Kankathi and her Three Cubs

Bandhavgrah National Park, Tala Zone, 17 May, 5:30am
It was our fifth safari of the trip, and halfway through the trip we had been left wanting more. We had had one decent sighting so far of one of the female Rajbehra cubs crossing the road. The previous evening had been disappointing as we had only managed to see the Kankathi female with her three 2 month old cubs deep in the bushes. They had not obliged with a single pic. We had just missed her crossing the road by a few minutes and were quite disappointed.

As we entered the forest that morning we did not know what awaited us that morning was a once in a lifetime moment!

Tala Zone, Sidhbaba, 5:40am
As fate would have it, our route that morning took us first to the Sidhbaba area where we had just missed seeing the Kankathi female the previous evening. A little background is in order here, before I get into the events as they unfolded.

The Kankathi female is referred to as the empress of the Tala zone. She is called Kankathi because her right ear has a big cut, which is a birth defect. Her left eye was injured during a territorial battle. She had given birth to three cubs a couple of months back.

The Sidhbaba area is, in my opinion, the most picturesque part of the forest. Green lush grasslands with hills on one both sides and lush trees lining small streams of water. It has a small temple of Lord Shiva at the crossroad, hence the name Sidhbaba.

As we entered the area, our guide and driver noticed Kankathi’s pugmarks on the road. There were two sets, one going to the foliage on the right where we had seen her hidden with her cubs the previous evening. And, the other set going to the other side of the road to the tall grass near a small stream. It was deduced that she was still in the area. Plus, one of the guys in our jeep hears an alarm call, and we decide to wait there for a few minutes.

Tala Zone, Sidhbaba, 5:45am
There is some excitement in our jeep as someone spots Kankathi peeping from the tall grass to the left. At the same time, there is some noise from the bushes on the right. The guide guesses that it is Kankathi’s cubs. There is an immediate response from Kankathi. We can now sense that she is going to walk across the road to the cubs.

Tala Zone, Sidhbaba, 5:46am
Kankathi now starts to walk out of the tall grass. Our jeep is now positioned right in front of the clear trail that she walks on. All the camera shutters around me go of in a sudden frenzy of excitement. I shoot of a number of vertical frames as she approaches and one time looks me dead in the eye! She is close enough that I am shooting at 100mm and still just managing to fit her in the whole frame.

I also get some close-up shots of her face, as she walks towards the road, growling softly.

Tala Zone, Sidhbaba, 5:47am
She now comes onto the road and walks into the bushes on the other side. We can hear soft growls. Both her and cubs seem to be in communication, and they are very close to the road. We can now sense and hope that she might bring her cubs out with her. Kankathi emerges a couple of minutes later. Looking around, then looking back towards her cubs, and growling softly. She seems to be examining the jeeps around, assessing the danger. She is now a few feet away from our jeep and a bunch of expletives escape my mouth. I’m not sure at this point whether to take pics or start praying!

Tala Zone, Sidhbaba, 5:50am
Kankathi walks into the tall grass and seems to be calling to her cubs to join her. The cubs are still too scared and are not coming out. She stops and keeps calling out to them in low growls. Seeing this exchange between the mother and her cubs, I can only feel awe and humility. What I am witnessing is an emotional bond between a mother and her children.

Tala Zone, Sidhbaba, 5:55am
Seeing that her cubs are scared, Kankathi walks back across the road to them. She emerges back on to the road a few seconds later, and finally one of the cubs pops his head out of the bushes! What a small little cub! It hesitantly comes onto the road looks at the jeeps and runs back in, gathers some more courage, and scampers across the road to Kankathi.
Kankathi Cub


Kankathi with cub-2

She escorts the small bugger into the tall grass, but keeps looking back. She is growling softly, calling out to the other two cubs to join her. Seeing that the other cubs are not coming out, she takes the one and both disappear into the grass. Kankathi re-appears, continuously calling the other two cubs.

Tala Zone, Sidhbaba, 6:01am
Seeing that the other two cubs are not responding, Kankathi walks across the road once again. Yes, we will see the other two cubs now, we can just feel it! At that point, our moment of joy is interrupted by the forest ranger as he gestures us to move away. Our pleading looks have no effect, and our driver is scared that the ranger will take adverse action if he does not obey.

He moves our jeep down the road and we catch a glimpse of Kankathi lifting one of the cubs in her mouth. Our adrenaline levels shoot up and we fumble to get our cameras ready to click. Our scared driver keeps driving away and parks behind where the ranger is standing, just as Kankathi emerges with the cub in her mouth and the other one in tow. As we look through the viewfinder our hearts sink as we see the ranger standing in the middle of the road taking pictures. He is right in front of our field of view and none of us get a clear shot as Kankathi crosses the road with the two cubs. A rare moment of photographic bliss lost!

I get a couple of shots as the three of them disappear into the tall grass.
Kankathi with two cubs

We sit there for a few minutes trying to soak in what we have just witnessed. Pictures are being reviewed to make sure that it all really happened and we captured the events clearly. There are enough expletives for the ranger for spoiling what could have been pictures of a lifetime. Then there are high-fives all around!

As we drive away we know that we have just been part of a moment that we will forever re-live over and over again. It will be a story that gets told and re-told. It will be the event that brings us back to Bandhavgarh, hoping that we witness something so spectacular once again. For the moment though, we can thank the stars that aligned that day to bring us to that very spot at that very moment!

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