Sher Khan and the Wolves
By Brian K. Weirum
It’s early morning and the dappled sunlight
is just breaking through the trees of the deep Bandhavgarh forest. We’re driving down a small dirt lane between
Sera and Rajbera Meadows, behind the massive plateau from which Bandhavgarh
takes its name. Our road is suddenly
blocked by the massive grey bulk which is Gautam, the lead elephant used for
patrols, tiger monitoring and tourist forays into the jungle. Atop Gautam is Kuttapan, the renowned mahout
who has been at Bandhavgarh for 24 years and who knows more about its tigers
than anyone. Kuttapan gets my attention
and points to something on the road.
It’s the distinct impression of a tiger’s body which has recently laid
down on the road. The imprint -torso,
fore-paws and tail- lies clearly over any
tracks or disturbances which may have come in the night
to the right we hear the distinct “bleep-bleep”- the alarm call of the chital,
or spotted deer, announcing the presence of a predator. Kuttapan and Gautam go off to investigate and
we begin to drive around to intercept them on the other side of the
forest. Not ten yards down the road, a
loud “varoom”- the call of the tiger, is
heard, and we slide to a halt on the dusty road. Walking directly towards us at a distance of
100 yards is a large male tiger. It’s
one of Bachhi’s 3-year-old males known to share this territory with his
We sit in stunned silence and open
jeeps. Some cameras continue to whir and
click and some knuckles begin to whiten as grips tighten on the seats and roll
bars of the jeep. The tiger continues
his insouciant stroll directly towards us.
About 20 yards from our jeep, he walks into a small clearing off the
road, turns to mark a tree with his scent, then comes back out on to the road
and walks past us within 3 feet of the jeep.
Suspension of all breathing is the easiest thing in the world at a
moment like this.
When the tiger is about 50 yards past us, our
reverie is broken by a commotion in the forest across the road. Anil, our Nepali naturalist, whispers loudly,
“WOLVES!” There, propped up like little
statues in a clearing in the forest, are two Indian grey wolves. Rigid, alert, clearly in a state of alarm and
agitation, they begin yelping at the tiger.
The tiger spins around on the road and charges off into the forest after
We drive down the road to where it curves
back to where we were originally headed to meet Kuttapan and Gautam. There in an open clearing stands the tiger,
looking around as if to ask “Where’d they go?”
We park the jeeps and watch an incredible silent drama unfold.
As the tiger turns to walk away, out of the
forest comes the larger of the wolves, probably the male, and scampers up to
within a few yards of the tiger. The
tiger turns his head and the wolf scampers back into the forest. The tiger continues to walk away down the
road. Out of the forest comes the larger
wolf again and scampers up to within what is apparently a safe distance from
the tiger. This time the tiger turns
around and glowers at the wolf, probably assessing the distance between them
and the speed it would take to catch the wolf.
They stare at each other for a few
seconds, the tiger is still, and the wolf is nervously pacing back and forth. The muscles of the tiger begin to twitch and
off goes the wolf into the forest again.
Finally after one more of these encounters, the tiger has now moved some
distance away and the wolf disappears one last time into the forest. One can only assume that the aggressive and
bold behavior of the wolf meant he was protecting some pups and wanted to be
sure the tiger was driven out of his territory.
The tiger, now left in peace, continues his
stroll. He moves off the road into a
patch of golden grass ablaze with sunlight, marks the spot with his spray,
turns around, crosses the road in front of our jeeps, and disappears into the
forest. This marking of territory and
turning around was not whimsical. A few
hundred yards down the road, Kuttapan and Gautam have found the tiger they were
looking for, the brother, relaxing in the dry leaves of a bamboo forest, his
nose still visibly scarred from a fight with Charger.
could not have scripted this better.
Though he never visited the forests of Central India, his fabled jungle
stories took place in these hills- what is now Madhya Pradesh and the forests
of Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Shere Khan and
the wily wolves in a taunting, even mocking, dance of survival.
sound of a vehicle brought me out of my reverie. We had come to a junction where we would drive back to the Lodge for
the much anticipated cold beer. We
lumbered, and fell off the elephants to get into the waiting jeep. If there is a graceful way to get on and off
an elephant, I haven’t mastered it.
was driving. Chuck is a long time friend who has
lived in Nepal for over 30 years and is world renowned as THE tiger expert in
the road back to the Lodge we slowed to cross a small stream just before
entering a massive sal forest. The
setting sun was now a massive ball of flames balancing on top of the distant
trees. The intensity of the heat had
been mercifully tempered by shade and an occasional breeze. A langur monkey was perched above us cradling
a small baby in her arms. A spotted deer
drank from the stream. We passed a small ox box lake where the
day before I
had seen a log moving in the water which turned into the face of a tiger cub swimming to reach the far side
before scampering over a log into the jungle to join her family. A massive one-horned rhinoceros stood near that same log and was loudly chomping
grass. Its prehistoric appearance almost looked
beautiful glistening in the late afternoon sun.
