Challenger was just 20 months old when we met him five years ago on our first visit to Bandhavgarh. That evening, when this handsome prodigal king posed for us, there were only two elephants who managed to reach his lair where he and his sister, Chilly, were relaxing hidden far from the maddening crowd, deep in the bamboo and sal forest near the ancient monolith statue of Sheshaiya.
While Chilly turned her back on us, still sulking over the tamasha made earlier by unruly tourists as they were basking in the grasslands, Challenger seemed more composed. Seated majestically on a rock about 15 feet away, he posed as we finished an entire film and reloaded for a few more shots. There were times when I thought he was going to start talking, so intent were his expressions.
We were back at Bandhavgarh in March 2007, this time with friends to introduce them to a tiger experience and to meet Challenger and Chilly once again. That Challenger is no more was a rude shock for us. What pained us even more was that the cause of death of this potential alpha male remains a mystery. He may have fallen victim to an unsuccessful poacher resulting in injuries severe enough to weaken him and reduce his chances of survival in the wild. We got no definite answers about Chilly, who would be in her prime, except that she remains untraceable in the ‘core area’.
I browsed through the photographs we had of Challenger. We had heard him sigh as we clicked and I wonder what he may have been thinking. Was it about his insecure life ahead? Or was it about him wishing that all humans were like the 8-year-old boy who talked to him? Challenger may have got his neck trapped in a wire snare placed by poachers to hunt big game. Some speculate that he was poisoned. I can only imagine the expression of pain on that handsome face, the tears in his state of helplessness while the wire snare nearly choked him, or the poison wreaked havoc within him.
It is impossible to attach the word ‘beast’ to the tiger. It is traumatic to think that Challenger’s skin may be thrown carelessly over a couch. India mourns silently, far too quietly, for the likes of Challenger, who have been systematically and mercilessly massacred and are mere statistics today.