Maya, The Enchantress.
I have been visiting various parks and sanctuaries since last almost 20 years now. And have observed different tigers in their natural habitats. I have realized that some tigers are destined to rule, dominate and regal. Machali, the queen of Ranthambore, is a prime example. She was single handily responsible for bringing throngs of tourists and photographers. Unfortunately, she passed away few weeks back.
A similar story is unwinding in a different park, which also happens to quite distant from Ranthambore. The place is Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in state of Maharashtra. One tigress has blossomed from being a cub to a princess and now eventually as the queen of Tadoba park. She is the one who has redefined the experience of sighting a wild tiger in Tadoba. Tourists, enthusiasts and photographers are regularly visiting Tadoba just to get a glimpse of her. Her name is Maya.
I have been following Maya since she was just a new born cub. Today she is a mature tigress of seven years. Today, she is rearing her second litter of 3 cubs. She was born in December 2010 and is an off-spring of a tigress named Leela and a male named Hill Top tiger. Leela had delivered a litter of three female and one male cub at that time in an area called as Pandharpaoni in Tadoba. Maya was then also known as P2 or T16. I distinctly remember the day when I first sighted Maya. It was in February 2011. I had entered Tadoba park for the morning ride from Navegaon gate and was moving towards Ainbodi waterhole. There were no signs of any movement or action in the park. I could hear no alarm calls or spot any herbivores either. This was indeed unusual. In hindsight, I can now say, it was the calmness which falls just before an approaching storm! Out of nowhere, Leela entered the scene with her litter of four cubs! I had seen the cubs once in the past, but from a distance. This time around, it was at very close proximity. Leela and her cubs were heading straight towards the Ainbodi waterhole. And I being on the other side of the waterhole could observe them coming head on in my direction. The usual exuberance of tiger cubs and alert stance of Leela was adding to the contrast of the scene unfolding before me. P2, one of the female cubs, was the most active and agile cub. After they all entered the waterhole, P2 started playing with its siblings. The moment when she grabbed tail of the male cub, now called as Pandu, and pulled him back is etched permanently in my memory. I had realized immediately that P2 will be the most dominant cub in that particular litter. It was evident that P1, P3 and Pandu are going to have a tough time in coming months.
Coincidently, there was a larger picture being painted. Today I can only connect the dots backwards and ponder about it. In 2010 and 2011, there weren’t many cubs in Kanha and Bandhavgarh. Sightings there were becoming rare. Tadoba wasn’t as famous as it is today. Usually the foreign tourists and photographers never used to visit Tadoba at that time. But in 2011 there were tiger cubs in various regions at Tadoba. Leela had her litter in the Pandharpaoni area, Telia female had her litter in Mohurli area, Ambathira and Katejhari females too had their litters in Katejhari area. Every safari vehicle used spot one or the other female and its litter on a regular basis. The word starting spreading like wild fire and people used to come from far away places to see the tigers. It was also the time when social media was exploding in India. People used to click pictures of the cubs and post them on Facebook and Orkut. This led to further awareness and popularity of Tadoba. Eventually, NatGeo launched its first documentary on Tadoba in mid 2011 and made Tadoba world famous. In 2011 people didn’t use to ask “have you seen a tiger today?”, they only asked “how many tigers did you see today?” And P2 alias T16 alias Maya was responsible in a big way in creating this awareness. It was those baby cub steps which soon were going to turn in to beastly strides.
In February 2012, I had been for a morning ride to Pandharpaoni with couple of friends from Nagpur. We were near the Pandharpaoni Waterhole Number 2. We could see Leela and her cubs seated in the grass. But they were aptly camouflaged with the pale yellow grass. About couple of hundred feet away, on a tamarind tree, we spotted seven Lesser Adjutant Storks. My friends were busy clicking pictures of the storks. Soon, the birds started flying and it is always a sight to watch those large birds in flight. All seven of those birds were headed towards the waterhole. As they were about to land, one of the cubs leaped from the ground and clasped one of the storks with its both front legs. It was as if a small kid is jumping from ground to catch a fast moving ball with both its hands. The whole scene was unbelievable. No one can imagine to see a tiger cub leap in air and grab a large flying bird. Yet, I was lucky enough, with my friends to witness it. Later that cub grabbed the bird and came out of the grass. It was none other than Maya.
