Early on June 6 morning, near a village in Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, a male tiger killed a cow. For the entire day, the tiger remained in the area but did not eat the kill. This was unexpected behaviour from a tiger and the tiger reserve management deployed ground staff deployed to find out the reason.
The team found that the area where the tiger killed the cow is the territory of four tiger cubs. This male tiger, known as P243, is their father. The cubs had lost their mother a month ago. So does the father, P243’s behaviour, indicate something? Did he leave the cow for the cubs to eat? These are the questions that the forest officials have been pondering over.
In tigers, it is usually the mother that provides parental care. The cubs remain with the mother and learn hunting, survival skills and marking territory before they separate to establish their own territories at about two years of age. The male tiger is not involved in parenting and acts only as the protector. P243 showed a shift from this behaviour.
There were more incidents that indicated that P243 is trying to support his cubs. Officials found that earlier, on May 21, the tiger hunted a sambar in the same area and shared the prey with all four cubs. These incidents indicate that the male tiger, in an extraordinary shift in behaviour, is taking care of its cubs after the death of its mate.
Field Director of the tiger reserve, UK Sharma said, “Yes, the circumstances indicate that the male tiger is taking care of its cubs. We are monitoring the behaviour of the tiger and the cubs.”
Tigress P213-32, the mother of four cubs, had died on May 15 this year. The cause of her death has not been established.
“After the death of the tigress, we located these cubs and placed camera traps in the area,” Sharma told Mongabay-India. “We found that the tiger visits these cubs regularly, and his behaviour shows that he is not a threat to the cubs. We have seen the cubs playing with the male tiger and sharing kills.”
The tiger reserve management has been observing the behaviour of the male tiger after the death of his partner.
“As per the reported past behaviour, P243 had been with P213-32 for more than two years,” said a report released by the Panna Tiger Reserve administration. “He was not seen with any other tigress.”
“He was also seen at the cremation site of P213-32 within an hour of the cremation on the evening of May 15,” said the report. “The next day on May 16, he was found sitting for long hours at the place where P213-32 died. The cubs were also assumed to be located in and around that place.”
“It was also observed that P243 was giving small calls that were interpreted as calls to cubs,” the report added.
“Behaviour of tiger P243 strengthened the belief that his presence means no harm to cubs,” said Sharma. “Instead, it showed lots of promise about the safety of the cubs. There is not much knowledge of the cubs’ behaviour after their mother’s death. We are also learning more about cubs’ behaviour.”
Panna Tiger Reserve is a critical tiger habitat located in Vindhya Hill in northern Madhya Pradesh and fragile through the dynamic dry deciduous forest covering 1,598.1 sq km.
The mother of the cubs, tigress P213-32, had a radio collar on her neck for monitoring. The Panna Tiger Reserve staff got “mortality signals” on May 12 as there was no movement by the tigress for five hours to six hours. The tracking party soon found out that the tigress was moving slowly and was sluggish. They found a swelling in the left fore-limb of the tigress and she was taken in for treatment. Unfortunately, she died while undergoing treatment, leaving behind four cubs.
“Postmortem did not reveal anything clearly about the cause of death. Samples of blood and body parts were taken and sent to three different laboratories, namely Nanaji Deshmukh Veterinary Science University, Jabalpur, Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Bareilly and State Forensic Science Laboratory, Sagar,” said a report by the tiger reserve.
Two days after the death of the mother, the cubs were located by an elephant search team with 50 ground staff and trap cameras. All the cubs looked healthy, active and seemed neither hungry nor stressed, as reported. The father, P243, was also found to be moving in a nearby area and kept at bay from the ground search party.
“Cubs are found to be eight months old, which means they have not learnt to hunt yet,” said Sharma. “And before the death of their mother P213-32, all had started eating kills with the mother, but they are not seen hunting any live prey till now.”
“We decided to take care of these cubs in the wild,” said Sharma. “They eat if the prey is available in their territory. If the prey is not inside the cub’s territory, we support in terms of bringing the carcass hunted by their father P243 or by any other carnivore, inside cub’s territory is required.”
Past attempts failed
There have been attempts to rewild orphaned cubs, in the past, in Madhya Pradesh. In 2017, three orphaned cubs were found in the Bandhavgarh tiger reserve of Madhya Pradesh. Poachers had killed the mother of the cubs. The reserve administration tried to save all three four-month-old cubs, but failed and cubs died of viral infection.
In another incident in 2017, in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, the mother abandoned her tiger cubs when they were one-and-a-half-month old. The reserve management found them near a prey. The cubs were weak, so the reserve management decided to protect them in an enclosed environment.
The administration worked on developing instinct in the cubs so that they can kill in the wild, but the experiment failed. The cubs were shifted to a zoological park, “Van Vihar”, in the capital city of Bhopal.
Experts feel that raising the cubs once the mother has died is a very challenging task.
“A tiger needs to be around two years of age to be able to hunt independently,” Mridul Pathak, a retired forest officer who has served as the field director of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, told Mongabay-India. “Cubs can go for easy prey before that, under the guidance of tigress.”
Pathak was posted at Bandhavgarh when orphaned cubs were found.
“This is not the first time when a male tiger is taking care of cubs, but it is surely a rare thing,” said Pathak. “It is very challenging for Panna Tiger Reserve to take care of cubs in the wild and protect them from other wild animals.”
It is yet to be seen whether P243 will teach the cubs how to hunt, or whether they would learn it on their own, or if they would have to be raised in a near-natural environment like Van Vihar, like the 2017 case.
A report by PTR further said that the eight-month-old cubs have learnt the art of ripping open the prey to eat it.
“Though they have natural instincts, it is possible that they learn to hunt on their own, but they will have a tough time learning the skills without their mother,” added Sharma. “If they gain weight, and grow up to be strong, it is likely that they may learn to prey by themselves in the next few months.”
“Ranthambhore National Park had witnessed a similar situation in 2011,” added Pathak. A tigress died two months after giving birth to two cubs. T-25, the father of the cubs, had taken the responsibility of taking care of the cubs.
Keeping all the challenges in mind, PTR is making efforts to protect cubs and to take care of them in the wild.
“As per the information available regarding tiger behaviour, tiger cubs normally start hunting after the age of 12 months-13 months,” said Sharma. “Considering this as the baseline, it is to be monitored for next four to five months that cubs are protected and properly fed.”
The cubs currently weigh between 50 kg to 60 kg and the tiger reserve says that their weight should increase to 80 to 90 kgs in the next four months for their proper growth. To gain this weight, the cubs need to 25-30 preys in the next three months to four months, the Panna Tiger Reserve report said.
“Male tiger P243 has been successfully collared. As cubs could not be located in a suitable location, no cub could be collared,” said the Panna Tiger Reserve report.
The Panna Tiger Reserve management feels that if the male tiger P243 comes in contact with any other tigress, it will be necessary to monitor the behaviour of both P243 and tigress towards the cubs.
“If there is any threat due to pairing or cubs are abandoned by P243 in this situation, suitable course of action needs to be planned,” said a report released by the tiger reserve management. “And finally, if cubs survive and become capable of hunting after a few months from now, then also their monitoring on long term basis may be taken up.”
Madhya Pradesh is known as the “Tiger State” with a population of 526 tigers, according to the All India Tiger Estimation Report 2018, released in the year 2019. The state has lost 24 tigers in 2021 as of July 1, according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority dashboard.
National Tiger Conservation Authority data says that 26 tigers died in the year 2020 and 28 in 2019 in Madhya Pradesh. The state had the most tiger deaths in the country, 172, from the year 2012 to 2019, according to the National Tiger Conservation Authority website.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.