The first sight of Maya

She seemed lost in thought – her head resting on her paws. Occasionally, she raised it to scan the surroundings while drinking water and licking her paws. “Is she worried?” I asked Viswas, our guide. “No idea, Sir-jee. Could be as her first litter did not survive and the current one is also in danger”. Ever since we reached Tadoba, news of this tigress and her cubs were doing the rounds. Her name is Maya and she is the famed Pandharpaoni female of the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. Every time Tadoba comes up in discussions, Maya’s name would feature in it. She is not merely an adult tigress but is also the mother of three one-year-old cubs. Those who have travelled, read and know about Indian forests would acknowledge the role of a tiger mother.

Some of the famous tales of our forests are built around the mothers be it famous Padmini of Ranthambore or Sita, the matriarch of Bandhavgarh or Collarwali, the ‘mataram’ of Pench. And those who don’t know anything about tigers know one name for sure – Machli, the famous mother of Ranthambore, a tigress with boundless courage to fight against all odds and emerge as the winner. Machli fought the big males and a crocodile to protect her cubs – so what would Maya do? Will she follow the same path? The answer lay in the events that unfolded before our eyes as we explored forests of Tadoba over the next few days.

How the drama unfolded

A tigress is known to rear cubs who stay with her for 18-24 months before they gradually disperse with the male cub (if present) in the litter leaving his mother first. Here Maya has been separated from her one-year-old cubs and there were concerns about whether the cubs would survive or not. But why did Maya leave her cubs? We got the answer when we saw the big male Matkasur – he was after Maya and wanted to mate with her. Many had seen Matkasur with Maya and he was definitely not the father of her present litter. He had chased one of the cubs on the morning we had arrived at Todoba and afterwards, he was seen following Maya. The cubs had run for cover almost bumping into tourist gypsies out of fear. Viswas was relating the incidents when suddenly out of the bushes a tiger sub-adult cub emerged. It was frantically running and stopping to look back. Was it afraid of something? “This is Maya’s male cub sirjee” – an excited Viswas told us and just as he said the cub started running again. Was Matkasur after him? It definitely looked as if it had been chased – fear was reflecting in its actions as it went out of sight. What’s going on?

Maya has been forced to separate from her cubs as big male Matkasur would kill her cubs for sure (that’s how the rules of the jungle are). She probably doesn’t want to fight (not sure she stands a chance given the size and frame of Matkasur ). So is she doing it the other way? Luring Matkasur away from her cubs so that they can survive while she keeps him busy by pretending to surrender?

We saw Maya the next day, in a waterhole cooling off. She rose after a few minutes and started walking. She went on marking trees (leaving trails for Matkasur to follow), moving around the Gypsies completely indifferent to the people around. Her cubs were nowhere to be seen as expected. As she went out of sight, we only hoped that her strategy of staying away from her cubs pays off – Matkasur remains lured by her charms and forgets about killing the cubs.

Multiple suitors

After we came back, I called up many times to find what had happened every time anxious to know the fate of Maya and her cubs in particular. What I heard and read surprised me even more. There was another male – the great Gabbar who too was after Maya and the pair had been sighted multiple times. So Maya had her task cut out – two big Males stood between her and her cubs! It was reported that she mated with Gabbar too. Gabbar probably won the fight against Matakasur and now could stake claim to the territory of Maya – territorial fight is common among Male tigers in the forest and one who wins also owns the females in the territory. Does it sound familiar?

Good news arrived after a couple of anxious weeks when Maya’s cubs were found hunting small animals – it seemed that they were close to adulthood and could survive without the presence of their mother as she kept the big males occupied. One of the scientists gave his verdict.”Maya’s territory overlaps with four males. Mating with them is the best strategy she adopted to save cubs. Had Maya been defiant, she and her cubs could have been either harmed or killed by the other males”

The entire episode gradually drew to a close as Maya succeeded in her role of a mother. Today, Maya is raising her third litter under the watchful eyes of her current partner Matkasur (he now controls the territory of Maya having won decisively against Gabbar ).

She was more at ease compared to what had happened in 2016 but as fate would have it young and powerful Chota Matka (Matkasur’s son from another tigress) has invaded her territory in 2019. This time, Maya has chosen to fight (different approach than what she adopted earlier). There have been reports of violent confrontations between Maya and Chota Matka and the male tiger has been forced to retreat. It remains to be seen how long Maya can keep the intruding male at bay.

On the road to greatness?

Maya’s behaviour does throw light on the indomitable spirit of a tiger mother- unlike Vijaya of Bandhavgarh who lost her cubs despite making repeated attempts of raising litters and controlling her territory. Maya triumphed against all the odds and on multiple occasions and was able to save her litter through different strategies. She showed the remarkable presence of mind, boundless patience and unmatched skill of managing the males – three key traits that probably defines a great “Tiger mother” along with her obvious ability to hunt regularly to feed the cubs. She seems destined to be crowned the queen of Tadoba, ready to take on the throne left vacant by great Madhuri (who now raises another litter in the buffer zones). Can she be compared to the likes of Machli or Collarwali? Well, some distance remains but to her cubs and those who see her regularly she epitomises the lines, “Of all gifts that Nature has to offer to living beings, Mother is the greatest of them all.”