Sabyasachi Patra

Tiger Intelligence

Tiger Intelligence

How intelligent is the tiger?

Well, we human beings think that we are the most intelligent among all the living species on earth. We take a certain amount of pride in that as well. However, do the other animals have a lower level of intellect? Some scientists refuse to acknowledge that animals possess intelligence; rather they attribute some of the actions to intuition.

However, I have a healthy regard for the intelligence level of a tiger. I have never seen them attack their prey at the first sight. I have seen the tiger virtually crawling in the ground where there is insufficient cover and deciding to move back to the shelter of the bush when it realises that the distance is not enough for it to succeed in bringing down the prey. Once I saw the Jhurjhura tigress in Bandhavgarh stalk four times to return back without its prey even noticing her. Compare this to foolhardy actions of some of the armies who have unsuccessfully tried to storm the bastion and have paid with huge number of human lives. One such example that readily comes to my mind is the Charge of the Light Brigade of the British army in the Crimean war where a hundred odd soldiers were felled at the first few minutes of the open charge. Do you still think that the tiger has lesser intellect?

I am sure your doubts regarding the tiger’s intelligence will vanish when the tiger outwits you and slips away. Many a hunter will vouch for that. And if you are a wildlife photographer or researcher tracking and studying a tiger for a long time, then you may have such an experience as well.

A wild bengal tiger Panthera tigris tigris cub walks along a dirt track in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, India

A wild bengal tiger Panthera tigris tigris cub walks along a dirt track in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, India

A few years back, I was in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. It was raining in most of the days. In one afternoon, dark clouds were hovering over the sky. We ventured into the forest and despite signs of tiger, we didn’t see one. We saw a big herd of gaur with a huge dominant male. I think it is the biggest gaur that I have seen till date. It was ensuring that a small calf was physically shielded and after all the members of the herd crossed the road and moved into deeper jungle did the leader move.

After an hour or so we took a right turn and suddenly ahead of us at a distance we could see a tigress with cubs walking on the dirt track. It was an interesting sight. A few poodles had formed in the dirt track due to rain and leading our eye to the tiger. I clicked a couple of image and then asked the driver to move closer.
A wild bengal tiger Panthera tigris tigris cub sharpens its claws on a dead tree in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, India

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Tigress watching to see if we left

The cubs turned to their left and entered the forest where as the tigress kept on moving ahead. We reached the spot where the cubs had entered into the forest and stopped to spot them. Since we couldn’t find them and the tigress was moving on the road in front of us, the driver and the forest department appointed guide were interested in following her.

No sooner had we started the jeep, we could see that one of the cubs was just peeping from behind a bamboo bush. It was watching whether we have left the place or not. The cub then sharpened its claws on a dead tree and then moved back into the forest. We immediately, started following the tigress.

The tigress walked for a few minutes and then turned to her right and entered into the forest. Remember, that the cubs had entered the forest on our left, where as the mother enters the forest some distance ahead and to the right.

When we reached the spot, we could not locate her. We stood there for a few minutes to ponder our next course of action. The driver and guide were unanimous in their decision that the tigress had moved ahead and we should also move ahead. I was not sure that the tigress had moved ahead. If it wanted to do so, then why did it leave the dirt track and enter into the bush? I had a niggling suspicion that the tigress might have gone back towards her cubs. Nevertheless, we moved ahead for a few minutes and I was thinking all the time. I suddenly asked them to stop. The driver and guide thought that I had spotted the tigress. I told them to turn back and reach the place where we had left the cubs. The driver and guide started telling me that they know for sure where the tigress has gone; they have so much of experience etc. I was insistent because I realised that the tigress have fooled us.

I forced the driver to turn back and drive back to the place where we left the cubs. Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I could see the tigress and cub sitting on a bund towards our left, about 15-18 feet high. This bund, due to its higher elevation, was obviously not visible to the people sitting in a vehicle. I had somehow managed to sight them. We then reversed the vehicle and came back to the spot.

A wild royal bengal tigress with cub in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, India

The tigress was obviously smart. The cubs went into the forest on our left and she moved ahead A wild Royal Bengal Tigress snarls at the presence of tourists in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Indiaand entered into the forest towards her right. She has then retraced her steps back to the spot, crossed the road and met her cubs. She has then taken them to the top of a bund which is about 15-18 feet high and not readily visible from the ground level. She was intelligent enough to fool us for some time. If I didn’t have an idea about the good level of intelligence a tiger possesses, then I would not have realised that it was a deliberate ploy of the tigress to lead us away from her cubs.

We photographed them for some time, and one of the cubs who were shy immediately moved into the bush and out of sight. So I photographed the tigress and one cub. Soon other tourist vehicles appeared in the sight and were unable to notice the tiger and moving away. Only after our guide pointed at the tigress and cub, the other tourist vehicles could see it and came back for a closer look. Such was the advantage of the elevation of the bund.

A wild Royal bengal tiger adolescent cub in Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, India

She was obviously not too happy at the presence of noisy tourists in four tourist vehicles that had lined up at the spot within 15 minutes. She gave vent to a snarl and soon disappeared into the bush. The light was pretty low. I clicked a few images solely for black and white purpose. We then moved back to the forest rest house, with a much better appreciation of the intelligence level of a tiger.

Post Script: Perhaps no one could have described the intelligence level of tiger vis-a-vis man much better than the late Kailash Sankhala, the founder director of Project Tiger. He had made a comment on the practice of people wearing a mask at the back of their head while entering into the Sundarban forests, in the belief that tiger will think people are looking at him and will not attack. In Kailash Sankhala‘s own words:

My study of the tigers behaviour rules out any role for masks or dummies. The tiger never attacks at first sight. A lot of verification, re-verification, focus and refocus is practised, sometimes for hours before an attack is launched.

Too much of dependence on statistics to prove the predetermined result is dangerous. But who fools whom? Nobody is quiet sure. My guess is the joke is on us rather than the tiger“.

Please do post your comments and feedback about this ‘Tiger Intelligence’ article.

Sabyasachi Patra

Sabyasachi is an award winning Cinematographer and shoots for international broadcasters, feature films and corporates to make a living. He is a passionate wildlife filmmaker and photographer and has won awards and accolades for his documentary “A Call in the Rainforest”. He has been striving to make his films and photographs full of life and emotion and write articles to educate and evangelise the need for conserving the last tracts of vanishing wilderness and wildlife in our country. He hopes that his wildlife films, photographs and writings force people to pause, look, ponder and ultimately take action.

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