It was quiet. A Chital sounded an alarm, and we raced to the bend ahead of water hole no 3 in Bijrani. The leaves rustled in the soft breeze and the winter sun shone crisp, warming the morning chill. I was fiddling with my camera and taking in the jungle sounds & smell when the hush of the jungle deepened, and she stepped out on the main track
Ismail our driver whispered she was one of Sharmili’s sub adult cubs, now almost 20 months old. Sharmili was the famed aggressive female of the Bijrani range. She had 4 sub adult cubs – 3 females & a big male. Our excitement heightened knowing that her siblings could be close by, so could her mother. The teenager plonked down on the track in front of us, sunning herself.
We watched as something behind the lantana caught her eye. Her body language went tense & I was thinking she’ll dive into the lantana understory now, when out walks her sister!
Something behind the lantana for sure, morning snack? What happened next, was a privileged rare glimpse into their world.
Her sister came up to her and affectionately started rubbing her face against her’s.
Time stood still in their sibling intimacy as they rubbed in bonding behavior. All of a sudden both looked up at me, curiosity writ large, giving me an image to cherish
Hearts racing, we dared not move for fear of disturbing them. The seconds ticked by breathlessly, the adrenalin sharpening sights and sounds.
The magical spell broke, the sister stared at us sizing us up, while she looked back
We were so hypnotized by the sighting, that we didn’t see the 3rd sister coming out at first, till she was halfway towards her sisters,
while they continued nuzzling each other.
All 3 rubbed themselves against each other, frisky and relaxed.
The winter sun lit up their rich thick coats, and warmed the scene
All this while I noticed the absence of any other sound. It was as if the other wild denizens in the near vicinity were holding their breath, anxiously watching out for the yet unseen 4th male brother or their fearsome mother, or enraptured by the sheer beauty and majesty of these apex predators, so immersed in themselves
They jostled each other one last time and
walked off around the bend!
It took us a couple of minutes to recover & rush behind them. Rounding the bend we could see no sign along the track and it seemed they had stepped off the track and into the jungle. We cut the engine and waited at a place where the track overlooked a flat grassy knoll on its left, an overgrown slope on its right and ahead, the track stepped down a bit through a rough tumble of round rocks and boulders, before continuing straight towards Reethapani Sot (Sot – a dry river bed).
Uaaaaanghh…..Uaaaannnghhh….Uaaaaannghhh!! The calls seemed to come from somewhere in the tall grass on the left, quite quite close! Uuaaaaaanghhhh…again! We strained to see into the thicket. Ismail moved the jeep a bit closer to the side and positioned it so that we could see through a gap. After a while we saw some yellow grass move….the movement rippled into orange and black stripes….it was one of the tigresses we had just seen. We waited with bated breath and there she was, staring off into the thicket away from us.
She emerged out of the grassy knoll and came on to the track winding below us. UuaaaannnggGGHH…..UUAAAAANGHHH, these hair rising calls started again, this time startlingly close to our jeep and coming closer! Meanwhile, in front of us we saw her sisters join her,
while the calls in the adjacent knoll grew louder and closer! We suddenly realised that it could be her mother calling out to them to join her. We looked back nervously and Ismail decided it was wiser we back up the jeep away from the knoll, and retreat to the other side of the track, beside the overgrown slope. The thought that we may directly in between Sharmili and her cubs, was not a very pleasant one.
UuaaannnGGGHHHH…..UUaaaaaaNNGGGHHH!! I almost pissed in my pants, it was that close, loud, full throated and intimidating, left the very air around us vibrating! At any moment we expected her to come out directly where our jeep had just been or a little ahead on the track, judging by the location of the calls. Since we had backed up a bit, the cubs disappeared around the curve of the track ahead. But we were damned if we were moving an inch with their mother calling that aggressively!
After about 5 mns of tense waiting, we heard the calls again but further now, away from us. Uuuuaaangh, uaaanghhh, uuaaangghhh….now almost continuous, but receding in the opposite direction to the cubs. We started up and went down the track behind the cubs again. Rounding a corner, we found them still on the track. Ignoring their mother’s calls they seemed intent on carrying on on their own, exploring, a sign that they were getting more self assured…in 4-5 months time, it would be time for them to separate and go their own ways, seeking out their territories.
They moved off seeing us approach. We followed discreetly.
A little way ahead they got wind of scent marking I guess, as 2 of them investigated this patch, sniffing all the time
This one displays the typical ‘flehmen response’ –
The flehmen response, also called the flehmen position, flehmen reaction, (from the German verb flehmen, to bare the upper teeth), is a particular type of curling of the upper lip in ungulates, felids and many other mammals, which facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal organ (Jacobson’s organ).
In the flehmen response, animals draw back their lips in a manner that makes them appear to be “grimacing” or “smirking”. The action, which is adopted when examining scents left by other animals either of the same species or of prey, helps expose the vomeronasal organ and draws scent molecules back toward it. This behavior allows animals to detect scents, for example the urine of other members of their species, or clues to the presence of prey. Flehmen allows animals to determine the presence or absence of estrus, the physiological state of the animal in question, and how long ago it passed by.
What did they smell? Who’s was it, what did it tell them?
They padded away, continuing on the track. Looked like our luck with this sighting was holding, taking it into one for the record books!
After a couple of more minutes, we reached a junction with the left going off towards Chital road & right towards Ampani
There, our guess that it was their mother who had been insistently calling them, was confirmed, as their big brother, stepped out from the Chital road side and joined them!
And what a magnificent beast he was, a treat to behold! Now all 4 siblings padded off majestically towards Reethapani Sot (Sot – river bed), with us in tow
Note their hind paws, built for the ‘spring’. Their well-developed muscles in the neck, shoulder and legs along with their unique curved hind leg design, help them powerfully spring forward to ambush their prey sometimes leaping distances of up to 10 m (32.5 ft). As a jumper, their hind legs are longer and built very differently from their more muscular front legs. A tiger was once captured on video jumping—almost flying—from flat ground to 13 feet in the air to attack a ranger riding an elephant.
That’s him, Big brother, protectively turning back to stare at us with Reethapani Sot right ahead of them.
Breaking off from the track, they entered the Sot
We could see them suddenly stiffening and looking towards the jungle, where a Sambar hind stood, her tail upright in alarm
The Sambar melted away into the relative safety of the jungle foliage, however they did not seem to be in a hunting mode. They spread out across the Sot, presenting a fine sight against the bleached dry boulders of the Sot, a dream Corbett landscape
And then they were gone.