By Sunny Shah

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During my ten-year career in wildlife conservation, I have made many park visits. I will remember for a long time a park safari at Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is divided into ten zones. Each zone has different entry points and terrain. More than fifteen tigers have established their individual territories within these zones. We entered Zone 2, home of Tigress 39 (T39) and Tigress 60 (T60), each having three cubs. T39’s photographs with her cubs have been shared widely on social networking sites: the majestic mother with three beautiful cubs playing on land and in the water.

Since Ranthambhore is a dry deciduous forest in an arid zone, most of the wildlife gathers at available water source points in the summer. These serve as good hunting areas for tigers, and therefore good spots for tiger sighting. After driving more than four kilometres, we found some vehicles parked in a queue. We were told that T39 was spotted the previous evening in that spot with her cubs. Tourist vehicles usually visit spots where tigers were last seen.

Just before we reached the spot, we saw a black-tailed mongoose, believed to be a good omen in local folklore for catching a glimpse of the big cat. According to our local guide Sharad, T39 was sleeping under the butea (palash or chheula) tree, around sixty metres away from us. Through binoculars, we saw the tigress sleeping. After about ten minutes, we decided to move on. Groups of tourists in their safari jeeps had also gathered by then.

Just when we were about to leave, we heard alarm calls by spotted deer. The driver of a vehicle behind us waved his hand. A person in that car was already photographing something at a distance. Merely ten metres away from us, an adult male leopard was making its way down the hill silently. It crossed the road into a dry stream cautiously.

The leopard was taking careful steps towards the sleeping tigress. After walking a few metres, it stopped and was on alert. Seconds later, the leopard turned and sprinted towards the road with the tigress right behind him. Since leopards are not that heavy and muscular, it quickly managed to climb up a Boswellia tree that stood fifteen metres tall. The tigress suddenly stopped the chase and settled down under the tree. Both cats were a few metres from us, easily visible to us – one had climbed up the tree in a desperate attempt to escape from the other, the largest predator of the jungle.

After a few minutes, the leopard growled to assess the tigress’s interest but did not attract the tigress’s attention. Minutes later, the tigress walked past some waiting vehicles and settled down at a spot opposite the tree. She soon returned to the tree with the leopard, who immediately became alert. The tigress took a big jump and attempted to climb nearly ten feet up the tree. The leopard moved to an even higher branch. Being heavy and muscular, the tigress could not climb the tree easily. But getting the leopard down from the tree wasn’t the ultimate interest of the tigress at that point. We assumed that she just wanted to scare the leopard to protect her cubs. The tigress didn’t try to climb again and walked away.

The leopard looked more relaxed and climbed further down the branch, slowly making its way to the bottom of the tree. It quietly walked away. The tigress walked away towards the stream. That day we witnessed a strong mother who did not tolerate the presence of other cats in her territory and protected her cubs, and a vigilant leopard that survived on its skills, agility, and presence of mind, avoiding a fight with the bigger predator.

About the Author:

Sunny Shah is the founder and head of Wolf&Co , a wildlife tour company. He has over 10 years of experience in wildlife conservation in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

About the Artist:

Asmita Sapre Ranganathan is a pathologist, poet, writer, Sanskrit teacher, and artist from Mumbai.