Home Conservation Field Reports Gabbar – Battle-Scarred Survivor

Gabbar – Battle-Scarred Survivor

Gabbar – Battle-Scarred Survivor

The team responsible for tracking and protecting Maharashtra’s Tadoba’s tigers narrate an extraordinary tale about an extraordinary tiger.

Gabbar is now famously identified by the wound scars he sustained in a battle over territory with a younger cat. Post his injury, Gabbar has redeemed his dominant position in his tiger-land and continues to impress visitors to Tadoba.
Photo: Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve Team.

By 2010, the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) had become a tiger conservation success story. Good protection, management and local support combined to turn TATR into one of Maharashtra’s finest parks. An increase in tigers, also brought tourists and photographers flocking to the park. And scientists were not far behind.

Up to this point, there were few studies on tiger ecology from this area and in 2012 this prompted the Maharashtra Forest Department and the National Tiger Conservation Authority to plan on a long-term monitoring project for tigers and co-predators in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India. One of the objectives was to study movement patterns and space utilisation by adult tigers in what was increasingly becoming a crowded tiger landscape. We planned for five tigers to be radio collared.

On October 17, 2014, Chhoti Tara, the first tigress was collared in TATR, Maharashtra. Two days later we collared a male known by several names – Leopard Face, Sher Khan and Gabbar. His lineage was a mystery. He had challenged another adult male in the area and after their skirmish, his opponent was named ‘Amitabh’ and he, as Bollywood movie buffs would agree, had to be ‘Gabbar’. He was a bold cat taken to walking alongside tourist vehicles for considerable distances.

Though we often saw him in the area around the Tadoba lake, Gabbar’s territory ranged over a vast area (approximately 120 – 140 sq. km.) extending into the buffer which made it difficult to track him. On the day he was collared, tourists saw him walking from Chital road towards the Tadoba range office near the Tadoba lake. At this point, he changed course and began moving in the direction of Vasant bandara via Bhave bandara. This is where he was darted, after which he sprinted quite a distance into the bamboo thickets and we were only able to locate him after several tense moments of intensive search.

Gabbar is now famously identified by the wound scars he sustained in a battle over territory with a younger cat. Post his injury, Gabbar has redeemed his dominant position in his tiger-land and continues to impress visitors to Tadoba. Photo: Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve Team.

Love Blooms

January 29, 2015, was ‘just another’ field day in the forest. We watched a huge sambar stag wallowing in the slush at Chikhalwahi, and as we drove back to Pandherpauni, we spotted a swarm of Gypsys, all drawn by the presence of the famous tigress of Tadoba, Maya. It was nearing closing time and most vehicles had begun to move toward the exit gates, which gave us the quiet we needed to track the cat by looking in the direction of alarm calls of chital and some langurs sitting atop the blazing Butea monosperma trees. Suddenly she emerged from the grasses, slightly off direction from the alarm calls, looking stunning in the soft evening light. After a hard day’s fieldwork, such moments give one the strength to continue in the harsh summers of Vidarbha. She walked casually through the grassland to settle in an open spot. Meanwhile, the alarm calls persisted from the bushes near the waterhole. That is when we saw Gabbar walking into the meadow.

Maya had been seen with two other males the week before and we were quite sure that she was in heat. Waiting in anticipation as Gabbar approached her, we saw her welcome him with a nuzzle on his nose. Their foreplay was a sight to behold. Chases, kisses, bites, scratches – all part of the love-making rituals of the greatest cats on Earth. After sitting quietly for a bit, we left them to their devices and their well-deserved privacy.

The next morning saw us headed for the Pandherpauni meadows where we found them both, in exactly the same spot. Gabbar lay down beside her, as though guarding her from the world! Every now and then he would get up, spray mark trees, bamboo clumps and grasses and, once, even Maya! Probably a strategy to keep other males at bay. Again, after noting our observations on their behaviour, we moved away.

Post-injury, the researchers saw a shift in the activity peak with Gabbar being most active between 10:00 and 13:00 hours – a strategy, they believe, he adopted to avoid confrontation with other tigers while he was recovering. Photo: Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve Team.

Rival Affections

Two days later, we returned to Pandherpauni in the evening to see Gabbar, but Maya was nowhere to be seen. We trailed him but he took a route along a fire line where we were unable to follow him. Close by we heard the hysterical alarm calls of chital, which seemed not to bother him in the least.

Taking a parallel route we figured we might catch sight of him further down the road and were delighted to be proved right. Or were we? A tiger was indeed walking towards us, but not Gabbar. His markings revealed the tiger to be a ‘trespasser’ – the Kala Amba male. ‘What was he doing in Gabbar’s territory?’ we wondered.

What ensued was a very interesting scent marking ‘duel’. The young male scrape-marked the ground at one spot and moved a little ahead, periodically turning back to look at Gabbar who followed him… scrape-marking and spraying the same spots as the intruder.

We were witnessing an ancient tiger ritual. The bamboo clumps and Cleistanthus trees along the path would be purposefully marked by the young male and then cross-marked by Gabbar. At one spot, Gabbar even defecated next to the scrape mark of his competitor. In our view, it was a pretty civil way to settle an argument over territory, without any physical contact. But the message was clear. The younger male had thrown down the gauntlet. Intrigued, we followed the two up to a point, then returned to our base camp, grateful for another insight into the secret life of tigers.

