On January 16, the nation woke up to heartwarming images of the last rites of a tigress being conducted by forest officials and locals in Madhya Pradesh’s Pench Tiger Reserve. Soon, social media handles were flooded with tributes and condolence messages from politicians, bureaucrats, wildlife lovers, and even those who had never met the tigress. The tigress in question was the much-loved showstopper of Pench, who was fondly known Collarwali as she was the first feline to be radio-collared at Pench in 2008. But the collar was just an accessory. What made her special was that in her lifetime she gave birth to 29 cubs — unheard in India and possibly the world – earning her the nickname of supermom. The entire family played an important role in getting Madhya Pradesh the tag of tiger state. After her demise at 16 due to old age, Pench will never be the same again, say those whose daily lives revolved around the Collarwali supermom.
On January 14, T-15 (tiger number), or Collarwali as she was popularly known, came to the Bhura Dev nullah, her favourite stream, to drink water. At that time, there were more than 40 safari vehicles inside Pench Tiger Reserve, which is located in the districts of Seoni and Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh. That evening, all the tourists spotted the tigress and noticed that she could barely walk. Later, she was seen resting near the water body and did not move for two hours. Only her ears twitched from time to time.
Something was amiss. Soon, forest officials arrived and took her in for treatment. The next evening, on January 15, at around 6 pm, the tigress breathed her last at the age of 16. The post-mortem revealed the cause of death as multiple organ failure due to intestine blockage resulting from old age.
Collarwali’s journey – from one of the cubs to supermom
The tigress was born on September 22, 2005, and was numbered T-15. Her mother, who was called badi mata (big mother), was also a famous tigress. Her father was numbered T-1 and was fondly known as Charger.
Collarwali was truly the queen of Pench as between 2008 and 2018, she gave birth to 29 cubs in eight litters. Twenty-five of these cubs have survived to adulthood. This earned her the nickname of supermom in English, and she was fondly called Mataram in Hindi.
In 2008, when she was just two-and-half, she gave birth to her first litter of three cubs, but they died of pneumonia. In the same year, she gave her second litter of four cubs.
Back then, the mother and her four cubs had managed to intrigue many. She became one of India’s best-known tigresses after starring in the BBC wildlife documentary Tiger: Spy in the Jungle which was shot over a period of two years starting in 2008. The documentary team came up with an innovative idea of fitting hidden cameras on elephants. Over the next two years, these elephant-turned-videographers captured endearing footage of the mother and her babies.
In 2009, a radio collar was fitted on the tigress to track her movements. From here on, she came to be known as Collarwali. The radio collar worked for two years but fell off in 2016. The name Collarwali stayed until her last breath.
In October 2010, she gave birth to five cubs, in 2012 three cubs, in 2015 four cubs, in 2016 three cubs, and, in 2017, three cubs. Her last litter was in 2018 when she delivered four cubs, which took the total number of cubs to 29. Collarwali’s mates were tigers named and numbered T-30, chhota male and Rayyakasa, who was her partner from 2012 until her death. She is said to have all her litters from these three mates.
A practical mother, a fierce predator, a friendly beast
Generally, most tigresses keep their cubs with them for over two years, but Collarwali wanted her children to be independent from a young age. She would encourage them to venture into areas where they could hunt on their own. However, when the cubs were younger, she would make two kills a day for them, said Dr Akhilesh Mishra, a veterinarian, who has treated Collarwali several times.
“Whenever Collarwali would injure herself while hunting, she would simply lay out in the open so that forest officials could spot her and treat her,” he added. This is exactly what she did on January 14, when she knew she needed help. However, this time, her time was up. At 16, she was indeed very old. The average age of tigers who live in the wild is 10-12 years.
In her 16 years of life, Collarwali spread much joy and was the most sought after by tourists, wildlife lovers, guides, and safari conductors. “The reason why she was so popular was that she was very comfortable around tourists and safari vehicles. She would mostly strut around the tourist-friendly areas and so it was very easy to spot her. At times, it seemed as if it was her duty not to disappoint the visiting tourists,” said Shivan Kumar, a Bengaluru-based wildlife enthusiast, who has ‘met’ Collarwali on several occasions.
