When forest guards play foster parents

When forest guards play foster parents
Mother tigresses typically focus on one single task — the safety and upbringing of their cubs. They are known to be over cautious and guard their young ones ferociously. Experts say that one cannot even see the pregnancy bulge of a tigress for a long period, in fact, it becomes visible just two weeks before she is about to deliver.

A predator has to keep itself super fit for the role nature has given it, which is to chase and hunt prey. That’s why tigresses have to deliver their cubs early, even though they are not completely developed — tiger cubs are totally blind and their vision comes only after 10-12 days of birth. They are, therefore, fully dependent on the mother. For the first month, the mother gives 70 per cent of her time to nursing the cubs, and reduces it to 30 per cent for the remaining two years that she keeps them with her. Imagine when such a caring mother dies and leaves her dependant cubs behind? Tigers being solitary animals, it is almost impossible for the lonely cubs to survive on their own without a mother’s protection and care.

However, in the last 10 years or so, four such mother tigresses have died in Ranthambhore leaving orphan cubs behind. Their ages were between three months to 15 months. Incredibly, with the forest staff acting as their foster parents, all of them attained adulthood. Where the mother tigress teaches them stalking, outwitting prey and keeping away from potential risks, here this role was played by forest guards. They provided them food and taught them survival skills, guiding them every step of the way.

The first such incident came to light back in 2002, when a mother of four cubs was found dead. Instead of sending them to a zoo, the forest department successfully raised all four. This was duly recorded and photographed. However, prior to this, the guards had found two other cubs as well and raised them too, but since they had no photographic evidence to prove their claim, senior forest officials were inclined to believe that the cubs had not managed to survive. Whatever may have been the case, there was no doubt that the experiment was the beginning of a new chapter in human-intervened conservation.

Of the total nine cubs raised in the last decade, one died in a territorial fight at the age of four, one is missing since the age of three, one died due to illness between 4-5 years, while the remaining six survived.

All these experiences have been incredible in themselves. In one instance, the forest department rescued the tiger cubs when they happened to wander out of the park, while in another, a father tiger helped in raising the orphan cubs. We may not be able to play god, but there is a chance we can provide a chance to these destiny’s children to roam freely in their jungle instead of a zoo.

(The writer is a conservation biologist at Tiger Watch, Ranthambore)

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