On February 4, driving towards Ainbodi, we unexpectedly came upon Gabbar walking towards us in broad daylight. It had been four days since our team had seen him being challenged by the young male. But our happiness at seeing him was short-lived. Blood dripped from Gabbar’s face, his left cheek hung below his face, there were puncture wounds on his nose. One of his eyes was barely visible. We wondered whether the subtle conflict we had witnessed a few days ago had transformed into a lethal battle over territory.

Curious, we followed the injured Gabbar for a kilometre or so and watched as he diligently scent-marked his turf. We had radio-collared Gabbar and must confess to be shaken to see him wounded thus. We were slightly comforted by the fact that we were aware of the string of events that had ensued previously and could stitch the pieces to grasp the whole story of how Gabbar may have been gravely injured.

A radio-collared Gabbar shares a tender moment with Maya. The authors witnessed a beautiful bond between the two while conducting their study on Tadoba’s tigers in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India. Photo: Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve Team.

Gabbar Returns

One thing about field biologists is that we seldom interfere with the processes of nature in the course of our work. We knew that the older and weaker have to give way to the young and fit. Of course, Gabbar himself had other plans. He disappeared from the core for a long time after his injury. His location according to his GPS collar was in the buffer where we tried to track him a couple of times but did not succeed in getting a glimpse, but tracked his presence by strong signals emitted by the collar.

Two weeks later, Gabbar reappeared at the Tadoba lake from the Pandherpauni meadow. As was his wont, he walked through the swarm of tourist vehicles as nonchalant as ever. His wounds appeared to be healing well, except for the puncture marks on his nose, which had gotten worse, probably lacerated by the undergrowth he had to negotiate in the forest. Following him as he made his way to the lake, we were surprised to see him plunge into the water and swim to a tiny island, where he sat until nightfall. After his encounter, we often found Gabbar sitting on that miniature island in the lake. He probably felt more secure here, we conjectured. Or probably the flies bothered him less here. Clearly, he was slowly, but steadily healing.

Gabbar’s collar was equipped with an activity sensor, which allowed us to track him every five minutes. Gabbar did not move from his area of ‘intensive use’, but he completely changed his time of peak activity. Before the injury, he was most active between 05:30 and 09:30 hours and 16:30 to 20:00 hours. Since the fight that left him scarred, he changed his timings to between 10:00 and 13:00 hours, possibly to avoid contact with other males who we observed had intensified their territorial markings in the same period.

Gabbar was biding his time, waiting to recover. The activity sensor in his collar greatly helped us understand his strategy. However, his behaviour did create a flutter as tourists were unable to spot him, though we knew where he was and this gave birth to a slew of wild theories that surfaced during this period.

Controversies followed regarding the severity of the injury and baseless accusations were levied against the radio collar as being the cause of his trouble. One fanciful expert claimed that one of his wounds was infested with maggots that were eating into his flesh. We did not engage with any of these critics, nor did we blame them because they were basically expressing concern for a cat we too cared about.

We tracked Gabbar one March evening when he was at the Pandherpauni waterhole, where he could be barely seen in the tall grasses. We waited until late in the evening. It had been an overcast day and a light drizzle turned into a momentary downpour. This prompted Gabbar to change his position and for the first time we were able to get a clear view of his injury. He was healing very well indeed and a clear photograph we took put the maggot rumours to rest.

We are supposed to be dispassionate scientists, but we are human too. And we found ourselves smiling inside to know that the cat we had come to admire so much had recovered well. Another well-spent evening date with Gabbar was about to come to an end, when we saw Maya walking towards Pandherpauni from the Tadoba lake. To our surprise, she spent two full days with the injured old mate, still nuzzling and occasionally delivering friendly blows to his now-disfigured face!

In the days that followed, Gabbar redeemed his dominant position in his tiger-land as he swam along the banks, bathing in his lake of gold. It was a fairytale conclusion to our long study. This cat had become a symbol of beauty, strength, love, courage and persistence. Frankly, Gabbar helped us to look upon tigers differently – not just in terms of numbers, home range polygons, occupancies, dispersal, but in terms of the behavioural transitions against a backdrop of all these variables. To advance our understanding of tiger ecology we should ideally have a good study design, long-term monitoring and also as strong a will to persist as Gabbar himself had demonstrated for us!

Earlier this year, in March 2016, we removed Gabbar’s radio collar. Typical of Gabbar, he was resting in the water at the Tadoba lake. As we write today, this rough and tough cat continues to woo tourists routinely at Tadoba and has been seen mating with Maya once again. He may have surpassed the zenith of his reign; he may have shifted his territory; but he is still very much in the game.

Author: Dr. Bilal Habib and Dr. Parag Nigam, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 12, December 2016.


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Ganesh R Mandavkar

December 9, 2016, 05:46 PM
 Wow it's lovely
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Gajanan Bapat

December 2, 2016, 12:12 PM
 Hello Dr.Bilal Habib and Dr. Parag Nigam Thanks for share the whole story of Gabbar, really I appreciate your work