Over the years, I must have observed and recorded the behaviour of at least 125 tigers in Ranthambhore. But the tigers I mention in this article are the special ones, the ones who taught me everything I know about tigers, the ones who, by letting me into their lives, made my own life truly worth living.
Padmini, whom I describe as the queen mother, was a calm, mature and intelligent tigress. I studied her as she raised her cubs. Akbar and Babur were the most curious and confident of the litter but my favourite was Laxmi – the smallest and weakest of the lot. Padmini was a slender and elegant tigress – her pale colour was offset by very calm eyes that seldom reflected anger. She was rarely ruffled by anything. Because she was so easy and relaxed in the presence of humans, all her cubs developed the same trait. This was then passed on to new generations of tigers in Ranthambhore.
The first time I saw Genghis was late in October of 1983, as he leisurely strolled the shores of Rajbagh Lake. I knew a new male had arrived. He was a big guy with great ruffs of hair on his cheeks and a huge belly. He walked with a swagger as if he had not a care in the world – he seemed to know that this area of the lakes was his kingdom. He was the master predator and a regular sight around the lakes of Ranthambhore. He had mastered the art of killing sambhars in the water – the first time this form of tiger predation had been observed anywhere in the world.
I will never forget Genghis. He left his mark in the annals of the natural history of tigers and to this day audiences across the world watch films that he starred in. He left behind his art of killing in water for Noon and all the other generations of tigers to follow. This is the Genghis legacy and his imprint lives on even today amongst the tigers of the lake.
One of my all-time favourites was Noon. She earned her name because rather unusually, she was at her most active in the middle of the day. She mastered the art of killing prey in the water too. The first glimpse the world had of the diurnal habits of tigers began with Noon. She represented the new generation of tigers that had grown up without human disturbance.
Noon did not have long, flowing lines – she looked squarer and bulkier. Many thought that she looked a little masculine. Deeper colours on her coat and piercing eyes made her a striking presence around the lakes.
Broken Tooth was a gentle male who was rarely aggressive in my presence. He kept his distance from human observers unlike Genghis and if you got too close he would move off. He was squat-bodied and when full of food, the folds of his belly nearly scraped the ground as he walked. He was much paler than Genghis and less adventurous. A few years after I saw him, he broke half a tooth probably while killing a sambhar and assumed his name. He made the rounds of the lakes and the Nalghati Valley, traversing more than 100 square kilometres. During his reign, he expanded his domain considerably while in his prime but his field of influence decreased towards the end of the 1980s. Broken Tooth vanished after the age of 12.
Laxmi, Padmini’s daughter, was an exceptional mother and it was a joy to see the special bond she shared with her three cubs. I remember watching her as she licked her cubs and realising that another aspect of the tiger’s secret life was unfolding before my very eyes. The cubs slowly found her teats and she lay back to suckle them. This was for me a first. Their tiny feet pushed away at her belly, stimulating the flow of milk as they suckled furiously. Then, after 10 minutes, they jumped around her head and stalked a butterfly in the grass. One of them jumped on her back and another pulled at her tail while she licked the third cub. I watched this family drama for half an hour.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as a tangle of emotions exploded within. I had seen all manners of tiger behaviour in the course of my life with wild tigers. I had seen the kills. I had seen how they ate. I had seen the aggression, the power and the fierceness. Here, I was witnessing the tender care, the devotion and a mother’s love. Gentle, cuddly and loving, the tigress soon rose and led her cubs away.
Like her mother, Laxmi was seldom ruffled. She had a lovely deep colour to her coat and a swagger as she walked. She never feared the resident male or even transients. She commanded respect. Nothing she did was reckless or risky and underneath it all was the fact that she was an amazingly devoted mother.
And then there was Machli, a star turn for all those who visited the park. Sadly, she passed away in August, but holds the record for the longest lived wild tiger in the world. She was the most beautiful tigress I have seen, even when she was nearly 20 years old, blind in one eye and toothless. She had lovely stripes around her cheek and body and was a striking presence who brought great joy to everyone who observed her.