Reviving Sariska's tiger footprints

Baghani, a tigress has been transferred to Sariska National Park in an attempt to revive the dominating position big cats had within the reserve. Filmmaker Nalla muthu captures Baghani's life in her new home through the documentary Tiger Dynasty. Alexina Correya writes.
HindustanTimes.com | By Alexina Correya, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 11, 2012 07:29 AM IST

Wild boars, Sambar deer and jackals thrive in Sariska National Park in Alwar and leopards hunt without fear. The tiger is missing -- it is almost gone from the park.

All that may change: Baghani, a young tigress from Ranthambhore, has been trans-located into Sariska. She is not alone: Rathore, a male tiger has been separately introduced into the park by the reserve officials in a hope that the two cats will meet and succeed in establishing a family of their own.

Cinematographer and wildlife documentary maker Subbiah Nalla Muthu takes us through Baghani's uncertain exploration of her unfamiliar new home, a boost in her confidence, and her evolution into a skillful predator in his documentary Tiger Dynasty. The documentary is part of a five-documentary BBC series on endangered wildlife.

Tiger tale

Baghani, named after a village inside Sariska National Park, is one of the five big cats relocated into the park by the Rajasthan forest department as part of the tiger revival project. Sariska National Park used to be one of India's top tiger reserves until poachers ensured their local extinction.

The tigress Baghani was transferred to Sariska National Park in an attempt to bring back tigers into the park. Photo by Aditya Singh
The tigress Baghani was transferred to Sariska National Park in an attempt to bring back tigers into the park. Photo by Aditya Singh

Baghani comes from Ranthambhore National Park, 140 kms south of Sariska, and her transfer is an attempt to revive the dominating position the big cat had within the reserve. Earlier known to be a submissive and timid tigress, Baghani comes of age in the documentary.

Nalla says he has a fondness for Baghani. "I have been filming her since she was a young cub," he says.

Nalla, aka "tiger cameraman" among peers, has been following Baghani, her sisters and their mother Machili, one of the world's most famous tigers, for many years now.

Tiger Queen, one of Nalla's previous documentaries, aired on National Geographic channel, follows an ageing but dominant Machili and her three young cubs in their lakeside territory in Rathambore. It shows how one of Machili's daughters (T-17) succeeds in banishing her sisters and displacing her mother from the throne she held for 11 years to become the new queen of Rathambore.
Banished from the only home she knows, Baghani is airlifted to Sariska, where tiger lovers and forest officials anticipate that she will be more successful in building and holding on to her territory.

This is where Nalla and his camera meet her again.

Sariska's experiment is a first in India where a tiger has been transferred to preserve the animal. The film Tiger Dynasty shows how other animals in the park change their habits with the introduction of the two tigers into the area.

After several failed attempts and lazy efforts at hunting we see a hungry Baghani in all her magnificence stalking her prey, crouching forward, eyes wide open and pouncing on her victim, which stands no chance in this struggle for survival. This is when we know Baghani has adapted to her new home -- she will survive, this is her territory now.

Days later, we see Baghani gorging on Rathore's kill, this breaks the ice between them and they mate, bringing the project one step closer to its success.

Though tigers have been transferred into Sariska since 2008, the park is yet to deliver a tiger cub. Experts are divided on the reason behind Sariska's failure to produce cubs.

Some blame the radio collars used to monitor the tigers' movements. They say that tigers find it difficult to mate with the heavy collars around their necks and the attention it attracts from forest officials.

But, this theory has been contradicted by other experts who have worked on a similar project in Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh.

Even Nalla finds it hard to accept the radio collar theory, as he says the tigress transferred to Panna gave birth to healthy cubs even though she was radio collared.

Finding, funding

"Tigers are always a challenge to shoot. It's much easier to shoot in Africa's open space, but in India you may get to see (the animal) for five seconds, sometimes you won't," said Nalla explaining why he loves to shoot big cats in India's forests.

Wildlife movie maker Nalla Muthu who filmed 'Tiger Dynasty'. Photo by Aditya Singh
Wildlife movie maker Nalla Muthu who filmed 'Tiger Dynasty'. Photo by Aditya Singh
Funding for wildlife documentaries does not come easy.

"I borrowed money from different sources for the project and shot 60% of the story. Then I met distributors and channels and BBC stepped in to commission the rest of the project," Nalla said.

He said that the Indian government mostly do not fund hour-long documentaries and the tragedy of Indian wildlife film makers was this lack of funding and audience.

"I want to break the common convention in India that only foreign film makers can shoot in the wild," the filmmaker said.

His film Tiger Queen was India's first full length wildlife film shot with a high definition (HD) camera.

Though there are no reports of tiger poaching within the Sariska reserve since the project started, human threat to the big cat's survival is far from gone.

The film captures how the tiger must be smart while dealing with villagers who live in the reserve and their cattle.One wrong move on either side can be fatal for the big cat -- reminding us that it's essential to start mapping new, natural spaces free of human settlements where tigers can live, breed and establish their own dynasties.

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