Far off on the edge of the forest the Indian Cuckoo was singing its melodious yet
maddeningly repetitious refrain. All was becoming very
still. The jungle was preparing for the
we approached the park boundary at a place known as Bhimle checkpost a large shadow moved out of the
grass and crossed the dirt road several hundred yards in front of us. Could it be a tiger? we all thought - too
small to be a
rhino and too poised and majestic a motion to be anything else. We drove slowly to where the animal had
road, slowed to a crawl, and stopped. To my disbelief and
wonderment there was a tiger, sitting at the edge of the road, watching us from the tall grass.
I gazed upon this face of
not more than 30 feet away- and looked up to the North. The Annapurna Himalaya- not 50 miles away but
26,000 ft. above us- was turning alternate shades of pink and grey in the fading light.
reverie was broken by a whisper from the back seat “Is there any chance this
tiger will charge?” asked Robert. “There is always that chance,” I
replied. Georgia shifted slightly in the
front seat to get a better view and that broke the delicate balance.
of the grass came the tigress! In one
powerful motion, with incredible speed, grace, and a total absence of malice,
she cut the distance between us in half then turned off into the tall
grass. Before I could even begin to
mouth the words “Oh, _ _ _ _!” she was
gone. We looked at each other and it
took a moment for eyes to pop back into their sockets and mouths to close into
one big smile.
don’t know what the tiger sees, looking up at vertical two legged creatures sitting in green
steel boxes on wheels or atop elephants often with little black probes
seemingly attached to their faces. Perhaps she decided in
mid-air that we weren’t dinner.
was night. The time of the tiger. Time to begin the dance of survival between
predator and prey.
those who are indifferent about the fate of the tiger, to those who think
extinction is inevitable, I invite them to sit with me at the foot of the
Himalayas and watch this magnificent animal move through the forest.
National Park in Rajasthan, India, once
a jewel in the golden years of the tiger under India’s Project Tiger, today
sits sadly as a shadow of its former self.
During my brief visit, the forest guard checkposts were all empty except
one which was being used as a ‘rest stop’ by a group of tourists. The entrance gates seemed unofficial, in
disrepair, and were reputed to be
‘porous’ through the night. Groups of
poachers ran into the woods to hide from our vehicle- all carrying axes for
cutting precious wood. Population
pressure from without, and even some corridors within, seems overwhelming. It seemed strange to me that it was the
dramatic losses of tigers at Ranthambore that so alarmed the world in 1991 yet
so very little is being done to prevent the last tiger from disappearing from
it’s spectacular fortress, lakes, and forests.
Yet there is hope.
I spent my time driving around the park with Belinda
Wright and Fateh Singh Rathore. Fateh,
former Field Director at Ranthambore, was instrumental in creating Ranthambore
when it was a model for success. He has
petitioned for permission to set up Tiger Watch, an anti-poaching organization
which will patrol the periphery and have government approval. I asked Fateh how many tigers he thought were
left. “Six, maybe eight,” he said sadly,
“but some cubs have been seen.” His eyes
twinkled. Tigers are resourceful,
resilient, and reproduce well. If
protected and left alone they will come back!
The following morning, Belinda, Fateh, and I were driving
down a dusty lane and came upon several vehicles. They gestured frantically for us and, in a
gesture of respect, all moved out of the way so Fateh could come forward. There, on the road, a massive tiger was
resting in the shade. This was the
Bakola tiger, thought to be about 500 pounds.
He took one look at us, got up, walked a few yards down the road, then
turned into a meadow only to lay down in the open as if to pose for us. I don’t know if my camera or my heart was
making more noise. After about 15
minutes he got up, walked toward our jeep, and gave us a disdainful glance of
annoyance as he passed in front of the right bumper. We sat for a moment in silence. I looked over at Belinda and she had tears in
her eyes. “THAT’S why we can’t give up!”
she whispered as the Bakola tiger melted into the forest.
[Ranthambore has come back
from the brink 3 times in the last 20 years.
Latest tiger numbers in May of 2008 show 32 adult tigers and 20 cubs]
SITA and her cubs-1998
Word came at lunch that a forest guard had spotted evidence of a fresh
kill high atop the 900 ft. plateau that dominates all views from the forest
below. The Bandhavgarh Fort is a
beautiful collection of ancient ruins from civilizations past and home to an
eccentric holy man who has lived there alone for 28 years.
As we approached the top, the stomach of a large sambar deer was spotted along the side
of the road. Nanda Rana, our
guide/naturalist, got out of the jeep to have a look. Much to his surprise, just below the road at
a watering hole, lay the tigress known as Sita and her three nearly
full grown cubs. Startled, as were we, the tigers scampered up into the rocks
not 50 yards away on the nearby hillside.
