Khetiyo sits halfway up on a ridge that forms the Northern edge of the park. There were obviously question marks when we set up base there. Here were a set of self proclaimed conservationists setting up camp where no man had been in about 50 years. The concerns were very valid and we shared them too. To address these questions, all our activities there have been very scientifically approached to ensure 0 impact if not more.
In Dec 2016, Mr.S (a big cat expert with extensive experience in the central indian landscape, who had been advising us since 2013) advised us to do a camera trapping exercise to monitor behaviour in the estate. We had a couple of instances where we saw big game inside the property – elephants, tigers, sambar etc, but to put things down on paper this was required. Mr. D (who had worked extensively with S in the past), helped us set this up on Dec 31. 2016 – A perfect end to the new year. The traps were set on the Eastern and the Western Edge of the estate along the walking trails that we had made. What was to come – we could’ve never guessed.
On Feb 10th 2017, D went back to retrieve the recordings. It was a bumper harvest. We had 4 photographs of a tiger, a shot of elephants, countless chital and barking deer, a porcupine and sambar. To an untrained eye, that’s all they would’ve been – a set of fantastic pictures. While i was busy instagraming the shots, i received a message on whatsapp. It was from D. The observation came from a 2-in-1 shot that i had put up on fb. These two images were that of the tiger separated by 30 minutes. The timing is visible in the photograph. Except it wasn’t.
“The pictures are from the same camera trap. 30 minutes apart. They seem to be two different tigers!!. Can you confirm”, D observed with the curiosity that often starts off an intriguing conversation.
I was too quick to point out that we had often seen a tigress walk along the western edge down to the river and come back up the eastern periphery. So may be 30 minutes is what it takes for it to do that round. But before i could finish, i stopped my thoughts midway. “That is true indeed”, I thought to myself. I hadn’t noticed. The devil is in the details. The markings were different. “Two tigers 30 minutes within each other, casually strolling past the same camera. How can it be?”, I expressed my obvious thought. D’s thoughts were mirroring mine at this moment. We both remember that incident very well. It was unforgettable. Most sightings that happen on foot are. A female and 2 cubs that D had photographed at the estate way back in 2015, they were etched in our minds like it was yesterday. “The second one in the picture is clearly a male. Could the first one be the female we saw in 2015”, D put his thoughts on the table almost at the same time as they echoed in my head. S immediately brought us back with a correction, “It’s definitely two different males. The first one is too stout to be a female. Look at the markings on the inside of the forelegs. The first one has wider spacing. Its definitely two males”.
Two males?!! in such close proximity, seemingly unaware of each other. Is that even possible? Could they be the two young ones we had seen in 2015? My thoughts were racing. I was excited. This was no ‘I saw a tiger in corbett’ kinda conversation. We were understanding the behaviour, going a level deeper. I immediately asked, “how long do the cubs stay with the mother?”. D replied, “2 years roughly”. It had already been two years since we last saw the cubs. They had been 1 ft tall in 2015. It got more intriguing!.
S brought us back to the facts. “Guys lets not speculate. Remember the facts. These are definitely two males. They don’t seem sub-adult at all. They are fully grown. We also know we have a resident tigress in the area. Could one of them be the dominant one and the other be an intruder ?”. The question then persisted – “How can a dominant male tolerate another’s presence in the area. Is it not even aware of the other guy? Could it be that the tiger that passed at 5:37 be the intruder and the one at 6:07 be the dominant that’s picked up the scent of the intruder “, I could feel the goosebumps on my hands.
All this while, we had completely forgotten to refer back to the other pictures of tigers that got caught in the camera trap. S quickly brought them all together.
“The female 1 and the fourth pic are probably the same tigress. Look at the shoulder patterns, although its of two different sides. The others are males. One of them is a sub-adult, almost fully grown, Male2. Male1 seems to be a full grown male. Most likely the dominant tiger. The male2 could perhaps be one of the cubs we saw in 2015. Whether female 1 is the 2015 mother or one of the cubs – we can only guess”, S claimed with reasonable certainty. Alteast as certain as ‘my best guess’ can get. The question still remains. How is male1 tolerating male2?
“There could be plenty of reasons Sunith. We know so little about these big cats thats beyond hearsay and old observations. These kind of exercises are really important to figure the behaviour out”, S observed. I agreed. So did D.
We ll be setting up 2 more camera traps now to pick more pictures and dig into this eco system thats developing here and understand this balance of power. By the time the conversation had reached its end, I could feel the excitement of having learnt something new, of having been part of a process of discovery. This is the difference between going on a safari and exploring the woods with our team. We unravel, learn and observe – the way it was meant to be.
Right now we are in the process of arranging three additional cameras and shielding them with an anti-elephant case (one of the two previous cameras was busted by a herd of elephants), I can’t wait to answer the question and solve the mystery. Could we be unravelling a new, never before seen behaviour? Only a month of pictures will tell. Either ways, to realise that there are still mysteries left in the wild, things that we don’t quite understand – even in what is India’s most visited park is enough food for thought for a month. I ll be back with more.