Survivors at Sunrise

It was the last safari of the trip, an intentionally truncated affair, since we had a date to keep with an annoyingly punctual flight at the end of an 11-hour drive.

25 safaris, including 19 from the previous trip, had passed that year without a glimpse of Kankati’s cubs.  Back in May, the first-time mother had hidden them up in the fort from the lethal jaws of the marauding male who had crept in as deep as Gopalpur.  Now in June, much to my triumphant relief and delight, they had descended into the plains of Chakradhara, which seemed refreshed by their presence, but my visit hadn’t been blessed with a crossing of paths.  One exasperating evening they chilled in the Gopalpur Pond, as we sweated out beads of frustration elsewhere.

This morning when we entered the park for a final fling, our guide was the masterful and talismanic Parashuram Pandey, and driver-naturalist, a very anxious Sikander, who had fruitlessly toiled for much of the trip.  Giving Pandeyji the brief of “quickly entering the park, stealing a look at tigers, and executing a swift exit” – said with good-natured humour rather than any realistic expectation – we motored on slowly, using our hope to guide our earnest search, for that one glimpse of them I dearly pined ere my inevitable exit, and theirs.

It was still prodigiously early when we approached Sidhbaba.    The air was rigidly still, but our advance through it gave it the persona of a cool breeze.  For the night hadn’t yielded its grip yet to the fast-rising sun, and the last of her secrets lay yet sheltered under her inky cloak, unevanesced by his violent warmth.  My light-deprived eyes thirsted.

The path through Jamunia was dark and cavernous, but not for an instant unfriendly.  And as we broke out into the open, a dull greyness prevailed over the sandy track ahead.  Only the stream seemed awake, flowing yonder with its customary gurgle.  We drew abreast with the shrine, and a vehicle stopped suddenly ahead of us. “Tiger!” declared Pandeyji.

Tigers!” I exclaimed, for there were three.

Well awake now, I was in a ripe position to gasp at the sight.  The female cub was sprawled on the middle of the vehicle track, square in front.  Her brother sat pretty next to the Sidhbaba shrine.  Kankati was to our left, in the grass, watching over.  The homecoming was complete – both for them and me.

But neither could linger long.

Before I could coax the camera to focus in the semi-darkness, the young tigress arose, leaving me a blank frame to shoot.  And walking over to her brother, caused him to rise, too.  

Kankati's first litter female cub, Bandhavgarh. By Santosh Saligram
Nikon D600 and 200-400mm VR at 200mm, f/4, 1/20sec at 1600 ISO

Meanwhile, Kankati decided it was time to quit the roadshow and all the entailing fanfare.   So she stirred and walked towards the stream, and the two cubs started in tow.  But issuing frequent snarls to keep them away, she crossed over to the inaccessible hills.

Kankati snarling at cubs, Bandhavgarh. © Santosh Saligram

Nikon D600 and 200-400mm VR at 300mm, f/4, 1/100sec at 4000 ISO
Kankati's first litter cubs at Sidhbaba, Bandhavgarh. © Santosh Saligram

Nikon D600 and 200-400mm VR at 200mm, f/4, 1/25sec at 1600 ISO 

And Pandeyji crossed over into his own.

As more vehicles gathered, he persuaded me to leave the tigers for the moment, and instructed Sikander to position us at the stream.  This meant we now had a ringside view when the twins arrived.

Striding towards us rubbing shoulders, they seemed inseparable, perhaps grown so from the perilous vagaries they’d already faced in their young lives, and the veil of uncertainty that now blunted their vision.  

Arriving at the precise place at which their mother had crossed the road, they smelled the grass and then gazed in the direction of the favourite bunkers in the lonely byways whence she’d gone, perhaps in pursuit of her well-earned peace, and for a moment, from the wistful look on their faces, I wondered if they laboured over the dilemma whether they’d be terribly remiss to follow or foolishly overcautious not to.  They eventually decided to trail her, for the time for their parting was not yet come.

Kankati's first litter cubs at Sidhbaba, Bandhavgarh. By Santosh Saligram
Nikon D600 and 200-400mm VR at 270mm, f/4, 1/200sec at 6400 ISO

My thoughts drifted to what a fantastic mother Kankati had been, employing grit, instinct and adroitness far exceeding her age and experience.  But soon, when the winds of time would sweep their way, the cubs would have to leave the comforting shade of their maternal umbrella and walk in the sun the lonely path even the most royal must chart on their own.

And in the final hour of my Bandhavgarh summer, as two tender flowers had stood a moment together, not just at the edge of a meadow, but at the precipice of independence, and I on the eroding threshold of departure, providence had blessed me with the sight of the survivors, at sunrise.

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