The first tiger I ever saw in Bandhavgarh was a famous female called Sita. When I returned in November 1994 to spend a whole season in the village of Tala she again was the focus of all attention in the park. Those days were quiet and few vehicles entered most days and in fact I myself visited the park rarely because there were few guests arriving then to stay at the handful of lodges in the village.
In the early summer of 1994 Sita had delivered a new family of cubs, her second, fathered by Charger. No one really knew how many were in the litter because no one had yet seen the family. The tigress’s territory was huge stretching from Ghorademon gorge through Chakradhara and Bhitri, across Badhaini and Susiyari to Mahaman and back to Chorbehra and Sidh Baba. Finding Sita in the tall grasses of Chakradhara was not easy but most visitors – and there were few in those days – hung around the elephants tracking the heart of the tigress’s range. But not Satyendra and I, with or without guests we explored the then pristine beauty of the whole park when it was at its quietest.
It was early November 1994 and Satyendra was escorting two guests who allowed me to join them on safari. The meadow down below was quiet so we headed into the hills of Khriki and Ghorademon. Sita could be anywhere. After some time we heard langur monkey calls amongst the trees and scoured the rocks to see Sita accompanying two cubs towards the Fort plateau. We turned around and headed back the way we had come too late to see Sita again but, alone in one of the many sandy nallahs of this area of the park one small cub was walking straight towards the vehicle. Of course we immediately backed up a little and switched off the engine. As the forest became deathly quiet the little cub turned away and began calling to its mother. Sita did not return and we decided to move a little out of sight so perhaps she would. As we started the engine the cub turned and walked towards us again. We decided to leave completely and allow the family to rejoin each other. At this point neither Satyendra nor I had any idea that this sparkling eyed little tiger cub was in fact blind!
It was some time until we entered the park again. Satyendra was often away guiding and I did not go to the park alone in the early stages of my visit. It was now the15th November and alarm calls of chital deer had drawn us to the Kil Khoota area (now known as VIP road) behind Chorbehra. Once again there was the little cub alone facing off with a group of about twelve or so spotted deer. The female does were walking towards the cub as the cub approached the group with only one male deer taking no notice and continuing to graze. Why the spotted deers were approaching a predator we had no idea. Did they actually know the cub was blind or just that it posed no threat? Eventually the deer stopped calling and the cub turned its attention to our chatter in the vehicle and headed towards us. Sita and the other cub – later know as Bachchi – were nowhere around. We eventually left the area thinking the mother would return and find her wayward cub.
However this was not what occurred. The following day the cub entered a village house and caused quite a commotion. It again was obviously lonely and attracted by the noise. The elephants were sent to bring it back to the forest and they did, but the small cub was reluctant to leave their company. Suspicion was growing that perhaps Sita had abandoned her cub because something was wrong. At this point the young cub, a female looked thin and unfed. The Forest department decided to get it back to its mother and see what happened. When next they saw the family on 28th November the cub could be seen stumbling about not knowing where Sita had left a kill. If the carcass got dragged any distance the little girl could not find it again. Kuttapan the mahavat at this point actually got off his pachyderm and approached the cub to feed it, neither Sita nor Bachchi took any notice hiding in the bamboo simply watching. Still no one realized what was really wrong with the young tiger, though by now some of us were suspecting it was blind.
From this point onward the situation got really desperate. It was still very difficult to track the family and the next time the cub was spotted she was in a very bad way. It was early morning of the 5th December and we had entered the park and headed off to Chakradhara meadow. As we passed Sidh Baba temple in the forest area before the meadow starts and below the plateau, the blind cub was sat in the road crying pitifully. It could not move. Its hind legs seemingly paralyzed. It was trying to drag itself across the path. We returned to the gate to inform the Forest Department of the situation leaving the second vehicle to keep watch. When we returned Satyendra urged caution, retorted that Sita must be close by. No sooner had he spoken than Sita charged out of the forest at our vehicle. In those days the vehicle had no doors or window screen. The tigress charged three times and was I was close enough to feel the breath of her anger. Satyendra was shouting at the top of his voice to drive her off and eventually she returned to the cover of the forest. Both drivers then hurriedly retreated from the sight of the cub leaving any further intervention to the Forest staff.
That day the cub was given food in the Sidh Baba meadow, but her condition was so bad that she died that night. However, her emaciated body was removed by the Forest Department and cremated before Sita had seen it, and for several days afterwards, at a specific time every afternoon her mother Sita could be seen walking the grassland calling for her little blind one. She had never abandoned her cub it was simply because it was blind, (though this was never confirmed) that it kept getting lost and in trouble. She was approximately six months of age at the time of her death and though she may have survived in a zoo she could not have survived in the wild.
That season, 1994 to1995, Sita became extremely elusive. The country had banned the sighting of tiger from elephant back and she and her remaining cub Bachchi (or Mohini) were rarely spotted from the road. After this occurrence Sita was never as settled with vehicles again, prehaps suspecting vehicles of stealing away her beloved cub.
Bachchi on the other hand, now dotted on as a single cub, grew up to become one of the biggest and strongest mothers Bandhavgarh has ever witnessed.
(This story can be seen in part on the documentary “Tigers Next Door” by Ashish Chandola, released by Survival Anglia.)
Credits: Tiger Nation