What are you supposed to do if you encounter a tiger while walking? I asked the local people of Ranthambore with whom I was interacting closely while researching a film in 2017. I was living on the first floor of an isolated bungalow, abutting the boundary of the Ranthambore National Park, which was the residence of the manager of a jungle camp 800 m away. “Please avoid the hours before sunrise and after sunset, if walking to the jungle camp,” I was advised by the camp owners, the family of celebrated forest officer Fateh Singh Rathore. “A tigress is often on the move; you don’t want to walk into her.” There was even a point called the “tiger modh” (tiger turn) on the path she frequented.
Lightning, officially known as T-83, was a young tigress, the granddaughter of the famous tigress Machli. It is believed that Lightning was pushed out from her original area, Zones 3 and 4 of the National Park, by her brother. Failing to find a permanent territory of her own, she would occasionally saunter into the wilderness of the jungle camp.
Sometimes, tourists living in this camp would have the good fortune of sighting her, sleeping in the tall grass, taking a dip in the pond, or, more often, prowling at night in front of camera traps. “She is innocent and trusting of humans”, said Ramphul kaka, keeper of agriculture fields in the camp. “Once, she had fallen into a village well and was rescued. Since then, she believes that humans mean her no harm. If you ever accidentally walk into her, don’t startle her by turning your back, trying to run, bend or scream. Just freeze and look into her eyes without fear. She will go her own way”. The advice was simple but unfathomable. How could you not be startled when you’re face-to-face with a tiger? Yet, I secretly hoped to cross her path.
There is a mystical, enigmatic quality about tigers that draws us to them. To be able to see a tiger standing on the same ground in its full majestic glory was a temptation, not without trepidation. Each day before sunrise, I’d take a walk with the camp’s fearless naturalist, Mittal Gala, an expert at reading jungle signs. She gave me steady lessons to differentiate male and female tiger impressions, a hyena’s footprint from a porcupine, and a human from a bear.
We were leisurely strolling through a guava orchard one day when Lightning appeared less than 40 feet away.
The meeting felt expected and obvious. So often had I imagined her appearing from behind the tall grass, a curve in the road, or jumping from the boundary wall, that her standing in front of me felt natural. I lifted my camera and went “click”. The tigress snarled, but I couldn’t resist and took another shot. She snarled again. Mittal warned me to stop and look elsewhere. At that point, Lightning took a step back and crouched. Fear gripped me. “Don’t tigers crouch before taking a leap?” I whispered urgently. But Lightning took another step back and then another and slowly disappeared. Now that we had broken the ice, I was sure I would see her again. Each time I saw a spotted deer stomp its foot, heard a sambar grunt or peacock scream, I felt a rush of blood, knowing that Lightning was near. Many times these alarm calls would suddenly erupt as I walked through the camp’s trails making people joke, “Every time you come, Lightning strikes”.
I got to photograph Lightning secretly as she stretched herself after an afternoon siesta. I made a diary of her pugmarks. And I had the most magical moonlight encounter when she leapt out of a gap in the wall one night while the camp’s driver and a master tracker, Dinesh, and I waited in the Gypsy. The fringes of the forest became her home.
Months later, when I returned to Mumbai, I received a camera trap video from Mittal. It was a wonderful visual of Lightning with her little cubs roaming the camp. But survival for cubs in a jungle is not easy, and Lightning, who did not have her own territory, soon lost her cubs to an aggressive male wanting to mate with her.
In 2019, on International Tiger Day, India celebrated the doubling of its tiger population ahead of its expected time. Experts caution, however, that the figures should be analysed in relation to the survival rate of tigers born each year and not as absolute numbers. Reducing forest cover and increasing tiger numbers means more of them will stray into human-occupied land and amplify human-animal conflict. Many tigers have been subject to lynching and slaughter when spotted in villages bordering the forest or if they attacked a human in self-defence. Not every case is mutually non-threatening like that of Lightning.
But Lightning’s tribulations were not to end here. In 2018, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) decided to relocate a few tigers from Ranthambore, 150 kilometres away, to the newly declared Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve that needed tigers reintroduced. Lightning and two other tigers became the chosen ones. My heart sank. The thought of going back to the camp and not seeing her felt like a huge loss.
Lightning was renamed MT-4 and introduced to Mukundra, where MT-1, a male, and MT-2, a female, had already been relocated. While Lightning tried to find her bearings, another Ranthambore tiger, MT-3 (originally T-98), endured a different emotional ordeal. He was not relocated but walked all the way from Ranthambore to Mukundra in search of his mate MT-2, who by now was already mating with MT1 and had produced two cubs.
Lightning still needed to claim territory and is believed to have had territorial fights with MT-2. But after a few months, she was seen with two cubs of her own, believed to have been born out of mating with MT-1.
In a classic Shakespearean tragedy, MT-3 could never win MT-2 back and died of a cardiac and respiratory infection. Soon after, MT-2’s body was also found and was explained to have died during a territorial fight with MT-4 (Lightning), though some forest officials suspected the cause of death to be disease. MT-2’s cubs did not make it either.
Like the plot of a dark film, MT-1, the male, became the next one to disappear mysteriously one day, followed by Lightning’s cubs. Mukundra lost all but one of its resident tigers (MT-4/Lightning). Controversy and blame-gaming unleashed over improper management. The recent debacle at Satkosia, Odisha where the reintroduction of tigers has seemingly failed, also raises questions about the wisdom of relocation projects.
One morning, my heart broke when I saw on social media that the lone tigress of Mukundra was found injured and moved to a zoo for treatment. I prayed Lightning would withstand the test of time. Fortunately, she recovered and was released back into the forest.
I still imagine a lonely Lightning roaming the forest with a collar on her neck, carrying the weight of human experiments. She may appear as the sole inheritor of the hills of Mukundra but resides inside a 28-hectare enclosure assigned to her, a territory she can finally call her own.
But destiny held back its final stroke. Last November, a news article reported the decision by the National Board for Wildlife’s (NBWL) to denotify 1,000 km of its protected areas across various forests for infrastructural projects. This includes parts of the Mukundra Hills Tiger Reserve.