Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, located in the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, is one of the state’s largest and oldest tiger reserves. It consists of two different protected areas, spread across 1725sq.km. – Tadoba National Park and Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary. Dominated by teak and bamboo, this dry deciduous forest with dense woodlands is fed by three major water sources – Andhari River, Tadoba Lake and Telia Lake. Most popular for its tiger sightings, the reserve is also home to carnivores like the Indian Leopard, Asiatic Wild Dog and Sloth Bear, which are frequently seen here.

In February 2018, I was accompanying a group of tourists on a safari in Tadoba. With winter slowly making way for summer, it is that time of the year when the mornings are still pleasant and the afternoons tend to get quite hot. During one of the morning drives, we had entered the core part of the forest through Kolara gate in search of a tiger. The drive proved quite successful in terms of other wildlife, but not so good in terms of predators, except for just one brief sighting of a male tiger close to a water body while we were exiting the park.

For the afternoon drive, we headed straight back to the location where we had seen the tiger. Our intuition proved right when we spotted the male tiger enjoying his afternoon siesta on a dry grass bed, close to where we had found him in the morning. 

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After photographing the sleeping cat, we contemplated leaving the area. But suddenly, something caught the attention of the tiger and woke him from his slumber, and he disappeared into the bamboo thickets. Unable to see through the dense vegetation, we were then greeted with the screeching noise of an animal in distress. We assumed it would be a smaller prey, and were surprised to get a brief glimpse of a fully-grown Sloth Bear. More observation yielded that it wasn’t one but two bears; the bigger one tussling with the tiger and the smaller one just trying to defend from behind. 

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Eventually, the fight took to the open grassland around the water body, and we had a front seat view of the battle between these two behemoths. Armed with my camera, I started photographing from a distance, and now I could make out that the larger one was a female bear and the smaller, possibly her cub. The mother bear was fighting tooth and nail to earn the cub enough time to stage an escape from the scene unhurt. The mother’s instinct helped the cub escape, but in succeeding to do so, she had put her life on the line. The mother bear was left with no choice but to confront the might of the tiger.

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The tiger managed to overpower the bear, grabbing the smaller animal by the neck and digging in with his sharp teeth. A tiger’s sharp incisors are capable of breaking the spinal cord and puncturing the breathing vein of almost any animal. The battle became so one-sided at this point that we felt the bear had given up and that she won’t be able to get back on her feet again.

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The afternoon heat was at its peak and though the tiger had overpowered the bear, it seemed like the cat was tiring and was starting to loosen his hold over the bear. The bear was quick to react and took the opportunity to fight back and defend herself from Tadoba’s apex predator. 

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Though it was still impossible to predict how the fight would end, it seemed like the bear had found the spirit to fight to live another day. She managed to writhe out of the tiger’s deadly jaws and stood back up to face him once again. She didn’t seem fit enough to fight a tiger but by now even the tiger didn’t seem to have the energy to bring down the bear. 

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Injured and bleeding, the mother bear stood on her hind legs to match the size of the tiger in an attempt to break his confidence. The bear scratched the tiger’s chest with her long, sharp claws, forcing the big cat to maybe consider retreating. The fight had been going on for an hour now and clearly, the scorching heat and the tough contender had exhausted the tiger.

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Not allowing a moment’s breath, the bear started nipping away at the tiger’s legs to try and restrict his movement. Much smaller than her contender, the bear was deliberately targeting the tiger’s legs.

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Completely exhausted, but with no external injury, it looked like the tiger was now on the back foot and seemingly deciding that the fight wasn’t worth the effort. The bear, on the other hand, with her do or die attitude, kept up her aggression and forced the tiger into the nearby water body. Eventually, both of them called a truce and the bear left in search for her cub. 

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The mother and cub must have approached the waterbody to try and beat the heat, without realising the presence of the tiger. Instead of getting any water to quench their thirst, they got a fight with the king of the jungle! It just goes to show how difficult life is in the wild, where access to even basic necessities such as water can mean a struggle between life and death.