Collarwali helped Pench and Madhya Pradesh regain their lost glory. According to the 2018 wildlife census report titled ‘Status of Tigers, Co-predators and Preys in India’, at 526, Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of tigers in India. Collarwali’s progenies live in and around Pench.
The grand funeral
Collarwali’s death broke many hearts at the Pench Tiger Reserve. For decades she was the protagonist of Pench. So, the forest officials and locals decided to give her a grand funeral and hold a cremation ceremony. Conservation officers carried Collarwali’s body onto a funeral pyre garlanded with flowers. Shantabai Maryam, a popular leader of the local forest-dwelling adivasi community, lit the funeral pyre of the tigress.
The pictures went viral and hundreds of people, including the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, paid their tributes on social media.
Pench will never be the same again …
For years, the lives of people associated with jungle safaris revolved around Collarwali. Most of the incoming tourists were keen to know her story and the safari guides would happily take them to the jungle so that they could meet their beloved tigress. Some of the safari operators and guides we spoke to have been living in Pench for decades and have spotted Collarwali hundreds of times. They all unanimously agreed that Pench will never be the same again. Such was their love for Collarwali that two of them nearly broke down while talking about her.
“She was bold and brave, who fiercely protected her ilaka (area)”
An account shared by Subhas Bhore, a safari guide based in Pench
Since the day Collarwali has died, we have not had a single sighting in that area. There is disappointment all around. We all knew that she would go away some day, but now that she is gone, there is a huge void. People will talk about her for the next 10-20 years and, in a way, she will always be alive, as her enter lineage is present in and around Pench.
I have been a safari guide since 2004 and I have been sighting her since 2005. There is an interesting story. Collarwali’s mother handed over two very prominent areas of the tiger reserve to Collarwali and her sister and moved to Maharashtra. Collarwali was fortunate to get an area that was exactly at the center of the tiger reserve. Since then, she never left and has dominated her area. Many tigers, including one of her mates and her daughters, tried to snatch Collarwali’s area, but she, very fiercely fought every single time. In fact, just last month, in December, a fight broke out over dominance, and we could hear two tigers fight. It seems, Collarwali won, yet again. She was very bold and brave.
And her self-respect was intact until her last breath. In her last days, she was too frail, but she would hunt on her own. She never snatched other animals’ prey, something that tigers tend to do in their old age. The forest department never had to worry about feeding an old Collarwali. She was self-sufficient.
I will miss her whenever I will enter her area.
“It seemed as if the jungle and all the animals were mourning”
An account by Shourabh Ghosh, the owner of an eco-friendly boutique resort, Kohka Wilderness Camp, in Pench
Collarwali was the most photographed tigress of Pench. The main reason was that she was very friendly and was never bothered about the tourist vehicles. It happens sometimes that people make a lot of noise out of excitement or if there are kids around, it’s impossible to contain their excitement. But Collarwali never had any problems with such disturbances. In fact, at times, she would come very close to the safari vehicles. Her passing away has created a huge void in our lives. All of us at Pench were extremely sad after her death, but what was unusual was that for the next three-four days, the jungle was eerily silent. It was so unusual that we all talked about it. It seemed as if there were no animals in the jungle. It seemed as if they were hiding in some corners and processing her death. Animals can’t speak or express themselves, but for those three-four days, it felt as if all the animals were dealing with Collarwali’s death in their own ways.
“She had immense love for her children and her partners”
An account shared by Raam Prasad, a safari guide in Pench
I was one of those who spotted her on the last day. She could not move. Hearts of hearts, we knew her end was nearing, but one is always hopeful.
I have been sighting her since 2005, since she was a newborn baby. I have seen her grow and become a mother to so many wonderful children. It was sad to see her getting old, because it meant she was going to leave us.
It’s a known fact that she was a friendly tigress. But here’s an incredible fact about her. Tigers usually are very territorial. But on some occasions, Collarwali surprised us when she was spotted along with her children from the old litters and the new-borns. Once, she was spotted with her present mate and children from her previous mate. This never happens in the case of tigers. This just proves how much love she had for her partners and children.
Every morning, whenever we would venture into her area, there always was hope that she would pop up from somewhere. Now, with her death, that hope has died too. The sooner we get over her death, the better for us.
Also read: The elephant story
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