It’s not often that one gets to spend the entire day with one of Ranthambore’s, and possibly the world’s most famous tiger, Noor. The added bonus was a whole day of seeing her feed and frolic with her three cubs.
I had been visiting Ranthambore National Park for some time now in my new avatar as a photographer and following wherever my muse took me in search of tiger sightings. And there is no better place to do this but at the Ranthambore National Park.
Located in the Sawai Madhopur district of Rajasthan at the junction of the Aravallis and the Vindhya range of mountains, this safe haven for tigers was the former hunting grounds of the Maharaja of Jaipur. It was in 1973 that the park came within the ambit of ‘Project Tiger’ and later in 1980 was declared a National Park. The park derives its name from the Ranthambore fort that sits at the edge of the reserve and is a popular tourist attraction. The proactive efforts of Forest Department to conservation and out of the box thinking has made Ranthambore National Park one of the most secure wildlife destinations in India. It is popularly believed that Ranthambore has the lowest tiger cub mortality rates in the country and up to 90% of the cubs survive to adulthood, which is a remarkable feat by any standards.
I have witnessed many of the cubs growing up, but one of my enduring memories is of Noor and her cubs. Here is my story.
While on a full-day safari in 2017, I had the good fortune not only to sight a tiger but to see Noor and her three cubs devour and feed on a deer carcass. Besides being a great photographic opportunity it was an awesome moment, one I will never forget.
It was just before six in the morning on a hot day in the month of May as I waited at gate number 3 of Ranthambore National Park, already soaked in sweat. But despite the discomfort, all I could think about was what lay ahead. Would I get to see tigers, would the sightings be special and — most importantly — would I get to take some good photographs. The forest guard waved my vehicle through the gate to the park, and we headed to some of Ranthambore’s most iconic locations — Padam Lake and Rajbagh, in search of the tigress Arrowhead. Searching the area and the old ruins that are dotted around the lakes yielded no result. Arrowhead was nowhere to be seen, so I gave up and headed to a part of zone 2, locally referred to as Futa Kot. This was Noor’s territory.
Noor is the Queen of the jungle. Besides being a bold and beautiful tigress, she is not shy of people, which makes photographing her an absolute pleasure and a rewarding experience. I hoped to get a glimpse of her and, if my luck held out, maybe her three cubs as well. On reaching the Futa Kot area, we saw a puzzling sight. In the middle of the dirt track lay a half-eaten deer carcass. While my driver, guide and I debated on what could have happened, we heard sambhar and langur alarm calls faintly audible in the distance, which could be signs of a hungry tiger on the prowl!
This was a tricky situation – we could follow the alarm calls in the hopes of a sighting or stay with the carcass. In the end, and on the advice of the driver, I decided to just sit back and wait. Thirty minutes went by and with each passing minute not only did I lose hope, but I was also getting physically tired. It was getting hotter and the tree cover was scanty, not good enough to provide the shade that was desperately needed by us.
Then, as the empty bottles of water piled up and the wait in the heat became unbearable, we heard sounds of approaching vehicles. I was excited because I realised this meant a tiger was heading in my direction. Those had to be vehicles following the tiger! Could it be Noor? Maybe I was about to get the so-sought-after head-on shot of a tiger!
I lay low in my open jeep, the centre seat having been removed, to get an eye level perspective. I chose a wide aperture to get that perfect bokeh. I had my finger on the shutter, all ready to fire. As anticipated and hoped for, Noor did appear around the bend. But instead of coming towards us, she decided to continue walking toward the nearby waterhole.
As I lay down my camera in despair, she suddenly stopped, turned her head ever so slightly and gazed at the deer carcass that lay right in front of me. Her casual stroll now changed to a prowl, and then she darted across my safari vehicle, right for the kill!
On reaching the carcass she grabbed it by the throat and dragged it just off the dirt track and lay down to eat. I suddenly noticed her cubs had been trailing her and they also realised that Mother had arranged for a meal. There was tension in the air and a lot of growling and snarling as the cubs established a clear pecking order. The dominant cub got the lions’ share of the deer carcass while the others made do with whatever they could get their hands on.
The news of the sighting had spread across Zone 2 and soon there were over a dozen vehicles located strategically around the tigers to get a glimpse of the action. The next few hours were spent watching them devour the carcass. At around half past eleven all the vehicles had left, and I found myself all alone in the presence of Noor and her three cubs. Now the tigers were almost done with the deer carcass and were delicately scraping off whatever meat that still clung to the deer’s bones.
By early afternoon it had gotten very hot, but my persistence and patience had been rewarded with some good photographs. Now, I was no longer interested in taking more but neither was I ready to leave just yet. Being around the tigers instilled a sort of energy that made me forget the overwhelming heat, and the fact that we had not eaten all day and were running out of bottled water. We parked under a nearby tree and spent the next few hours watching the beautiful animals go through their post-meal rituals. Noor now groomed her cubs one by one and got them to take a nap, lying under a palm tree herself to get respite from the mid-day sun.
One of the cubs was restless and did not want to go to sleep, choosing to explore the area instead. The inquisitive cub even approached my vehicle a few times, perhaps wondering why on earth anyone would be so obsessed with them. Each time the cub would pass by us, it would lay down as if it were posing. The cub had obviously inherited Noor’s lack of shyness and to my utter joy turned her play time into a photoshoot. The cub would look at me wherever it would go, it would hide behind bushes just to pop its head out as if to see if I was still around. The cub even climbed a tree just to get a look at me from a different perspective.
By late afternoon the tigers finally appeared tired and very drowsy and so we decided to leave them alone and head back. As we drove off I realised that the day had been a special one. Not only did I get to see four tigers for literally an entire day but that day I felt that I had integrated with them just like a member of their family, and that will remain a memory forever.
Since the sighting, a lot has happened with Noor and her three cubs. One of her cubs (T106) was relocated to Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve where she mated and had cubs of her own. Sadly, she died recently because of unknown reasons. Two of her cubs died too. As far as Noor’s other two cubs are concerned, as they neared adulthood, and in the natural order of things, they began the search for territories of their own, and banished Noor from the area. Today the matriarch trespasses on the territories of other tigers, sometimes accepted by some groups and sometimes not. For an aging tiger, the beautiful Noor is doing whatever she can to survive.