Then all was still.
A noise from above brought the tigers out and, one by one, they made
their way up on
to the high rock cliffs above us and disappeared again. Photography cannot do justice to the
brilliant color and beauty of a tiger moving through it’s natural habitat.
We got out of the jeep and sat on a large rock and waited. Glimpses of tigers silhouetted along the
cliffs were occasionally
possible with good binoculars
bolstered by a healthy sense of imagination.
After some time vultures began to circle the remains of
the kill and alighted on the trees above.
One by one the tigers began to move down out of the rocks to protect and
regain their meal. At one point all four
tigers came to rest on the same rock directly opposite us. Four faces of exquisite and indescribable
Sita’s cubs are now nearly 2 years old and will soon disperse to a new
habitat and an uncertain future. It was
a moment of incredible good fortune and magic.
We sat in stunned silence gazing at the four tigers
resting on the rock. A whispering voice from the rock below summed up the
God, how could anyone kill something as beautiful as that.”
Pant never had a chance.
tiger came north into Nepal across the dry barren hills, emaciated from hunger
and thirst, and entered Shilobas Village on the southern edge of the Madi
Valley on the night of April 1st, 1999. The Madi Valley is a small area south of
Royal Chitwan National Park in what is known as a ‘buffer zone.’ It contains several small villages dependent
on subsistence agriculture and was carved out between the lush forests of
Chitwan and the Indian border to the south.
marks showed that sometime late in the night of April 1 the tiger circled a
small hut in search of food. Buffalo
meat was inside but the door was secure and the tiger could not get at the
meat. Pug marks were found approaching
the hut, completely surrounding it, and deep scratch marks were evident on the
mud walls of the building. Frustrated
and hungry, the tiger headed south back into the hills and attacked the first
sign of life.
approximately 3:30 AM on April 2nd, 69 year old Sheela Kumari Pant was sleeping
next to her husband on a cot on the porch of her home when the tiger pulled her
off her bed, dragged her 20 ft. around the corner of the house, and ate most of
her head and upper torso.
hours later, at 6:30 PM on the evening of April 3rd, still in the full light of
day, her widowed husband, Gyan Bahadur Pant and a friend, Dhan Bahadur Romawat,
were sitting on the same cot on the same porch.
To their utter amazement, the tiger walked right past them, into the adjoining
hut, and attacked a sleeping helper named Devi Adhikari. One can only guess what combination of shock,
rage, adrenaline, and fear drove these men into action, but they went through
the one small door of the hut and chased the tiger away with sticks. It’s a miracle that others were not killed in
that small house, but Devi Adhikari later died in a local hospital from the
the morning of April 4th, a bull was staked in the front yard of a home about
200 yards closer to the foothills across a dry riverbed. The tiger attacked the bull but was repelled
by the bigger and stronger animal but the bull died later in the day from a
deep wound to the neck .
villagers arrived at Tiger Tops Lodge during the night of April 4th to tell this
tale and ask for help. On the morning of
April 5th I traveled to Shilobas with Chuck McDougal, Nepal’s renowned tiger
expert; Kristjan Edwards, manager of Tiger Tops; and Sukram Kumal, perhaps the
best tiger tracker in the world today.
leaving Shilobas in the afternoon of April 5, all the villagers were excited
with the arrival of four huge elephants and two trucks filled with forest
officials, guns, and a wooden cage. That
night the tiger returned to finish eating the bull, was darted with a tranquilizer
gun, and now resides in precarious health at the Kathmandu Zoo.
month before, another incident occurred at Kantipur village just 6 kilometers
east of Shilobas. A tiger killed two
people and was summarily poisoned and buried on the spot.
difficult to generate local support for tiger conservation when something like
this happens. Walking into a village and
pulling someone out of their home is not typical tiger behavior. To return to the scene of the crime and walk
into another house the very next evening not only tempts fate but speaks of
normal tiger behavior gone awry.
McDougal and the Warden of Royal Chitwan National Park both agreed that
these tigers must have come north from Valmiki Tiger Reserve in India. Driven by lack of food and water they came
through a degraded habitat into an area with no sustainable forest cover or
prey base for tigers and where no tigers had been known to live. They came across land which once did sustain
lush forests and prey species for tigers.
Kumari Pant never had a chance.
then, neither did the tiger.
Death of a
the night of March 28, 2003, the tigress known as Mohini (Bachhi) was mortally
wounded when hit by a vehicle. Rumors
about the incident have swirled for months, but at this point in time it’s
academic exactly where the incident took place or what type of vehicle it
was. It was either out on the
Umaria-Tala Road or in the NW corner of the park at a place called Badrasilla
(Charger Point). What is known is that
she suffered severe face and head injuries, broken canines, was disoriented,
and in an obvious state of pain and agitation.
