Tigers need territories that have an abundance of prey, enough vegetation cover for hunting and a few permanent waterholes. Once they establish such territories, they then aggressively defend it from other tigers of the same sex. This speaks more so for the core of their territory than the far edges. Permanent water holes, though, are crucial for the survival of tigers in the wild. In semi-arid forests like Ranthambhore, during the hot and dry summers, most of the waterholes dry out and only a few remain. In the tiger world, such waterholes are definitely worth fighting for. Let me tell you a story about one such fight that I witnessed near Phoota Kot in Ranthambhore.
A few years ago, a tigress called Ghost, numbered T60 by the forest department, had her first litter of three cubs. At the edge of her territory was a string of about half a dozen waterholes in an area called Phoota Kot. Ghost shared these waterholes with another tigress named Noor, who lived in the adjoining territory.
A big dominant male tiger referred to as T57 ruled over the territories of both Ghost and Noor. He was the father of Ghost's cubs. Male tigers have a far bigger range than females, and a dominant male’s range would include territories of a few females.
A few months later, Noor gave birth to a litter of three cubs, again sired by T57. Noor was a few years older than Ghost, as a result, more experienced and much stronger. Tigers grow in size nearly throughout their lives, and older tigers are usually stronger than younger ones.
As Ghost's cubs grew, they spent a lot of time around the waterholes of Phoota Kot. Besides Phoota Kot, she had two other permanent waterholes in her territory, but the cubs seemed to prefer this one over the other two.
Noor and her three cubs also spent a lot of time in the same string of waterholes during the same period. However, both the families would keep a buffer distance between them. It seemed that they had divided this string of waterholes into two equal halves. All went well till the peak of summer when the waterholes that belonged to Noor started drying up while Ghost still had a lot of water in her territory.
Noor must have realised that she had little choice but to expand into Ghost's territory. One summer afternoon, Noor and her cubs were resting at the border of her territory when she saw Ghost just across the border.
In an instant, Noor was up and alert. This is when she decided to play her hand, and she took the challenge to Ghost.
As Noor approached menacingly, Ghost (with her back towards the camera in the picture below) turned her ears around to display the white behind her ears – a sign of extreme agitation. This was war.
The two mothers went at each other with abandon as their sub-adult cubs watched from a distance. This was a proper fight, with claws unsheathed, fur and blood flying, and accompanied by very loud roars.
It was clear that Noor was going to come out the winner, even though Ghost was no pushover. Noor's experience gave her the edge. Just when we thought that Ghost was going to get seriously injured, Noor slipped on a slush-covered rock, a rare occurrence for such a sure-footed cat.
Ghost, by now, had realised that she was going to lose this fight and took the opportunity to retreat, as Noor clumsily recovered from the fall.
Ghost bolted from the scene before Noor could react.
Noor chased after Ghost but Ghost was long gone, leaving Noor behind, victorious.
A victory that Noor then proudly proclaimed with a loud roar. Noor was now the new owner of all the waterholes in Phoota Kot, and Ghost never came back, till Noor's cubs grew up and became independent.