THE ROYAL BRAWL
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
India is one of the most diverse countries in terms of wildlife. It has about 410 species of mammals and around 1300 species of birds! It is quite impressive. Even with so many species roaming wild in the massive wild Indian landscape, there is only one animal that can undoubtedly be considered as the King of Indian jungles, The Royal Bengal Tiger.
Though I am yet to explore many wild landscapes this great country has to offer, I have spent my fair share of time in the westernmost wild tiger refuge of the world, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Located in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, Ranthambhore has a healthy density of wild tiger population amidst its 1300 sq km rugged forest. I have been visiting this place since I was three years old, and over time, I have developed a perplexing bond with the forest, its history, and off course, its tigers. I have witnessed some astonishing natural history moments here.
This time, I will be talking about one such moment, which I don't think I will see again for a long time—a brawl between two dominant male tigers, two tigers of brute muscle and strength, two brothers. T57 and T58, these dominant male tigers control large chunks of the core tiger reserve and are related by blood. Ranthambhore has many legendary lineages; the most famous is the lineage of Machli, the queen who ruled the famous lake area for more than a decade and is known to be the most photographed tigress in the world, and also the oldest living wild tigress (20 years). T57 and T58 are related by blood as they both are the grandsons of Machli. Both the tigers belong to the same litter of a tigress called T26, aka Sharmili, and fathered by T20, aka Jhumroo (Jhumroo is the son of Machli).
In the post monsoon season of 2019, when the park has reopened after three months haul due to the Indian monsoon, I, along with a photography group, went on a full day game drive in Ranthambhore. We spent the morning near the lakes where we saw a tigress called Arrowhead with her cubs. But as the midday approached, we ventured to zone 6 of the park, which is known for its high number of tiger sightings. Also, according to the news via wireless walkie-talkies, we got to know T57 was si with his long time mate T39, aka Noor. We were pumped as we approached the spot of the reported sighting. And as expected, we saw T57 mating with Noor. We could hear the intense growls as both the tigers involved in the mating ritual. We clicked pictures to our heart's content, and as the heat increased, our group decided to take a small nap within our safari vehicles, the tigers, too, were resting peacefully in the bushes anyway.
After a while, one member of our group got up in the excitement and said, "tiger!! tiger!!" All of a sudden, another huge and presumably young male tiger crossed the safari track towards the edge of the stream where T57 and Noor were. This new tiger on the scene had no idea that there were two courting tigers on the other side of the stream. However, this relaxed mystery male walked to the edge of the brook; that's when he heard the roars of T57 and Noor as they again engaged in another round of mating. The growls of the couple alerted the new male. He quietly tiptoed his way onto the other side of the safari track where he came from. All of us in the jeep was curious as we weren't able to identify this new male tiger. So depending on the location, we assumed that it must've been T101, a young male tiger whose territory overlapped with T57's.
After the disappearance of the mystery male, we spent another hour with the mating couple, and as we were on a full day game drive, there were no other vehicles other than ours, which gave us even more exclusive time with nature. However, after around 1-1.5 hours, we heard loud and clear sambar deer alarm calls burst through the eerie silence of the forest. We looked to the right side of the safari track, and to our surprise, it was the mystery male again. He was moving like a fox and encircling the small patch of woods where T57 and Noor were napping. This new male seemed extremely sure of what he intended to do; he was going against the wind (something any tiger would do while hunting its prey). As he came close to our jeep, we realized that it is a mature tiger, a tiger in its prime, and he had a slightly blackened nose, which ruled out the possibility of it being T101, as T101 is very young and has a pink nose. This mystery male was fearless, and he didn't hesitate even a little bit as he walked right past our vehicle, which meant that he was used to the presence of jeeps.
While all of us were still trying to solve the mystery of this new male, he had gone against the wind and started walking towards T57 and Noor, who was sleeping in the bushes unaware of the approaching danger. He sat in the grass at about 50-60 feet from the couple. And soon enough, he started stalking T57, and in no time, he was face to face with T57, who, by the way, was still in a deep sleep. T57 was unaware that another huge male tiger is standing a foot away from him. Fun fact, tigers paws are incredibly cushioned; hence, when they walk in the forest with almost no sound, that's precisely the reason T57 didn't hear the mystery male coming. The mystery male was so incredibly still that we weren't able to tell if he is moving at all. He just stood there, like a statue, one feet away from T57. Our hearts was thumping as if it would explode in our chests. Adrenaline took toll of our body as we anticipated what this mystery male would do next. And, as our heart and mind got used to the incredible stillness of the mystery male. He pounced on T57. He caught him off guard, and it is quite apparent that a tiger or, more specifically, a cat would not expect someone to jump on them while they sleep. Noor on the other hand fled the scene as soon as the mystery male pounced. However, the ambition of the new male tiger quickly collapsed as T57 promptly took charge of the fight, despite being caught off guard and slammed, T57 got up and pinned the mystery male into the ground while attacking him with his razor-sharp 4 inches long claws! Blood curdling growls of these two titans filled the forest, honestly, it was as if all the birds and other animals came at a standstill as the sounds of two beasts resounded through the valley. Both males got up on their hind legs as they boxed trying to knock each other out. And they traded blows their way out of sight into the bushes. In all these years, I have never felt more scared in the forest than I did when I saw what I saw. While photographing the two, my hands literally trembled and it took me a while to register what had just happened. We heard the loud and scary roars for a couple of more minutes and the jungle went dead silent again. The fight must've lasted around 6-7 minutes max.
After witnessing this beautiful natural history moment, we scanned through our pictures, and looking closely at the facial markings of the mystery male; I realized it was T58. T58 is the brother of T57. They both grew up playing together, then how come they engaged in such a nasty battle, for territory or mating rights over Noor? We will never know. All we can do is devise theories. All of us had different ones, me too. At first, I pondered why would two brothers who had separated 6-7 years ago fight. Then after analyzing all the situations and time and place of the incident, I devised my theory, which is T58 had mistaken T57 to be another male tiger. This royal brawl happened in zone 6, which surprisingly is not the territory of either T57 or T58; it is the territory of an ailing male tiger known as T34, aka Kumbha. A few months before this fight, T58 brutally injured Kumbha, and even T57 injured Kumbha before that. Kumbha is old and weak and now restricts himself to only a single ravine of his once vast territory. Both T57 and T58 eyed the throne of zone 6 and the females it accompanies. It is also believed that another resident tigress of the area T8, aka Ladli, had given birth to T58's cubs. That's why T58 entered zone 6, leaving his original home in the hills of zone 7-8. T58 must've mistaken the tiger sleeping alongside Noor to be Kumbha, as he had no idea that T57 also patrols this area. A colossal misunderstanding must've occurred, and these brothers who presumably had no expectations of fighting each other or even seeing each other in this part of the forest engaged in this mighty battle. Again, we will never know the real reason why this happened, and all we can do is come up with theories. Its nature, after all, and in nature, everything is uncertain. I am just thankful that I was lucky enough to witness this once in a lifetime moment, and I will cherish it forever.