Even when the sweat started clouding the lenses, I refused to put the binocular down. The September Sun in Ranthambore National Park can be quite unforgiving. But to lose sight of T36, that too after four days of intense search outside the periphery of Ranthambore, was an unacceptable proposition. So I let the sweat-bath continue.
I remember the day vividly- September 20, 2008. I also remember October 18, 2010 equally well, but with lot more sadness. This was the day T36 completed his circle of life and returned to the happy hunting grounds of his forefathers.
Mr. Navin M Raheja, CMD Raheja Developers Limited, is a wildlife enthusiast and a passionate photographer, a former Member of Project Tiger Steering Committee, under the Ministry of Environment and Forests, he worked persistently to ensure that the big cats survived in India. He was also Chairman Wildlife Conservation Society of India. He was also the member, Tiger Crisis Cell. His Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India for saving the country's flora and fauna has brought about some much needed relief for the environment of the country.
To me, T36 would always remain an unsung hero. One of the most graceful tigers to straddle the hills and grasslands of Ranthambore, he was- however- never a photographer's delight. No television channel ever made a documentary on him, nor was his pictorial laid out in any magazine or newspaper. He simply wasn't considered hot enough.
But all this inattention will not take away from the immense, almost immeasurable, charm of T36. For three years, right from his birth to death and the turbulence he suffered in-between, T36 would hold me spell-bound...And therefore, I feel his life-story deserves a few words. It is not a happy life-story, but it's a story which T36 scripted and lived out in the spirit of a true tiger.
For starters, T36 was an extremely shy tiger (one reason why he could never become a celebrity tiger). Difficult to spot, he would bolt at the slightest hint of human presence. There was a reason for this odd behavior, a striking contrast from the normally camera-friendly tigers of Ranthambore.
Born to Guda female sometime in January 2008, T 36 and his sister opened their eyes to the chilly but friendly forest of Ranthambore. The Guda area of the park - after which the mother was named - harboured sufficient shelter and prey animals for a family of three tigers to live happily. For eight months, Ranthambore granted peaceful existence to the family. It was during this period that T36 imbibed some of the hunting skills from his mother- skills which would save his life in the dreadful years ahead.
But as any tiger would tell you, peace in the forest is often temporary. Meant to be savoured as long as it last, peace is an unsecured loan granted to the denizens of a forest, and is usually taken back as swiftly.
On September 1, 2008, T36 got the shock of his young life. In one stroke of bad luck, the gods snatched away peace and comfort from T36, and hurled him down the path of almost daily battle for survival. On the fateful day, T36's mother died. Rather, she was killed by another tigress while defending her territory and her cubs. The forest authorities of Ranthambore, aware that the mother-less cubs were hiding somewhere in the rocky terrain, launched a massive search-and-rescue operation.
Three days later, T36 and his sister were found in a dense undergrowth. They had probably not eaten anything for 10 days, and might not have survived the ordeal for long.
``Now what''?, asked the authorities to themselves. Faced with two grown-up cubs who had not yet carved out their territories or had established hunting techniques, it was a tough question to answer. Such were the state of affairs that an ad-hoc forest control-room and headquarter was set up in the area by Forest Ranger Sh. Daulat Singh Shekhawat so that he along with his staff can keep a constant watch on the cubs. Finally, after enough deliberation, the senior officials of Ranthambore decided to let mother nature decide the fate of the duo.
At around September 10, Forest Ranger Sh. Daulat Singh Shekhawat took upon himself the task to radio collar T36 and he was radio-collared and taken to Sawai Mansingh sanctuary, bordering Ranthambore. The fact that the sanctuary had few resident tigers and males of Ranthambore used it mainly as a passage-way would make it suitable for T-36 to establish his domain there.
For months thereafter, I, along with my trusted friend M D Parashar, would scout Sawai Mansingh sanctuary, always on the lookout for T 36. He crossed our paths several times, and each encounter is deeply etched in my memory.
From day one of his forced freedom, T36 started displaying reckless behavior. Within weeks he aqcuired the reputation of a cattle-lifter. This trait gained him immediate dislike of a large number of villages dotted alongside the boundary of Ranthambore. Naturally, it also made the authorities jumpy, for now they had to keep a sharper eye on the young tiger.
On March 21, 2009 matters came to a head. A few days before, T36 had taken shelter in a field behind Oberai Hotel. He had not made a kill for several days. A desperate and foolish step it was, but hungry T36 took it anyway by attacking a human being. It happened at Karvoda village, and the woman T36 thought would be a nice meal was bleeding profusely when we reached Karvoda.
Two days later, T36 attacked and injured a forest official, Mohan Lal. The same day, the forest authorities, now really in a panic-mode, tranquilised the errant tiger and took him to Falaudi forest range near Ghazipur, some 40 kilometres away from Ranthambore National Park.
It was at Falaudi that I had some of the most memorable encounters with T36. It was clear he was coming out on his own, and had started pursuing natural prey like chital, sambhar and wild boar.
I would often meet T 36 on narrow jungle bylanes in early mornings. Initially, as was his habit, he would take cover the moment he spotted Parashar's Gypsy. At times, we spotted him quenching his thirst at a water-hole. Over time, he started accepting my presence- or this is what I thought. Had I managed to connect with T36 in some unkown manner? who knows. But his behaviour was showing far less hostility to me than before. I found myself privileged.
By June 2010, I had managed to establish what may be called a rough connect with T36. One afternoon, with temperature soaring to 45 degree celcius, I saw T36 approaching a water-hole. We were some 50 feet away, but he took no note of us and jumpled headlong into the pool.
For next 30 minutes, as T36 continued his battle with the mercury, I found myself engrossed in gazing at his superb form. Time lost all sense of meaning. Suddenly, the unforgettable words of American curator John Seidensticker came to mind:
“The tiger lives in a world of
sunlight and shadow
Always secretive, never devious
Always a killer, never a murderer
Solitary, never alone
For it is an irreplaceable link
In the process and the wholeness of life”
Seidensticker might well have been speaking for T36.
Things were going along rather fine for T36 at this stage, I must say. Now approaching his third birthday, he had effectively made Falaudi his home-turf. The skirmishes with villagers and cattle-lifting had become a thing of the past. T36, it seemed, had finally learnt to balance freedom with responsibility. “He is now ready for a mate,” a beaming Parashar told me in the first week of October, 2010. When Parashar called me up on the afternoon of October 22, I picked the cell-phone with a smile. So finally, T36 has emerged on his own...he must have had a successful mating, I told myself. But within seconds, my hope lay shattered. T36, I was informed, had been killed by another male tiger in a territorial fight....Parashar gave me the details of the deadly fight, but I was not hearing the words. I was elsewhere, in a secluded patch of Falaudi, watching T36 as he ambled majestically towards me...