A question-provoking encounter in Kabini

Do tigers avoid eating fetuses?

When the naturalist-driver took us straight to the carcass of a gaur that was killed the previous evening, we found it lying in a ditch by the road, its rump prized open like a jackfruit. Chin on ground and facing away, it remained in public anonymity, as restless children, avid photographers, very important visitors and their fitful drivers hovered around like experience scavengers. Other scavengers – crows, mostly – presided over the exposed hindquarters, pecking away at the sizable repast.

We understood that the tiger had earlier that morning been seen next to the carcass, and was presently resting in the lantana undergrowth. But what I couldn’t understand were the whispers of a gaur calf being dragged away. The carcass that lay before us looked decidedly like an adult female’s, so had the tiger killed two gaur? Or perhaps was he scavenging on an already-dead one? 

It was only when I saw a video captured by a lucky witness to the incident (below) that I realised, stunned, what had happened.

The gaur had been pregnant, and the tiger, a dominant male called Cut Lip (identity courtesy of @harsha_narasimhamurthy), had slid the almost fully-formed calf out of the womb, dragged it backwards a short distance, negotiated it over a fallen trunk, turned around and carried it off into the bush – understandably, since the adult gaur was too large to be carried up yet. This also explained why he hadn’t emerged from cover to chase the crows away (as tigers are wont to do when their hard-earned meal is being purloined by scavengers): because he had another meal at his disposal from the comfort of his private thicket. Or so I thought. 

30 minutes later, we had scoured the length of the 5-kilometre stretch of the New MM Road and returned to the kill. Most vehicles had run their patience out and left. The one that remained departed soon enough, leaving us alone. A few seconds later, our driver engaged gear one, and rolled forward. But instead of abandoning the carcass, merely advanced by a few metres, killed the engine and stopped. Whether this was a deliberate ploy to trick the tiger into thinking that even the last vehicle had now left, or a twelfth-hour hunch to linger a bit, I do not know, but it had the exact effect we desired. 

In merely seconds, I heard a growl issued from the direction of the kill and gestured. All pupils dilated to scan the area of interest and found the tiger sitting just outside the line of lantana whence he had emerged. The crows decanted instantly. Reversing gently, we drew abreast of him and commenced taking pictures. Which was when I realised that although he was panting heavily, to the point of salivation (suggesting that since it wasn’t hot, it was probably because he had eaten his fill and hadn’t had a drink yet), his face and paws were completely bereft of bloodstains. 

Cut Lip soon after emerging from the lantana thicket

Yes, it was possible that he hadn’t commenced feeding on the unborn calf yet, and was only storing it up for later. It was also possible that he had fed on it for a bit, and then cleaned himself up thoroughly prior to presentation. These were the obvious conjectures. 

But there was a third, dizzyingly intriguing one: what if Cut Lip hadn’t fed on it, and didn’t intend to, either? Pictures I had seen not too long ago of a male tiger in Ranthambhore carrying a deer foetus wrapped in leaves away from a carcass flashed in my mind like several bolts of lightning occurring concurrently. Was there a parallel? Do tigers do this regularly? Do they avoid eating foetuses, or even if they do, do they do it discreetly?

Even in the midst of a stolid ruthlessness, has Nature kept aside a sanctum of sensitivity for the tenderest of things?

I don’t know. But given how much we don’t know (and probably can’t know) despite decades of study and attention, it’s clear that we’ve learned nothing from Nature if we haven’t learned that it’s foolish to dismiss any possibility until the possibility dismisses itself.

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