It was going to be my final safari of this short trip to Ranthambhore, a national park famous for its Tigers, located in the western state of Rajasthan in India. Ranthambhore is the first national park I ever visited back in 2008, and also my first wild Tiger sighting happened in Ranthambhore, so it is always special for me. Due to close proximity to my hometown, New Delhi, this is a park I visit often, more so in summers when visibility of Tigers increases due to the scarcity of water in park interiors.
So coming back to this trip, I had done 3 more safaris prior to this which were not so good for photography purposes with no clear sightings of the Tiger or any other fauna. In summers the temperatures in this park go even up to 50-degree Celsius and it tests even the toughest of souls to bear through the heat in the afternoon safaris. Right after entering the park we crossed the iconic Rajbagh lake beside the erstwhile hunting palace of Maharajas. Just at the end of Rajbagh lake, we noticed a Tiger sleeping in front of the bushes. Since it was far and sleeping, we decided to take a quick round of the remaining zone area allotted to us. We took a full round and there were no other signs of a Big cat anywhere else in our zone, so we decided to stay put with this Tiger. We parked our vehicle at the end of Rajbagh lake around 4.30pm and hoped for the Tigress to at least give us a pose. Occasionally she took naps and glared towards us, that gave us some distant habitat shots. Then again she would doze off. From those pictures, we could identify that the Tigress in question is Arrowhead, the daughter of T19 or Krishna, who is the dominant Tigress of the lake area. Krishna gave birth to 3 litters around April 2014, and this Tigress Arrowhead was one of them. This young Tigress is about 25 months old now and has separated from her mother.
In the meanwhile, our wait continues. Around 6 pm, as the Sun started going down and dusk approached, some Sambar deer and Spotted deer came to the edge of Rajbagh lake to drink water. We suppose they were not aware of the presence of Tiger, else they would have pressed the panic button. The Tigress, to its credit, kept sleeping in the same position and did not make any noticeable movements. Maybe the deer had thought the Tigress was sleeping and hence it is safe to cross the open grounds to reach the lake edge. In any case, they maintained a distance of at least 200 meters from the Tigress, which is far more than the charging distance of a Tiger (the distance at which a Tiger would start running towards its prey for the final attack). Once the deer went back from the lake, the Tigress moved swiftly and disappeared in the long grass at maybe about 6.30pm. For the next 5 minutes or so we lost track of the Tigress. Then our guide shouted that she had grabbed a Sambar deer in the bushes. Both were barely visible as they were inside the long grass. We could only occasionally see patches of Tigress and Sambar in the bushes and trace the latest location. We realized that the Sambar was constantly trying to free itself and dragging the young Tigress along, which to its credit never lost the grip all this while. All the action happened inside the bushes for 15 minutes, then the Sambar resisted and reached the open area. So the Tigress was also dragged out of the bushes along with the Sambar at about 6.45pm. For our eyes and cameras, the real action started now. The young Tigress was struggling to take down the Sambar at one go. Usually, a full grown Tiger would have strangulated the prey with a bite in the neck. But this inexperienced Tigress was mostly dragging the Sambar by its feet, or clinging on to its body and was unable to get to the neck. This is a very unusual Tiger hunting behavior. Just before our safari time got over, the Tigress was finally able to reach the neck and ended the pain of the struggling Sambar and rested it eternally. What I witnessed that day will remain etched in my memory for the rest of my life. While one poor creature lost its life, a predator found its meal to survive the next few days. We witnessed the existence of the food chain pyramid in all its starkness.
Below is the story in pictures, as it happened.
It was sleeping and waiting at same position for over 3 hours
The Tigress approaches the bush
The first glimpse of action inside the bush
And they come out, Tigress holding on to the Sambar
A struggle for life...and death
The struggle continues
End of the day for Sambar