sheltered corners for rest after a tiring day in the forest.
The competition, understandably, was quite tough for young Vijaya as 10-year-old Lakshmi (Langadi, as she was locally called) was the dominant tigress, and despite her physical limitations, she was capable ruling Vijaya’s dreamland. The rains of 2010, however, turned the fortunes of Chakradhara. Vijaya advanced towards her target and it seemed like a lost battle for Lakshmi. The ageing mother of cubs put up a fight and the beautiful Vijaya lost an eye in this fierce encounter. All that the forest department could find in the morning were the mortal remains of Lakshmi. Her orphaned cubs were struggling to establish themselves in Bandhavgarh.
With just one eye and a huge territory, survival for the ambitious Vijaya seemed tough; tiger history across India has very few warriors who have been able to survive with such critical physical limitations. Vijaya, however, had her strategy laid out. In order to retain this estate, she would need the company of a dominant male who could give her adequate protection. She made the right choice as she eyed Shashi (Bamera male). Blessed with the genes of Charger (his grandfather) and B2 (his father), Shashi was expanding his territory at an astronomical rate. He was already the reigning king of Bandhavgarh National Park.
His frequent ventures in the Chakradhara and Chorbehra areas brought him close to Vijaya and in April 2011, they were seen together for almost a week, followed by another encounter in the first week of June. As October passed, it was a sheer delight to discover Vijaya licking a 2-month-old cub on the rocky area of Chorbehra. Rigorous elephant patrolling revealed that she was raising a family of three. The cubs were mostly in the bamboo thickets around Chorbehra and their sighting was infrequent. By March 2012, they were growing up well and Vijaya was now the supreme ruler of Chakradhara; her efficiency at hunting was at par with any other fully-fit tiger.
In May 2012, for the first time since they were born, Vijaya boldly displayed all her cubs together as she marched alongside them, up to the Vishnu statue before climbing the hills of Bandhavgarh fort. The Cubs survived the year but with the spring of 2013, some new challenges unfolded for Vijaya, as Shashi started losing his turf to other males and was gradually pushed out of Chakradhara. During March-April, Vijaya boldly stood her ground with her battalion of sub-adult cubs and even tried to mate with a mysterious new male. Unfortunately, in May, one of Vijaya’s cubs was found dead in the fort area. This was followed by the death of another cub in subsequent days. While the forest officials claimed that the cause of death was the mystery male, another section of local naturalists argued that Vijaya herself sacrificed her family in order to retain her territory. The surviving male cub from this litter separated from his mother and set out on an independent journey in adjoining areas.
The hysteria around Vijaya died down for a while, post the monsoon of 2013. Her sighting statistics dropped drastically and the entire focus shifted towards Rajbehra, where a female was raising four cubs across the hill.
In 2014 summer, Vijaya made a dramatic comeback by walking down the fort hills with tiny cubs. The scarcity of water in the higher regions had forced her to come to the low-lying areas in order to beat the scorching heat. The meadows of Chakradhara were going to be the playground for yet another litter and Vijaya was all set to be one of the most legendary tigers of India because of her resilient spirit. As the park closed for monsoons in June 2014, Vijaya was seen fending for herself and her three cubs.
Tragedy struck again when the forest department reported about a decomposed body of a tigress; a post-mortem report revealed that it was Vijaya. After search operations in the area, two cubs were declared dead as well. While the entire wildlife fraternity of India mourned the death of Vijaya, her journey and her life showcased some of the true characteristics of this amazing species. I know that stories of this one-eyed queen will echo in my memories every time I traverse through the tiger heartland of India.
Cover pic: One of the last photographic records of Vijaya and her cubs from the second litter, shot just before the park closed for the monsoon of 2014.
Read also: Revisiting the moments in the wild
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