“Saab tiger hain” , our guide whispered in our ears as eyes searched for the yellow and black stripes amidst the foliage masked by a curtain of grass. The quietness of the surroundings was occassionally broken by the sound of bones being crushed and low growls. A tiger was here.
The cover was finally broken – “Saab Sonam hain” immediately blurted our guide. A tigress was there infront of our eyes -so powerful and so beautiful. No wonder she is called Sonam!! Sonam strolled across the road with velvet paws padding softly on the path . She was completely indifferent to the numerous camera clicks and our presence as she glided by and made soft moaning calls. Who was she calling to? We did not have to wait long as her cubs came into view. Guide informed us that Sonam has cubs -3 of them and all are sub-adult. Will they follow their mother? We have to wait and see.
Sonam stopped, looked over her shoulder , her eyes staring straight into ours for a brief heart-pounding moment before she disappered into the shadows of the forest. It must have been 5 minutes or so but it seemed like 300 seconds with every second worthy of a lifetime experience!! After Bandhavgarh’s disappointment (where tiger appeared only for a few seconds amidst the dense undergrowth), Tadoba finally gave us the opportunity to see the tiger and presented us an encounter that seared into my memory and heart.
Picture: Sonam walking
Sonam as we know her
Seeing Sonam was special because she was no ordinary tigress. She was the Queen of Telia lake in Tadoba. Viswas , our guide went on narrating her stories as we gradually made our way to the Telia lake hoping to catch glimpse of the Queen and her cubs again.Sonam was born to the Tadoba queen Madhuri and Wagdoh. She was a part of a litter of four-Mona, Geeta and Lara being the other three. Together they were called “Telia Sisters”. These four sisters were Madhuri’s (one of the successful mother tigress of Tadoba) second litter -first litter was killed by Wagdoh so that he could mate with Madhuri . Such was the law of the Jungle.
More surprises awaited us when we came to know about how Sonam and her sisters had hunted as a pack around the Telia lake.
Known to be solitary animals, we know that tigers not only prefer to live alone but also hunt on their own. However, probably facing survival difficulties due to inexperience in hunting, these four young tigresses started hunting together as a pack. This was unusual indeed as I figured out that in English language there is no collective noun for Tigers. Valmik Thapar had once documented about 9 tigers feasting on a single meal but did they hunt together? Probably not.
Generally, by the time a tiger or tigress reaches two to two and a half years old, he/she is done learning the tricks and trades of hunting from its mother. It is also the time when they reach their adulthood and get separated from their mother. However, in the case of these sisters, though they were well on their way to adulthood, they could not hunt on their own. To survive independently, each had to hunt every week but somehow they struggled . Viswas told us that finally one day the four sisters decided to form a coalition defying the usual norms of tiger behaviour. This coalition formation was witnessed in the form of a gaur (Indian Bison) hunt by those who were filming this rare event in the forests of Tadoba. Gradually they hunted sambars and even killed a sloth bear.
Among the four, it was noted that Sonam was the most aggressive and dominant one. She has now chased away her three sisters and mother Madhuri and rules around the Telia lake. She has delivered her first litter too . As we listened to this extraordinary tale in awe, suddenly one of her sub-adult cubs emerged from the forests. It walked alongside a gypsy for a while and disappeared. We did not have to wait long as Sonam re-emerged. Slowly she walked towards the Telia lake followed by her cubs. There were calls from monkeys and a nearby herd of deer as the family made their way to drink. We did not see Sonam again though one of her cubs did swim for a while in the lake .
Our Tadoba visit was fulfilling as we did meet another famous tigress Maya and listened to her story which unfolded before us (probably will document the same in my next blog) but seeing Sonam (my first tigress in the wild) was a blessing for me .
A tigress who redefined the social behaviour by bonding with her sisters yet stuck to the usual dominant and territorial instincts by driving them away- that’s Sonam for you!