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  • Writer's pictureMike Curtis

Tiger cub makes its first kill

Updated: 6 days ago

Warning: The following post contains an account and pictures that some people may find upsetting.

On the 19th May we were in Ranthambhore's zone 2 looking for a tigress called Arrowhead, who had three eleven-month-old cubs. Near the end of our afternoon drive we located them in a tree-lined, shallow gorge that contained plenty of deep shade and the remains of an ephemeral river studded with small pools of water. A perfect location for tigers to hide from the crushing heat of the Indian summer.

We sat without expectation of seeing much more than a glimpse when suddenly Christine spotted one of the cubs break cover. A nearby sambar deer gave a loud alarm call, which sounds like a cross between a bark and a honk, and immediately took flight toward the entrance of the gorge a couple of hundred metres away. The movement triggered the cub, who immediately started to walk in the direction of the Sambar, increasing in speed to an ungainly lollop before disappearing behind a dense bush. Moments later the cub reappeared having caught an animal. Initially, it was thought to be an Indian hare, but very quickly it dawned on us that the cub had caught an extremely young fawn of a chital or spotted deer, perhaps no more than four days old.

Much to our surprise the cub carries the chital fawn into the open, very much alive and unharmed.

The cub carried the fawn by the scruff of its neck back to where Christine had initially seen it and once there didn't seem to know what to do with it. Like a domestic cat, the cub began tapping the fawn to encourage it to run, only to pounce on it before it could get more than a stride away. This happened multiple times, interspersed by the cub throwing the fawn roughly about by one of its legs. It was horrible to watch but impossible to look away from. Having hoped to witness a miraculous escape, we were now imploring the cub to put the tiny fawn out of its misery, but it was increasingly evident that it didn't know how to kill. There were brief moments when the cub seemed to get bored and lay with the little deer lying between its front legs. The cub's head dwarfed the fawn which sat still, looking bewildered by the unfolding experience. At this point, Arrowhead, the cub's mother, together with its two siblings turned up. This seemed to trigger the cub's more aggressive and possessive nature. His warning growls seemed to dissuade either of his siblings from approaching, and his instinct to eat the prey kicked in. He began to bite the poor fawn on the rump and feet, eliciting the most awful screams. The cub was still not exerting much bite force as the fawn sustained no obvious puncture wounds and so its suffering continued. We were desperate for this awful scene to end and hoped Arrowhead might intervene and show her cub how to kill, but she continued to watch on with interest.

After playing with the fawn, the cub is uncertain what to do.

Arrowhead (middle) and two cubs watch events from less than 20 metres away.

Time continued to pass with the cub throwing the fawn around with increasing force before eventually finding its throat. In a much larger prey animal, this would be the killing hold, when the pressure of the bite closes the animal's airway to quickly suffocate it. It was at this point that the fawn finally went limp and died. The cub continued to fling the fawn's lifeless body around before taking it out of sight to consume. From start to finish the kill took 41 minutes.

We were awfully conflicted by witnessing this event. It's impossible not to empathise with the plight of the innocent little fawn and be a little horrified by the behaviour of such a beautiful young tiger. However, this is nature. The cub has to learn how to catch and kill its prey, and they are clearly not very good at it on their first attempt. It's to be hoped that when the next opportunity arises, this cub will kill its prey much quicker and limit the suffering.

The cub finally applies the killing bite that ends the fawn's suffering.

The cub carrying the limp body of the fawn. Thankfully its ordeal was over.

As for the ethics of watching such an event, well I guess that's personal. I found it truly awful, yet compelling. I was using my 500mm lens to provide a closer view of the unfolding events, and I thought about putting my camera down on several occasions but then couldn't stop taking the pictures. This was nature raw in tooth and claw, unbelievably cruel and desperately unfair, but natural all the same. Getting to witness the coming of age of an apex predator is an astonishingly rare thing to see. It was the first time Mahesh had seen a cub make its first kill and we calculated that he had been on approximately 10,000 game drives in Ranthambhore National Park during his 26 years as a guide.

As a consequence of witnessing this scene, I have a renewed respect for the prey species who, like all living things, just wish to live another day, and the tiger, whose incredible beauty masks their struggle to kill so they too can live another day. The timeless balance of nature.

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