The sun was so hot the sweat dripped from my forehead on to my spectacles. But I refused to put down the binoculars. I couldn’t afford to lose sight of T36 after four days of intense search outside the periphery of Ranthambore National Park. He was a unique tiger. I remember the day very clearly. September 20, 2008. It was the day T36 returned to his forefather’s happy hunting ground.
T36 will always be an unsung hero. One of the most graceful tigers to roam the hills of Ranthambore, he wasn’t a photographer’s delight. No channel made a film on him. Nor did he make it to the pages of any glossy magazine.
To me, T36 would always be an unsung hero. One of the most graceful tigers to roam the hills and grasslands of Ranthambore, T36 was never a photographer’s delight. No television channel ever made a documentary on him. Nor did he make it to the pages of any glossy magazine. He wasn’t considered hot enough. But, for three year, from birth to death, T36 lived the spirit of a true tiger. For starters, T36 was an extremely shy tiger (one reason why he could never become a celebrity big cat). Difficult to spot, he would bolt at the slightest hint of human presence. There was a reason for this behavior, a striking contrast from the camera-friendly tigers of Ranthambore. Born to Guda sometime in January 2008, T36 and his sister opened their eyes in the chilly but friendly forest of Ranthambore. The Guda area of the Park – their mother was named for it- offered sufficient shelter and the family of three.
For eight months, the family lived happily. It was during this period that T36 hunting skills from his mother. These would save his life in the dreadful years ahead. But as any tiger would tell you, peace in the forest is temporary. On September 1, Guda, T36’s mother, died in a fight with another tigress. The forest authorities launched a massive search because they were aware the motherless cubs were hiding somewhere in the rocky terrain. Three days on, the two cubs were found in dense undergrowth. They had probably not eaten for 10 days.
Forest officials were in a dilemma about handling cubs who were yet to carve out their territories and had not learnt hunting techniques as yet. After some deliberation, senior officials decided to let nature decide the fate of the cubs. Around September 10, T36 and his sister were radio-collared and taken to two separate areas. The Sawai Mansingh sanctuary, bordering Ranthambore, was chosen for T36. The sanctuary had few resident tigers and males in Ranthambore mainly used it as a passage. Officials thought it suitable for T36 to establish his domain.
For months thereafter, a friend M D Parashar and I would scout the sanctuary, looking for T36. Our paths crossed several times; each encounter is deeply etched in my memory. From day one of his forced freedom, T36 displayed great recklessness. Within week he had acquired the reputation of a cattle-seller. This earned him the immediate dislike of villages along the Ranthambore boundary. It’s also made the authorities jumpy; they now had to keep an eye on the young tiger. Matters came to a head on March 21, 2009. A few days earlier, T36 had taken shelter in a field behind the Oberoi Hotel. He had not made a kill for several days. At Karvoda village, he attacked and injured a woman. Two days later, he attacked a forest official. The forest authorities went into panic mode and tranquilized the errant tiger. He was taken to the Falaudi forest range near Ghazipur, some 40 kilometers away from Ranthambore National Park.
It was at Falaudi that I had some memorable encounters with T36. It was clear he was coming into his own and pursuing natural prey such as chital, sambhar and wild boar. We would often meet T36 in narrow jungle bylanes in the early morning. Initially, he would take cover the moment he spotted Parashar’s jeep.
At times, we spotted him drinking from a water-hole. Over time, he started accepting my presence-or that’s what I thought. Certainly, his behavior was less hostile than before.
Been By June 2010, I had managed to establish what may be called a rough connect with T36. One afternoon, with temperature soaring to 45 degrees, I saw T36 approaching a water-hole. We were just 50 feet away, but he took no notice of us and jumped into the pool. For 30 minutes, with T36 in the water, I was engrossed by his superb form. Time lost all sense of meaning. The 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”
He might have been speaking of T36.
At this stage, things were going fine for T36.As he neared his third birthday, he had effectively made Falaudi his home turf. Skirmishes with the villagers and cattle-stealing had become a thing of the past. T36 , it seemed, had learnt to balance freedom with responsibility. ”He is now ready for a mate,” a beaming Parashar told me in first week of October 2010.
When Parashar range me from Sawai Madhopur on October 22, I answered with a smile. T36 must have had a successful mating, I thought. But Parashar said T36 had been killed by another male in a territorial fight, but I didn’t hear his words. I was thinking of the day I saw the young tiger at Falaudi, playing with water.
The writer has been a member of Project Tiger’s steering committee. He was also chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Society of India.