Three recent incidents of tigers killing and eating other tigers in the Kanha Tiger Reserve of Madhya Pradesh have reignited the old but seldom-understood phenomenon of cannibalism among the big cats. It also flies in the face of Jim Corbett's famous assertion of a tiger being "a largehearted gentleman".
But to be fair to the tiger, not all are blood-thirsty to this extent and such rare happenings largely remain undocumented. The first properly documented incident of tiger-cannibalism occurred a few years ago in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve (also in Madhya Pradesh). This one picture, kept under wraps for long for fear of causing bad press to the Indian wildlife's poster-boy, showed in unmistakable detail a tigress partaking the carcass of another tigress whom she had defeated in a territorial fight.
The victorious tiger in the picture is Kankatti (the one with a ruptured ear), and the half-eaten body belongs to Langdi (the lame one), who at the time was a fiercely protective mother of three cubs. The battle between these two tigers has since then entered the folklore of Bandhavgarh; and it did not end with Langdi's death. Two years later, her son returned and killed Kankatti, his mother's assassin!
For those who arrived late on the scene, here is how the marathon fight unfolded: Landgi, who had just given birth to three cubs, was the reigning queen of the Tala zone of Bandhavgarh. Everything was going fine for the young mother when an intruding tigress " later identified as Kankatti " arrived to take possession of the prey-rich Tala. A fight for territory ensued, went on for several days, and ended with a badly-bruised Kankatti turning tail.
Langdi must have heaved a sigh of relief, but her satisfaction at retaining the prime Tala zone as also ensuring safety of her cubs was short-lived. Kankatti returned a few weeks later, and with renewed vigour, launched a second assault on Langdi. This time, though, the tables were turned on Landgi. She not only paid with her life, but also became a meal for Kankatti. The three petrified cubs of Langdi, meanwhile, fled from Kankatti and found shelter in the Khitauli zone of Bandhavgarh, away from their mother's killer.
But the second act of the battle was yet to be played out, and it sheds powerful light on the mysterious world of the tigers. Some two years later, the son of the slain mother " now a young adult tiger himself and living off comfortably in the Khitauli region of the reserve " came back to the Tala zone, the same area he had fled in panic after the death of Langdi. This time he went straight for Kankatti, who had recently given birth to two cubs, killed her as well as her male cub and returned to the Khitauli zone. Did this young tiger just exact the revenge for his mother's killing, or were their other forces at work that led to the prolonged fight between the two tiger families?
And what about the recent incidents of cannibalism in Kanha Tiger Reserve? On Friday, the officials of the reserve came across the male tiger T-56 in the Kisli range: To their shock, he was busy chewing at the body of the recently-killed tiger T-36. It was the third such incident here in the past three months, and has understandably left the forest authorities baffled.
Madhya Pradesh's chief conservator of forests and presently Field Director of Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, Mridul Pathak offers an interesting insight into the incidents of cannibalism that have gripped his state. A big tiger reserve, points out Pathak, holds not just large numbers of big cats but also different "meta-populations" of tigers. According to him, members of a particular meta-population are generally accommodative of each other, and often behave as part of a single clan. Even at the time of territorial fights among the tigers of any one meta-population, the vanquished tiger is allowed to go away and is seldom killed or seriously mauled. In this respect, a tiger is indeed a largehearted gentleman.
The problem occurs when the fight takes place between tigers belonging to different meta-populations. When this happens, says Pathak who has decades of experience in wildlife management, the warring tigers show absolutely no consideration for each other. In such a scenario even William Shakespeare, writing in Richard III that "[N]o beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity", is proven wrong.
Pathak explains further, "When two tigers from different meta-populations confront each other, they exhibit two characteristics: Less affinity and more anger. It is because of this that a tiger is not content to just win; it eats the dead tiger."
These incidents show how little we know about the secretive world of tigers. Once in a while there appears a crack in their twilight zone and we come a step closer to understanding the life-patterns of this magnificent big cat. Of course we are allowed to see only a small part, and never the full picture.