During March and April in 2012, I spotted Maya repeatedly during all my safari rides. I had somehow developed a bond with her. I could sense her movements and anticipate her presence in different areas. She was extremely notorious during those days. There was a forest guard at Tadoba. He is well experienced and knows the entire area of Tadoba like back of his hand. Many a times, he used to move around the park on his motorcycle to monitor Gypsies and other safari vehicles. He used to carry his lunch box on his motorcycle. The lunch box dangling from the handle bar of how two wheeler used to a kind of funny sight. Once, I met him in the park. He had parked his two wheeler and was making all the safari vehicles move ahead. He had steeped slightly away from his motorcycle. Suddenly Maya entered from behind the thick trees and went straight towards his two wheeler. The sparkle in her eyes and enthusiasm in her strides was like that of a kid who has found a new toy. She grabbed the lunch box and went away in the thick forest. This was clearly being mischievous. I know of two more similar incidents when she repeated this act and carried away forest guard’s lunch boxes. Maya had started to demonstrate her various traits by now. She was doing what other cubs and tigers never indulge in. She was slowly moving away from the ordinary and towards the truly extra ordinary or special ones.
On 31st May 2012 during the evening ride, I was with my friends in Gypsy. We were near a waterhole called Ambepat in the Pandharpaoni area. We saw Maya, then just 18 months old, seated in the water. She was looking in the same direction as us, thus, she was unable to see us. She was hardly 20 feet away from us. After sometime a wild boar came towards the waterhole. It had missed Maya’s presence completely. We all were speechless in anticipation. It was for the first time that I was witnessing a scene wherein a predator and a prey were head on with each other and at a close proximity too. Maya was alert to this opportunity. When the boar was about 10 feet away from her, she leapt out of the waterhole and attacked the prey. It was clear that she is inexperienced in hunting as she couldn’t grab the throat or jugular of the boar. She was trying to grab the boar on its neck and was struggling to pull it down. She was trying different positions and grips. The boar too was trying to rescue itself, it was moaning and making loud shrieks all the while. Maya and the boar were literally involved in a bout. Loud noises and bursts of dry dust were adding to the whole scene. I had never witnessed anything like this before in my life. In fact, very few people have been fortunate to witness a live kill from such a short distance. I was one of the fortunate and lucky ones though. Maya making her first kill and letting me capture the moment in my camera. Maya’s struggle continued for more than 45 minutes. She had wounded and injured the boar but was still unable to kill it completely. I had to leave the spot and rush back to exit the park before closing deadline. But what I had witnessed was going to change my life. It had brought me closer to Maya. It had made me realize how special she was. Even though just a sub-adult, she was not shying away from making a kill of a large boar. Though inexperienced, she was displaying the guts and rowdiness of a dominant beast. The princess had indeed staked her claim to become the queen. Maya had truly evolved and arrived on the scene now.
I had spotted Leela and her cubs on 30th June 2012, which was the last day before the park closed for monsoon. I again sighted her and the cubs on 17th October after the park had reopened. The cubs had grown quite bigger in size by now. They were almost the same size as Leela. Then in November 2012, Leela was found dead in a waterhole. It was probably due to a snake bite. The cubs were desolate. I could feel their dilemma as they were unable to hunt and kill without the support and guidance of their mother Leela. Destiny had indeed played a cruel strike on them. They started losing weight and getting weaker. P1 left Pandharpaoni area isn’t seen since then. P3 migrated to the buffer area of Tadoba and is sometimes seen thereabouts. Pandu, the male cub, migrated in core non-tourism area of Tadoba and is rarely seen. It was only P2 alias Maya who stayed back in her mother’s territory. Surviving in the wild is one thing and maintaining a territory while being sub-adult is a different ball game all together. Yet Maya successfully accomplished both these tasks.
Once in Jan 2013 I was moving around Pandharpaoni and I again spotted Maya walking alone on a road towards Tadoba lake. All of a sudden a langoor came near her. The langoor was in a state of shock as it was just two feet away from Maya. It didn’t move or try to run away. When Maya came very close to it, it slapped Maya on the face. Maya too reciprocated and started slapping the langoor. I was unable to comprehend the scene happening in front of my eyes. It was evident that Maya is unable to kill the prey. Or worse, it was too weak to do so. Some people have recorded a video clip of this incidence. Finally, Maya killed the langoor but abandoned the kill.
Maya paired with a dominant male named Gabbar in Jamni meadows on 14th/15th Feb 2014. And in May 2014 she delivered her first litter of two cubs near Panchdhara area in Tadoba. In the month of June I had again been for a morning safari ride at Tadoba and moved straight to Panchdhara to spot Maya and her cubs. There were about 25 vehicles already waiting at the same spot. After about 15 minutes, Maya walked out of the road. Lo and behold! She had one of the cubs in her jaws! She was moving her cubs to a different and safer place. I had never seen this trait of female tigers in the past. The notorious Maya had now evolved in to caring mother. She had moved in a different league all together. She had learned all the traits and characteristics for motherhood on her own. She had survived as a sub-adult orphan, maintained her territory and started rearing her own cubs. I had seen Maya as a cub and now I was seeing her with a cub in her jaw. I had witnessed her complete journey and transformation.