She attacked a guard post at Garhpuri around 6 am the morning of March
29th- startling the poor chap cooking breakfast. Her teeth were found in one of the wooden
posts. The fellow said she seemed
enraged and confused as she crossed the road, attacked a metal sign, and
entered the park. Shortly thereafter,
Mohini came upon a row of seven jeeps, eagerly awaiting a photo opportunity
that had been heralded by chital and sambar alarm calls. Four jeeps noticed that the tigress was
severely injured and yelled for the others to get out of her way. They were either unable or unwilling to do
so. I have seen a photo of the bloodied
snarling tigress walking toward a camera.
Had the other jeeps respected the fact that this was a tiger in a state
of severe distress, headlines saying “Tigress Mauls French Tourists in India”
would not have hit the news wires. Those
of you who have been to Bandhavgarh know that a healthy tiger would have walked
past the jeeps unconcerned. People kept
yelling at the jeeps nearest Mohini to back off. But cameras continued to roll. There was loud growling- some who were there
think Mohini and her nearby cubs were calling back and forth. Suddenly Mohini crouched and leapt into the
back of one of the jeeps. The guide and
driver ran off but two French tourists were pinned underneath the angry
tigress. Some of the other guides came
running over, hitting her with bamboo sticks and one pulled her off by the
tail- Mohini literally falling on top of the lead guide, a local lodge
owner. A brief scuffle ensued and
finally Mohini walked off into the forest.
She has not been seen since. The
tourists and guide were treated at local hospitals and released with
‘relatively’ minor injuries. This would
not have been the case with a healthy tiger.
It is thought that Mohini was trying to get home to her three
18-month-old cubs. She never made it.
Drive Was Uneventful
The morning drive was uneventful. We took our time leaving Tiger Den Lodge to
avoid the 6 a.m. mass of jeeps waiting at the front gate of the park. We had decided to forego looking for tigers
this morning in order to visit the ancient Fort and ruins atop the Bandhavgarh
plateau. Bandhavgarh gets its name from
the massive plateau rising 900 ft. from the meadow floor. It means ‘brothers footstep’ originating in
the ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
Within minutes of entering the park, we passed the small Shiva lingam
shrine that our guides always pay their respects to. Just beyond, at a lovely meadow called
Siddhibaba, several jeeps are parked along the side of the road. An elephant was out in the meadow and someone
was standing up filming movement in the grass.
A large tiger emerged in clear view.
This was a VIP group of the CEO of Coca-Cola who had hired jeeps and
elephants for several days. His guide was an old friend from past visits and he
asked if we wanted to get on the two idle elephants. No one else was
around. All the other jeeps had gone on
their assigned morning routes before coming back to find the elephants and
tiger. The large male tiger was B-2, or
Banda, the reigning monarch for this part of the park and near him was the
lovely tigress named Chorebera. They
followed each other across the meadow, through the grass, and up into a small
ravine. Suddenly a loud roar broke the
morning quiet as the tigress attempted to spurn Banda’s amorous intent. Several of my group watched the whole
affair. Filmed it even. The shame. No word yet on the success of the
coupling. Banda ambled off into the
hillside and the Chorebera tigress went to lay up on a rock striking a gorgeous
angle of repose.
So off to the
Fort we went. The other jeeps were still
nowhere to be seen. The road has been
opened so you drive to the top instead of hiking up from the Temple of the
Sleeping Vishnu at the base of the cliff.
The Fort is a fascinating place.
You pass massive wooden doors with large metal spikes intended to fend
off attacks by armies on elephants.
Caves and long-emptied rooms contain thousands of bats. Statues and stone carvings speak of
civilizations living there long before and during the reign of the Maharajas of
Rewa. A temple inhabited by one lone
sadhu, or holy man, sits at the edge of the cliff looking down on the meadows
and its tigers. We parked our jeep and
got out to walk around. We came out of a
small temple to Lord Rama, walked along a massive water storage hole hundreds
of yards wide, and wondered aloud how many slaves it took to dig this for the
Master. Tom and Judy were ahead of me
with one of the park guides. Suddenly I
noticed the guide frantically pointing to something in the grass, and, not 30
yards in front of us, out walked none other than the reigning matriarch, the
Chakhadara Tigress. It all happened so
fast but for a fleeting moment we moved toward to the tiger as if in some
excited reflex action to check out something cool. Reality set in and we froze in our
tracks. By then the tigress had given us
one good stare, turned and disappeared into the grass, probably happy to get
away from Those That Walk on Two Legs.
But the morning
wasn’t over just yet. On the way back to
the lodge for breakfast we stopped at Siddhibaba meadow and went for another
elephant ride to gaze at the beautiful Chorebera tigress.