I first heard of a tiger named Bamera in the summer of 2010, while we were doing a survey in the buffer villages of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. At the time, he had gained notoriety for lifting cattle and had planted a certain degree of fear in the minds of the villagers. “Bahut bada hai sahab, itna bada tiger humne aaj tak nahi dekha (He's huge. We've never seen such a big tiger)," spluttered a resident of the village from which Bamera got his name.
Very quickly, Bamera made an entry into Bandhavgarh as its dominant male, overthrowing his ageing father – B2. Slated to be the biggest tiger Bandhavgarh had seen in a few years, Bamera coaxed everyone’s imagination, becoming the stuff of legends among the drivers and guides of the park. “Arey, gadi ke bonnet jitna bada hai (he's as big as a car's bonnet),” some claimed, while others gestured with their hands an unrealistic proportion to specify his size and width. But all had one declaration in common – “Bilkul B2 jaisa hai, shant aur shareef (he's just like B2, quite and well-behaved).”
Dying to sight this darling of the forest, I finally saw him in the summer of 2012, during one of our Village Kids’ Awareness Programmes. As soon as we had entered the Tala zone of the park in the sweltering heat, we had sensed the sambars’ unease. Several hesitant honks and foot stampings later, out he walked, ignoring the frenzied chital and honking sambar to finally settle down in a pool of water in the Chakradhara meadow. Drinking water at sporadic intervals, he had looked around lazily and slowly drifted into a hot summer afternoon nap. As expected, other vehicles rushed in to see him, clamouring with each other to get a better look at him. That’s when one of the drivers had laughed and said, “Yeh Bamera hai, aaram se dekho, itni jaldi uthne wala nahi hai (this is Bamera, you can see him at ease, he's not going to get up so fast)” and he was right. This trait has always been true of Bamera, his calm disposition was a treat to observe. That summer, Bamera was quite a showstopper for the kids, appearing regally almost every day to be met with gasps of admiration from the children.
A family man
The next time I saw Bamera was in 2013 and this is perhaps my favourite memory of him. It was when he was playing nanny to the Banbehi cubs. One of the three cubs had sought shelter under a lantana bush at Bhitri, and was refusing to give away its location, resulting in both Bamera and Banbehi frantically looking for it. Bamera’s ‘Aunh’ was very gentle, lazy, half hearted, like a purr almost, urging the cub to come out of hiding. Meanwhile, Banbehi staged impatience by lashing her tail and sniffing the air, as though telling Bamera to get a move on and do a better job of cub hunting. We watched this spectacle as long as time would permit. The cub displayed serious tenacity by sticking to its hiding spot, while its parents finally retreated to the hills hoping that their cub would follow. Among other things, Bamera was recognised as a good father and the perfect babysitter. So much so that Banbehi was known to leave all her three cubs in his care and wander her realm. For his part, Bamera seemed like he was more than happy to be a stay-at-home father and allow Banbehi to bring home the bacon.
The last I saw of Bamera was in the winter of 2013, when a sudden call by a sambar in the failing evening light encouraged a race towards Chakradhara. We just about made it, and watched the tiger with the most unhurried of gaits walk into the tall grass. Everything seemed glorious and rainbow-like, but little did I know, that that was the last time I would see him. Thereon, sightings of Bamera were only hearsay – a glimpse here, a cattle lifting story there... very similar to his mysterious entry into the jungle fold. His exit, with the coming of younger tigers, seemed inevitable and was to be without much suffering, but nature had other things in store. The massive paw that had once decorated the forest floor had now begun to deteriorate.
He finally took very ill in the last one year and had to be shifted to an enclosure where he was labelled safe – safe from the wrath of villagers and younger tigers, but this safety unfortunately deprived people who loved him dearly from getting a glimpse of him.
I guess, in a way, I am glad that I didn’t see a deteriorating Bamera. I wouldn’t want to know a deteriorating Bamera, and would rather that my memory rewind to him as the golden cat who appeared mysteriously, grabbing everyone’s imagination.
Bhavna Menon graduated with a Bachelors degree in Arts from Delhi and later, moved to Mumbai to pursue her post-graduate studies in Journalism. She is currently employed with Last Wilderness Foundation, an NGO working towards wildlife conservation, as a Project Co-ordinator. An unedited version of this article was first published on her blog.
This article first appeared on Sanctuary Asia.