Saturday, June 15, 2002

Fighting tigers of Chhatbir
R.K. Luna

Chhatbir is famous for the tigers it houses
Chhatbir is famous for the tigers it houses

HUMAN interference and loss of habitat has left not many tigers in the wild. A few zoological parks, however, are centres of attraction for the number of tigers they house. The M.C. Zoological Park, Chhatbir, starting with a pair of tigers in 1978, has been in the forefront of conservation of Royal Bengal tigers. Despite having transferred a number of these animals to other zoos of the country and abroad, Chhatbir had 30 tigers in June 2001.

Since the zoo was originally planned for housing 10 tigers, the increasing population often triggers fights for supremacy. One such fight took place on a bright sunny day after a succession of misty days in December 2001. All the six adult tigers in the enclosure appeared to be be sleeping. The three cubs of the mother tigress had been separated from her and were lying in another enclosure as just a week ago the tigress had devoured her sibling and injured another tiger. Sensing the erratic behaviour of the mother tigress, it was considered appropriate to release her instead of inviting another casualty. The experienced zoo- keepers were told that tigress could be in oestrus, though there was no confirmation of this fact.


Suddenly, roars filled the air. The circuit camera showed ruthless violence in the zoo. The visitors, the zoo-keepers and the labourers gathered to watch the great battle. Four tigers of the pride inside the enclosure, perhaps surreptitiously sensing the dominating behaviour of the fifth, had perhaps planned to pounce on it as it passed the four. Though the fifth valiantly defended himself, he was grounded by the others. He fell on the snake channel with his four legs up in the air. The cries of the people did little to subdue the threatening growls of the four. It was only when the grounded fifth tiger surrendered his supremacy, the group of four relented and stealthily slipped into their cubicles. Finding himself alone in the enclosure, the fifth tiger wounded severely in the thighs and claws looked at the crowd and shied away. He was an adult male of 12 years, measuring about 10 feet and weighing about 200 kg.

No differences had ever been reported with the fellow tigers with whom he had shared food for many years. He was trembling and restlessly moving to escape, roaring every minute or so. The golden-yellow striped skin had become wet with perspiration and drops of blood were oozing from his wounds. For two days, he did not touch meat. After the pain subsided as a result of treatment of wounds, he cried for meat. In another two weeks, his wounds healed up.

Packing six adult tigers and seven sub-adults was a matter of concern as there were only four cubicles and one karal for feeding purposes. Space constraint compelled the authorities to release four sub-adults along with their mother. However, the injured fifth tiger and three cubs were enclosed in the cubicles. For two weeks it was all calm as the sub-adults after galloping, jumping and playing returned obediently to their cubicle in the evenings. Unexpectedly, danger bells sounded again in the afternoon of February 25 this year. The four tigers again attacked a dominating male. Perhaps they had assessed their capability and gained confidence from the previous episode. The attacked animal this time was an adult of about 10 years. Three attackers surrounded the victim, while the fourth pounced on him. The ferocity of the four sent the tiger hurtling to the ground, stripping his skin. For half an hour, paying no heed to human shouts, they continued to batter him. The unfortunate tiger was left with no life within a few minutes.

The eruption of recurrent fights hitherto unreported among the big cats in the zoo still remains unexplained. In their natural habitat, the tigers are reported to live in their divided territory where they settle and establish rights over the territory, which may cover a few square kilometres. Though considered supreme in the forests, there is one enemy a tiger must fear — and that is another of his own breed with which he has to face a constant battle for survival. Rivalry and competition for food has a marked influence on their behaviour.

A young male tiger may attack another young male because he senses future competition for space. A tigress is particularly wary of male tigers in the vicinity as any encounter is likely to result in certain death of her male cubs. Till the cubs are about 6-9 months old, the tigress’ entire time and energy is consumed by providing food and care to her young ones.

The successful breeding of tigers in the Chhatbir zoo no doubt has given impetus to conservation efforts and increased their number, but packing the animals in the cubicles for a long period may reduce their resistance to zoonotic diseases and make them more hostile towards one another.