Birthing amongst tigers is no easy process. After a gestation period of 93 to 110 days, the tigress chooses a safe spot to deliver her cubs. Cubs can be born within one hour but sometimes the birth can take as long as twenty-four hours, during which time the tigress gets some nourishment from eating placentas and embryonic sacs. The cubs are born blind and helpless, weighing between 0.79 to 1.5 kilograms. It takes anywhere from three to fourteen days for their eyes to open, though full vision is not acquired until some weeks later. There may be six or seven cubs in a litter though in Ranthambhore the average is three. The ratio of sexes at birth is one to one.
Early one morning on the day I was to leave a huge storm came crashing through the park — thunder, lightning and torrents of rain. Visibility was down to less than a metre. The monsoon was approaching. Within an hour the ferocious storm cleared up leaving in its wake a blue sky and the early morning sun. The forest was washed clean. The quality of light so special. The fragrance in the air magical. The leaves dripped with water and torrents of water cascaded down the hillside and waterfalls sprouted from the steep cliff faces and the edges of the fort. As we turned a bend in the road Noon crossed our path. One season had ended and another was about to start.
I was hoping that Noon’s tiny cubs would engage us over the next two years like never before. And they did. This was the start of some incredible and magical years around Ranthambhore’s lakes. Multiple tigers roamed the area. Noon had imparted her diurnal nature to her cubs so my encounters with them were now frequent. My most precious was in early 1985. I was breakfasting on scrambled eggs with Goverdhan, Fateh’s son. It was about 11 a.m. when a sambar call made us jump. I said to Goverdhan, ‘Let’s go and check it out.’ As we reached that magical area between the lakes I saw Noon moving with her cubs towards Mori. We followed slowly and watched her vanish into a thick bush. It was time for the tigers to rest — or so I thought. I turned the jeep to go back when a huge sambar stag came pelting out of the bush followed by Noon at full gallop. I followed quickly and there, right in front of us, on the jeep track, stood the stag and the tiger as if frozen in time. Noon had sunk her canines into the stag’s shoulder but it was not a killing grip. They stared each other in the eye. Goverdhan woke me from my reverie, shouting, ‘Start taking pictures. You will never see this again.’ As we had left in great haste I had picked up the nearest camera but with no extra roll of film. The camera had only twenty-four shots left. I had to make every frame count. In front of me was everyone’s tiger dream. In a clearing a tiger and a sambar face to face and frozen to the spot. All because Noon had got the wrong grip. If she had got the throat the sambar would have been down before I reached the spot. For eight long minutes they remained frozen and then suddenly the tiger changed her grip and attacked the sambar’s hind legs and belly in an effort to force it down. Amidst much biting and clawing the sambar flopped down with Noon gripping its rear. Still no good for her.
She had to find the throat but she could not release the grip she had. One of her cubs poked his head out of the bush as if expecting the feast of a lifetime. But in vain. After twelve minutes of struggle the sambar heaved himself up and kicked out forcing Noon to release her grip. The stag fled into the waters of Rajbagh. It was bloody and limping. Noon followed but was too exhausted and didn’t give chase. Her cubs came around as if to egg her on but she snarled at them in irritation. The cubs ran ahead of her, following the sambar to the water’s edge. The stag called out in alarm for the first time, a strange, dull and hollow sound as if his vocal cords had been damaged in the attack and waded deeper into the waters of the lake. Noon watched for a while from the shore. She was bleeding around the mouth — a bad kick. She slowly walked to the bushes where her cubs lay.
Read more: Photo Essay | On the tiger’s turf
The stag limped towards the far shore and stood motionless for many minutes in the shallow water. He then slowly hobbled out of the water and into a bank of high grass. His right foreleg looked twisted and broken. Many patches of his skin had been raked and he had a bloody swelling on the side of his neck. Goverdhan and I regaled Fateh with our encounter. He didn’t believe us initially but slowly absorbed our euphoric state.
Even today, more than thirty years after that incident, it remains the most important tiger day of my life. Noon had taught me an unforgettable lesson about the struggles of predation — the fine art so necessary for survival. I left the next day for Mumbai taking my precious camera roll to a special film processor. It took forty-eight nerveracking hours to get the results and they were spectacular.