A peek into the secret lives of tigers in one of India’s largest – and oldest – National Parks.
Kanha Tiger Reserve in central India is one of India’s prime tiger habitats, located on the northern slopes of the Maikal hills in the Satpura highlands. With its dense foliage, woodlands and grassy plains, Kanha supports a wide range of species, including leopards, wild dogs and sloth bears, as well as a myriad of reptiles and insects and over 300 species of birds. It is also India’s best managed tiger reserve and has a long history of conservation. In 2016, park managers started using camera traps to monitor tiger movements and to capture their natural behaviour along with that of other animals. Despite using a range of camera models, the results typically showed the animals only, not their surrounding habitat.
A Fresh Perspective
Then, in January 2018, engineer and award winning nature photographer Yashpal Rathore of Bangalore embarked on a project with Kanha Park management, using modified DSLR cameras to capture more detailed images of the tiger population. Rathore’s mission was to document the lesser-seen behaviour of these magnificent felines without sacrificing the quality of the photographs. In particular, he wanted the images to show the tigers’ habitat. Camera trapping took place from winter 2018 and continued all through the summer, capturing the changing habitat of the tigers. The weather, and a host of troublesome animal species, conspired to destroy equipment or sabotage images. One incident involved hornets making their nest in a camera housing, resulting in the lens being obstructed and several images of tiger cubs at play being lost. On another occasion, a sloth bear pulled down the complete camera housing, resulting in a destroyed camera. Fortunately, the setbacks suffered were more than made up for by the successful images, each one a previously unseen depiction of the lives of Kanha’s tigers. Patrolling routines of the males, behaviour of sub adult tigers on a large herbivore kill, and interactions between siblings all shed significant light on this enigmatic apex predator of the Indian jungles.
Challenges of Raising a Family
At the beginning of the project the focus was on the territory of a tigress named T-27, who had four cubs aged 3-4 months. The cubs were very shy and she kept them in mountainous terrain, where access was not easy. With summer approaching and water sources in the highlands drying up, the family moved to lower ground and spent most of their time in the forest, close to a large pond, which holds water throughout the summer months. A rogue male was also present in the area, and during this time the cubs disappeared and were not seen for 2 weeks. A massive search operation was carried out by the forest department, who discovered the carcass of one of the cubs in a half-eaten state. Infanticide by incoming males is a common cause of mortality in young cubs – by killing offspring, the new male can induce the resident female into mating again. But it wasn’t all bad news. Rathore’s camera traps revealed that the remaining three cubs were alive and well, and it wasn’t long before their father – the dominant male T29 – began paying more regular visits to the family, forcing the rogue male to move away. In the coming months, Rathore was able to document the cubs as they continued to grow and thrive, under the watchful care of their mother.
Playing with your food
During the winter months, T27 would patrol a very large area, leaving her cubs behind for 3-4 days at a time. Whenever she made a kill, she would drag the carcass into the bushes or a dry streambed and then bring her cubs to feed on it. By closely monitoring this behavior, Rathore and his team were able to document the whole family feeding on Sambar deer kill, and the moment when the dominant cub climbed on top of it, trying to claim the meal for itself.
Below: Tigress T27 patrols her territory at night, passing in front of the forest guard’s house on the park boundary. The house has no electricity, so Rathore had to light it – along with the forest track – to reveal how the park’s tigers – and their human protectors – share the same space.
A Tough Upbringing
As summer was approaching, Rathore and the team got the news of another Tigress, T-31, giving birth to a litter of 3 cubs. The cubs were kept in the hollow of a fallen tree and rarely came out of hiding. Although T-31 moved them frequently from one den to another, she lost two of the cubs before they were two months old. They were probably killed by a young male (MV2) recently separated from his own mother T-33, and looking to establish his own territory.
Beja Pani, a natural underground water source, forms a small pool no bigger than a couple of bath tubs. Water is a highly sought-after commodity in Kanha’s mountainous regions, especially during the dry season. Falling at the boundary between the territories of two competing tigresses, Beja Pani is a popular hangout. During peak summer, the usually solitary tigers are forced to share a vital source of life, allowing Rathore to capture some rare interactions. Apart from when they’re mating, tigers rarely come within such close proximity of each other. The ponds, water holes and small lakes in Kanha are vital support systems, making the park habitable not just for tigers but for all the resident species, including gaur, chital and sambar deer.
Another tigress that Rathore photographed was T-33 (below left), one of Kanha’s oldest tigeresses and has raised multiple litters. She had successfully raised three cubs, two male and one female, which were on the verge of separating from her and establishing their own territory. One of the males (MV1 – below right) was reported with an injury and was seen limping for a few days. The team used the camera traps to monitor his health. Despite struggling for a few weeks he recovered well, and over the course of the next few months, he was able to establish a small territory along a seasonal river, on the periphery of the core area. Initially, this male was uncomfortable with the camera trap, and on a couple of occasions he knocked it down and dragged it many meters. In a surprising U-turn, he later became fond of his reflection in the lens, and made a habit of sitting next to the camera when relaxing near a kill.
Meanwhile, the female of the litter, MV3, was looking to establish her territory near to her mother. Initially, during the winter months, this arrangement worked well, but as summer approached, and water became scarcer, the dynamic changed. By then, T-33 had given birth to new cubs, and she was not comfortable with her daughter encroaching upon her territory, as revealed by a confrontation Rathore’s camera recorded.
Words by Dr Sanjay Shukla
Dr Sanjay Shukla’s love for tigers began when he visited Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in 1997. He has since worked in Kheoni Wildlife Sanctuary, Pench Tiger Reserve and Kanha Tiger Reserve and is currently the Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests. He is a true wildlife lover and avid photographer.
Photographs by Yashpal Rathore
Yashpal Rathore is naturalist and professional wildlife photographer. Using his engineering background, he has developed remote camera devices a DSLR-based camera trap systems, which can be used to capture natural behaviour of wildlife species without the disturbance of human presence.