Photographs & Article by Thomas Vijayan
There are moments in life which turns all your beliefs and assumptions on their head. Wild life photographers are a breed who witness a lot of the spectacular, unbelievable and gruesome sides of nature. But there are things which even they consider impossible, like seeing the jagged teeth of a wild tiger caressing another animal in a gingerly hold.
I was in Ranthambore National park, Rajasthan, India – when we came across a tiger on the hunt. It was targeting a group of spotted deer. We were mighty excited as it is indeed rare to sight a tiger hunt in its natural habitat. We watched in awe as the tiger locked on to a deer and started its approach. Just then the deer became alert and took off. The tiger gave chase and ended up colliding with a Nilgai(Blue bull), which was in the way of the hunt. The Nilgai fell down and this prompted the tiger to change target and it quickly killed the fallen animal. It then dragged the kill behind a bush. What followed next was both heart breaking as well as intriguing.
I am used to travelling the world in search of exotic wild life moments and have visited Ranthambore a number of times before, hence fairly familiar with the behavior of a wild tiger. But this tiger started behaving odd after the kill, it looked disturbed, even worried. It even occurred to me that the tiger was in deep thought, contemplating something.
Anticipating the movements of the animal, I took cover behind some branches. The animal now even looked remorseful. Surprisingly the tiger made no effort to eat its kill. The dead animal looked pregnant. It now became apparent to me that the tiger realized that the animal was pregnant after slaying it. The presence of the fully grown fetus in the Nilgai’s womb was somehow disturbing the tiger. I knew that the fetus would have died with the mother.
In its worried state the tiger looked to be completely oblivious of our presence. What followed next was most extraordinary. The tiger started by plucking some leaves off a branch with its teeth, which it carefully carried in its mouth and deposited near the dead animal. It then started to claw at the stomach of the dead Nilgai. It took me a moment to realize that the animal was doing this gently, almost like a surgeon doing a complex procedure. In a flash the intent of the animal became clear to me. It was going to perform a C-section and take out the baby. I started trembling with this realization.
With great care the tiger was cutting open layer after layer of the stomach lining. Painstakingly after a nail biting half an hour, the tiger had got the womb open. It now gathered the leaves and layered its mouth with them. With the leaves acting as a cushion the tiger carefully removed the baby from the mother’s womb with its jaws. Taking tender steps it moved away and very gently deposited the already dead baby next to a boulder. Wow – did I just imagine this or did this actually happen!!
Tigers are used to carrying their own cubs in their jaws. It is with the same care that this tiger handled the dead fetus of a Nilgai, which is one of its natural prey. The same jaws which crush and tear and bring pain and death, transforming into a compassionate cradle for another animal!
The tiger moved the fetus behind the boulders and I could see it walk away. I lost site of the body. It was already dark and we had to head back. Next day along with a group of forest officers I was back on the scene. We could see the skeleton of the Nilgai, but there was no sign of the fetus.
Another reminder to me that you can go to the most exotic locales, have the best of the equipment, but moments like this, to photograph them are a blessing from the almighty.
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