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A Queen’s Epitaph

What endeared her to conservationists and wildlife biologists and earned her the ‘supermom’ tag was her unprecedented contribution of 29 cubs to the now thriving tiger population of Pench. With partners like T30, Chhota Male and Rayyakasa (who has been with her since 2012) she mothered eight litters during the decade between 2008 and 2018

ARGHA KUMAR BANERJEE | Kolkata |

The glowing tributes pouring in remembrance of the deceased tigress ‘Collarwali’ of the Pench Tiger Reserve is perhaps unprecedented in the history of tiger conservation in the country; testifying to the immense popularity that the big cat had garnered during her lifetime across the globe. Her sad demise last Saturday evening, at the Karmajhiri range of the Pench Tiger Reserve, due to agerelated problems united wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, filmmakers, photographers and general masses alike throughout the country.

Under veterinary observation during her last few days, the sixteen-year-old tigress, in accordance with the park officials’ reports, was last seen in the vicinity of Bhura Dev Nullah on 14 January in a rather frail and enervated state.

As local tribal leader and president of the Eco Vikas Samiti, Karmajhiri, Shantabai Saryam consigned the tiger-queen to flames, effusive obituaries continued to inundate social media and other forums, deeply mourning her sad demise.

Beyond exceptional circumstances, it is extremely unlikely for the chief minister of any state to pay glorious eulogies to a big cat in the wild. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s heartfelt homage for the deceased ‘Super Tigress Mom’ or ‘Collarwali’ underscores the unique status the tigress earned in the past decade or so in the hearts of millions.

Collarwali irretrievably secured the ‘Tiger state status’ for Madhya Pradesh, singularly luring tourists across the world largely with her nonchalant forays across the kuccha roads of the Pench Tiger Reserve; as winding chains of tourist vehicles made a beeline to catch a magical glimpse of her majestic presence.

Occasionally in the company of her growing cubs, she seemed unperturbed by all the attention showered upon her. As photographers incessantly clicked away, ensuring treasured memories of their wildlife experience, the Queen of Pench royally ignored such spotlight with disdain, often leisurely spending long hours in the water holes or basking in the sunlight.

No wonder, addressing her as ‘the pride of Madhya Pradesh’, Chauhan hailed the ‘mother of 29 cubs’ and stressed the crucial role she played in facilitating tiger conservation in the state: “The forests of Madhya Pradesh will always resonate with the roar of the cubs of the ‘Queen’ of Pench Tiger reserve.”

As a wildlife enthusiast, of the several sightings I had of her at Pench, the first encounter in 2015 was extremely special. Like any other tiger enthusiast, I had the good fortune of tiger sightings in reserves like Ranthambore, Corbett, Bandhavgarh, and Tadoba among other parks, but she was special in more ways than one. In spite of the close proximity of the safari vehicle, she would amazingly remain untroubled and at ease to the vehicular presence in her near vicinity.

Back then, during my first sighting, she was raising her litter, but that did not hinder her stately vigils across her zone. In fact, she graced me with back-toback sightings during my multiple safaris in Pench, sometimes even twice on a single day!

Often, she would lie in the water hole for long hours in the afternoon, cooling herself. Having sufficiently chilled herself she would then make her way between the long line of vehicles, disappearing in the wilderness, often to the accompaniment of the ever-vigilant calls of the retreating barking deer or the nervous foot tapping of the apprehensive sambar or spotted deer.

Sharing anecdotes with various safari drivers and guides at Pench, I found out why Collarwali was so special for them too. Her easy graceful movement in her territory, oblivious of the swarming safari vehicles is somewhat exclusive in the history of tiger tourism in the country.

Other tigresses like ‘Machli’ (Ranthambore National Park) or ‘Maya’ (Tadoba Tiger Reserve) have made themselves centers of attention in the minds of tourists over several decades, but none has endeared herself to the conservationists as Collarwali’s formidable presence in the Pench Tiger Reserve. As a mother, she not only raised numerous litters successfully, but she managed to retain her territory against all odds, often successfully defending her land and cubs against the aggression of male tigers. Unlike other feline mothers, she would lead her cubs out in the open, disregarding the intimidation posed by safari vehicles and tourists assembling from all over the world.

In her astounding presence in Pench, Collarwali somewhat extended the legacy of her formidable parents: father T-1 also famously known as ‘Charger’ and her mother, T-7, well known as ‘Badi mata’.

Born on 22 September 2005, the eldest of the four cubs of the litter, she also featured in the popular BBC wildlife documentary ‘Spy in the Jungle’, filmed by David Attenborough. By diligently using spy cameras (strategically located by elephants) the documentary closely recorded the life stories of four tiger cubs spanning a couple of years in the Pench Tiger Reserve.

True to her name, she had been radio-collared twice in her lifetime, initially on 11 March 2008 and later in January 2010. Though the collar fell off her neck in August 2016, her association with it remained for a lifetime through her christening as ‘Collarwali’, the first tigress to be fitted with a radio collar for smooth monitoring of her movements by forest officials.

Dominating the prey rich Karmajhiri territory of the reserve, she outlived the normal expectancy of most big cats in the wild by managing to live beyond 16 years. What endeared her to conservationists and wildlife biologists and earned her the ‘supermom’ tag was her unprecedented contribution of 29 cubs to the now thriving tiger population of Pench. With partners like T30, Chhota Male and Rayyakasa (who has been with her since 2012) she mothered eight litters during the decade between 2008 and 2018.

After the initial failure in 2008 with her first litter, she eventually managed to rear 25 out of her 29 cubs, giving birth to her final litter in December 2018. On 23 October 2010, she had given birth to a litter of five cubs consisting of four females and one male. Beyond Pench, she is also responsible for revival of the tiger population in other tiger reserves in the country. When the Panna Tiger Reserve witnessed steady decline of tiger population in 2008, conservationists found a solution by transferring one of Collarwali’s female cubs there for steady re-population.

No wonder she has the unique distinction of being featured on a special cover envelope, issued in her honour by the Department of Posts on the World Sparrow Day (20 March 2015).

Besides this, issuance of special stamps by countries like New Zealand and Canada also testify to her worldwide popularity. Love for the queen of Pench today has united all nature enthusiasts across the globe.

Living under the looming threat of climate change, Collarwali’s celebration of life serves as a beacon of hope amidst the rampant ecological destruction all around. The queen’s legacy will definitely endure.

(The writer is the Dean of Arts, St Xavier’s College (Autonomous), Kolkata)