|Contrasting childhoods, but a common future?|
My itchy feet are yet to travel the world, but my imagination, added to the television footage I’ve seen of various extraordinary places on the planet, leads me to believe that the Rajbehra Dam in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve has to rank as one of the most magnificent natural sites on Earth.
It may not be as charismatic as the famous Padam Talab or Rajbagh of Ranthambhore, but is every bit as special, and for drama, spectacle and natural history value, is quite eloquently matchless.
It justifies the word ‘king’ in its name not only by being the largest and prettiest of all the meadows in Tala, but also by affording a splendid view into the private world of tigers. Here it is possible sometimes to observe them for hours by causing them little nuisance, and get to experience many intimate moments in their charmed lives.
One such idyllic morning the resident beauty queen, Aunt Jhurjhura eased herself into the water to combat the oppressive temperature, and two cubs followed soon. Jaded by the heat they waded in the water as if in slow motion, often stopping to nuzzle up against mum’s cheek or back and throwing curious looks at folks shooting until they dropped their camera equipment out of the vehicle.
Amidst this it was with rather sudden brusqueness that one of the cubs ejected herself out of the water, followed closely by a second cub, climbed on to the dam and darted into a bush on one of the rocks that flank the water on the far side. We, the spectators, were left feeling like the attendees of a cricket match in which the players had run off the field for no apparent reason. That is until the two sisters emerged from around the rock, led by a grey object, to be established as a juvenile long-billed vulture!
Incapacitated by either injury or inchoate age, it seemed to have lost its way from its nest. The curious cats cornered the grounded avian at the edge of the rock such that it was stuck between a rock and a very watery place, and in a desperate attempt to escape, the abject chick took a plunge and flapped its wings only to flop down into what we thought would be its Waterloo.
The cubs then emerged from where they had climbed and approached the chick one at a time, gently sniffing at it while maintaining a respectable distance from its open beak, and examining it inquisitively from various angles. The vulture meanwhile stayed relatively calm. It didn’t flap its wings or beat its legs in panic, but instead opened its beak without emitting a sound, at least not one that we could hear from eighty feet, probably attempting to look as big, dangerous and unpalatable as possible. Smartly, it kept approaching the bank in little increments and soon it was out of the water, with the tigers following it true to the fifth commandment of cats, which mandates “Thou shalt pursue with all earnestness any object or creature that moves.”
Finally tigers and vulture disappeared behind a bush, becoming only occasionally visible when either walked out in the open to cross from one bush-island to another. After about fifteen minutes of this drama, the tigers finally lost interest and returned to the water to cool off again.
While to the tiger cubs these were days of insouciance, secured as their present was by the unflinching and impregnable protection of their extremely caring mother, to the vulture chick a good-humoured pat from one of the cubs could have proved to be a lethal dose of playfulness. The chick was lucky, and must learn fast to avoid danger if it has to thrive at a life that demands an incessant quest for survival as its first requisite.
But although the vulture’s vulnerability and the cub’s security made for a startling contrast, both would have to face common threats later in life, when they must confront fiends they cannot see in a game that is not fair, where the odds do not level out and in a world dominated by an ape who rapes everything in sight, survival is more a bargain than a right.