Maya’s first litter could not survive for long though. Her cubs were found dead when they were less than a month old. The reason for their death is still unknown. But the death of her first litter changed her drastically. Her behaviour had changed and it seemed as if she is searching for her cubs at various places. Seeing her doing so was a disturbing sight for me. She kept searching for cubs for more than four weeks. I could sense her pain and agony during those days.
Around December -March 2015, I saw Maya mating with three different males. She had mated with Gabbar, Navegaon male and Namdeo. Once in February, I was with my friends from Ireland in Pandharpaoni area. We spotted four different males in the same area, but at varied locations. Maya was the only tigress in that particular region at the time. By April 2015 it was evident that she is pregnant. And in the month of June-July 2015 she delivered her second litter of two male and one female cub. On 23nd October, Maya was first spotted with her cubs near Pandrapaoni. I was at nearby resort at that time. I used to get numerous calls on a daily basis just to enquire about Maya and her cubs. Everybody wanted to know about Maya. Many photographers used to come and hang around Pandharpaoni just to get a glimpse of her and the cubs.
On 22nd November 2015, the honourable Chief Minister of Maharashtra state had visited Tadoba for the morning ride. He could witness a live kill of a Sambhar deer by Maya near Panchdhara. She displayed her hunting skills and killed the prey in couple of minutes and dragged the kill behind the trees. The Chief Minister couldn’t have asked for a better experience at Tadoba and who else than Maya to play the perfect hostess. On the same day during the evening ride, Anil Kumble the famous former Indian cricketer had visited Tadoba. Maya again emerged in front of tourist vehicle along with her cubs. Kumble, an avid photographer, was able to get some of the best possible pictures on that day. Maya once again proved that she redefines the wildlife tourism experience to not only the ordinary tourists but also to the VIPs.
In June 2016 I could regularly sight different males in Pandharpaoni area. Maya was in the same place with her cubs. It is difficult to say who has fathered her cubs. And hence the cubs were in grave danger from other males in the same region. On 9th June 2016, a male named Matkasur was sighted with Maya in compartment No 97. He had never mated with Maya in the past. On 10th June 2016 he attacked the three cubs in Pandrapaoni Water Hole No 2. Fortunately, the cubs could save themselves and went in to hiding. This was a difficult time for Maya. She had to protect her cubs from this new male in the territory. Few days after around 23-24 June 2016 she was spotted mating with a male named Gabbar near Ainbodi and 97 waterhole. Interestingly though, this wasn’t Gabbar’s territory. He had had a territorial fight with Namdeo as well as with Katejhari male in the past. He had established his territory in Tadoba buffer area. But he had mated with Maya in the past. Probably, Maya went out in search of Gabbar and dragged him all the way back to her territory in Pandharpaoni. She needed him to protect herself and her cubs from the intruding matkasur male. She played a master stroke and once again proved that she’s way smarter. After the Ainbodi/97 incident, both Gabbar and Maya were spotted near waterhole in compartment number 97 in Pandharpaoni area. I was lucky enough to get their mating photographs. Maya had deliberately brought Gabbar to this area. When Gabbar and Matkasur came face to face, they had fierce fight. Matkasur was injured and his nose had severe wounds. After that Matkasur moved out towards Jamni lake. Gabbar is still in the Pandharpaoni area and so is Maya. The cubs too are in the same region and are quite safe. With this smart move Maya has been able to protect her cubs and also move out the dangerous male named Matkasur. Such level of strategic approach and planning isn’t seen at times even in educated humans. But Maya displaying such wisdom is beyond belief.
Maya has today become famous globally. Recently she had her image with her cub imprinted on national postal stamp. She will certainly attain further heights of fame in coming years. In the past six- seven years, she has helped me evolve too. With her fame has come my recognition too. My photographs of her first kill have helped me win contests on global level, my documentation of her activities has gained me wide coverage in leading national dailies and my ability to track her in Tadoba has helped me become friends with various photographers of repute and foreign dignitaries. I owe a large part of my success to Maya and I shall be ever indebted to her. Whenever I see her, I can instantly feel the bond that we share. Though it may sound absurd, we tend to have subtle level communication with mere eye contact. Today I feel that I have strong bond with her which cannot be explained to everybody by words. It just needs to be experienced.
I will again, someday, share more details about Maya. There is a lot that I need to write about her. You can always reach me directly to know more about her till then.
Finally, I can only say that the mighty Machali may be gone, but she has left her baton behind. The baton is now carried forward by Maya. And like Machali, Maya too is not a short sprint runner. She is also a long distance runner. Maya is here to stay. Maya is here to rule. Maya is here to win our hearts.

With Best Regards,
Himanshu Bagde
Special Thanks :

The Times of India. -for publishing the same.