A bittersweet moment with wild infant tiger cubs

Early in the morning, soon after entering Bandhavgarh tiger park, we’d spotted a female tiger. It was the Chakradhara tigress walking through one of her meadows. It was still so early that it was too dark for any but the most outrageous motion-blur photography. The sun was still below the horizon and the tigress was nothing more than a dark shape moving through the long grass.

Tiger Tourism: Jeep Safari
Tourist jeep driving along dusty track above the forest. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh National Park, India with Canon EOS 10D and EF16-35 mm ƒ/2.8L lens at ¹⁄₂₅ sec at ƒ / 8.0 on ISO 100

It wasn’t long before we were joined by many more vehicles. Spotting the massing frenzy of metal, she halted her journey toward us. The tiger turned aside and entered the forest, continuing her journey inside the treeline, appearing and disappearing from view with an accompaniment of “oohs ‘n’ aarrrs” from the tourist laden jeeps.

Our friend and guide, Digpal, explained that this tiger was likely to have her new litter stashed safely on the hillside of the fort and was making her way there. Park officials had heard calls from an area close to the old Bandhavgarh Fort gate. The tigress was therefore likely to be returning to them and needed to cross our track.

She had now moved to the edge of the treeline and with the sunlight shining, she could easily be seen slinking between trees. As the photographic opportunity would be largely obscured by dust and jeeps, I asked Digpal to keep back from the frenzy so we could get a good view of the spectacle.

The jeeps jostled for their brief views of the tigress but to a great extent she remained hidden from view. A long and frenetic game of ‘cat and mouse’ ensued with the jeeps racing up and down to catch glimpses of her stripes. After half an hour, the racing stopped and a rare silence fell over the scene. She had eluded the jeeps and had apparently disappeared.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Chakradhara Tigress crossing track into meadow, Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India with Canon EOS 10D and Sigma 50-500 mm lens at ¹⁄₁₆₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

The seconds turned into minutes and both drivers and guides scratched their heads in confusion. Suddenly, she burst out of the bushes a good distance from the jeeps and made her escape. She darted across the road and entered the tall grass of Chakradhara meadow and was now both invisible and completely inaccessible.

For us, the viewing was over so we continued along our appointed route. There, we waited for news of any further tiger sightings. Then, the call came through that the elephants had found the same Chakradhara tigress lying in the long grass of the meadow that we had just left. Knowing the grass was so thick, we decided not to return immediately but to continue our own search for a tiger without the crowds.

Our search was largely uneventful apart from a good sighting of a jungle cat up in the hills around Sukhi Patia. We returned to Chakradhara to see what the situation was like – was the tigress in the open or still well covered? In fact, she was barely visible!

Tiger Tourism: Jeep Safari
Tourists climbing down off the elephant after their tiger safari. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India with Canon EOS 10D and EF16-35 mm ƒ/2.8L lens at ¹⁄₆₀ sec at ƒ / 10 on ISO 200

We’d arrived very late and all but the last stragglers in the park had been in to see her. The last before us was a Cox & Kings guide. He said “…there’s no point, you can’t see her, let alone photograph her. You might as well save your money!” The problem was that we had already prepaid our elephant through the camp so we thought we’d might as well use it.

Tiger Tourism: Elephant Safari
Our guide and remaining tourists following us in on elephant. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India with Canon EOS 10D and Sigma 50-500 mm lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 4.5 on ISO 200

The elephant waded into the tall grass and ambled over to another elephant that was keeping watch on the tiger’s position. Even when we were close enough, it still took some searching to see her through the grass. Their camouflage is incredible.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Infant Bengal tiger cubs suckling from their mother, hidden in Chakradhara meadow. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India with Canon EOS 10D and Sigma 50-500 mm lens at ¹⁄₁₀₀₀ sec at ƒ / 4.5 on ISO 200

While we were gazing at her, the tigress was licking what we thought was her paw. Then it moved and we were suddenly aware that we were looking at a tiny tiger cub, nuzzling close to its mother’s head. The cub then crawled over its mother’s flank and suckled.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Bengal tiger cub suckling, holding on with tiny paws. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India with Canon EOS 10D and EF100-400 mm ƒ/4.0-5.6L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₂₀₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

The mahout could not believe his eyes and nearly dropped his radio in excitement, for they were the youngest tiger cubs that even he had seen. Their heads were no larger than a tennis ball, with blue eyes, and toothless gums.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Bare gums and with blue eyes, the cubs are less than 3-weeks old. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India with Canon EOS 10D and EF100-400 mm ƒ/4.0-5.6L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

After hearing the tiger cubs mewing, Jacq was in floods of tears and I had a major lump in my throat! The mahouts had seen the tigress three weeks earlier, heavily pregnant. Nobody could believe that she would hide her precious cubs in an open meadow.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
Bengal tiger cub suckling. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India with Canon EOS 10D and EF100-400 mm ƒ/4.0-5.6L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₂₅₀ sec at ƒ / 5.6 on ISO 200

Our elephant started to grow restless and began pulling at the grass with its trunk. It was hard to photograph with our photo-platform swaying around. In an instant, it seemed like the air exploded. The tiger’s roar was like a thunder-clap.

Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris)
The cubs’ mother rearing up, roaring and snarling at our elephant. Photograph by © Elliott Neep. Photographed in Bandhavgarh N.P., India with Canon EOS 10D and EF100-400 mm ƒ/4.0-5.6L IS USM lens at ¹⁄₄₀₀ sec at ƒ / 6.3 on ISO 200

The tigress launched out of the grass, scattering her cubs. She fell short of leaping up at us on the elephant, but stood less than a metre from my toes and roared. She was snarling and glaring at the elephant which had decided to rip-up the grass that the tigress was suckling on!

In a split second, the most serene and beautiful moment we had ever shared was blown away. My heart was hammering. With that deafening roar, our elephant span around in fright and had almost thrown Jacqueline to the ground. The mahout tried to console us, calm us down, but I just wanted to leave. I felt utterly loathsome for disturbing the tigress. The mahout insisted that this does just happen, but I wanted out…

We returned to the vehicle with my heart still trying to beat its way out of my ribcage. Digpal explained that the tigress and the cubs would now be protected and monitored by the mahouts and that tourists would not be allowed to see them again – not because of what had happened to us (which apparently happens all the time – just one of those things with elephants and tigers), but just as routine protection for the young family.