Heal Our Planet Earth
I've made some friends while working in the Bandhavgarh,
Kanha and Ranthambhore tiger reserves of India in the late 90s.
Sita was well past her prime when I first met her, but I
mistook her to be a youngester when I first laid eyes on her. She'd had 7
litters of cubs, and had successfully brought up 21 cubs to adulthood - a
major feat. She was featured on the front cover of the December 1997 issue
of National Geographic - a real international star.
It was in 1998, when I went to India for the second time,
and this time, in addition to my field work, I was the "star" of the
"Champion of the Bengal Tiger" episode of the TV documentary series
Champions of the Wild aired in 20 countries. I had the great privilege to
observe Sita and her cubs at close quarters. She was a wonderful mother.
With all due respect to lions, Sita was a different kind of mother. No
matter how hungry she was, she let her cubs eat first. In 1999, I returned
to Bandhavgarh, in part to see Sita. Upon my arrival, I was treated like a
celebrity. I found myself in a national park in mourning. In the intervening
12 months, Bandhavgarh had lost at least 10 of its estimated 40 tigers,
including Sita and her cubs. We eventually caught her poacher along with
rolls of tiger skin and sacks of tiger bone, some still moist, with ants
crawling all over them. Among the 6 tiger skins I examined, one was Sita's.
I matched the facial markings to the Sita in my photographs. It was a
Pipal was a young tigress who had just given birth to her
first litter. Our first encounter was unpleasant, to her. My elephant
(disclaimer: I will never ride an elephant again) got too close and
disturbed her noon-time nap, and she was none-too-pleased, especially since
her cubs were hidden nearby.
Another time, while driving down a park road, I noticed a
sambar deer standing four square, tense as a piano string, staring intensely
in the direction my jeep was going. It did not pay me the least bit of
attention. I slowly drove on, and within 100 yards I saw Pipal sitting
tensely at the foot of a pipal tree. She did not pay me the least attention
either, but was staring intensely in the direction from which I'd come. The
deer and the tiger could not see each other, but they were aware of each
other's presence. The air was still, and the cicadas were singing. Pipal
slowly raised herself from the ground, and began inching forward. The forest
floor was covered with dry leaves, but the way she placed her feet, there
was not a rustle to be heard.
After about three breathless minutes, she suddenly dashed
forward, and in a split second, was gone, forever.
Ajuna and Shiva were two 3 year-old sibblings, a brother
and a sister, who had left their mother some months before, and still hunted
together, and in spite of their youth and inexperience, they managed to
amaze me with their intelligence. Deer have super-keen hearing, and what
they listen for are the very faint sounds made by a tiger as she moves
through the undergrowth, sound so faint to be below human hearing. Elephants
make a lot of noise, which are ignored by tigers and deer while a hunt is in
progress. On this day, I was on an elephant, moving noisily through the
forest. Suddenly, I saw two cheetal deer about 150 yards ahead. The
undergrowth was dense, with a 30-ft visibility, but up on elephant back, I
could see for at least 300 yards. These two deer were looking tensely in my
direction, and I thought they were looking at the elephant. But something
caught my eyes from underneath. It was Ajuna and Shiva, one on each side of
the elephant. I then realized - they were using the noise made by the
elephant to cover their own sound. The wind was blowing from ahead and they
could smell the deer, and could not see them. Eventually, they did charge.
Unfortunately, they were still too far, and the deer got away.
Charger was Sita's mate, although within his 50 sq.mi.
territory lived three other tigresses. He acquired the unusual name (for an
Indian tiger) because he had the funny habit of mock-charging tourist jeeps,
and when the tourists began to scream he would calmly walk away. Now, since
I was a "professional", I had a high tiger-sighting rate, maybe one sighting
every two outings, whereas some tourists may not see a tiger at all. Soon,
my "luck" was known among the tourists at the lodge where I was staying. One
day, a Germany photography named Axel approached me and asked me if he could
come with me in my next outing, since he had had no luck seeing a tiger
whatsoever, much less photogragh one. So, out we went in my jeep. Sure
enough, charger showed up, and was just standing there at the edge of a
thicket about 50 yards away. Axel quickly grabbed his camera and began to
aim it at Charger. Without warning, Charger did what he was expected to do.
Axel screamed and dropped his camera. Charger swerved to the left and dove
into another thicket, leaving a cloud of red dust behind. Axel did nto get a
single picture. I let him have one of mine.
All photos by Anthony Marr (except the one from National
Anthony Marr, founder and president