The Ultimate Tiger Mom

Unlike most tiger mothers, Collarwali was, in fact, a tiger. Her life (2005-2022) was characterized by unusualness. She was unusually large for a female (so big, observers often mistook her for a male, and other tigers were scared to fight with her). She was unusually friendly (tigers are solitary and shy, but Collarwali seemed relaxed about venturing near people and was often spotted afoot in the Pench Tiger Reserve, in Madhya Pradesh, India, where she lived). Most notably, she was unusually fertile: she gave birth to twenty-nine cubs in her lifetime, which accounts for almost one per cent of all the tigers in India, according to 2018 estimates. She was also unusually well known. Her mother, Badi Mata, was the subject of the popular BBC documentary “Tiger: Spy in the Jungle,” from 2008. With narration by David Attenborough, the documentary followed the life of Badi Mata and her litter of four cubs, one of which was Collarwali. After this celebrated start, Collarwali lived an unusually long time (the average tiger life span is fifteen years, which she bettered by almost two). When she died, in January, she lay in state on a flower-strewn pyre, and her funeral was attended by a crowd including Madhya Pradesh’s forest minister, Dr. Kunwar Vijay Shah, and a number of other government officials. Mourning was widespread. The giant dairy company Amul published a sepia-colored cartoon tribute with the caption “She Earned Her Stripes!” In a public statement, the state Department of Forest noted that Collarwali had made an “unforgettable contribution” to the tigers in Madhya Pradesh.

Collarwali was formally known, less poetically, as T-15. Her father, T-1, known more familiarly as the Charger of Pench, or plain old Charger, was a large toothy male with a penchant for running full-speed at elephants. The family lived in a teak forest that is one of the few protected tiger habitats on earth. (To be honest, Charger dropped by only occasionally; parenting duties were handled almost exclusively by Badi Mata.) According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.), wild tigers now occupy less than ten per cent of the area in which they used to range. Their numbers globally have dropped from around a hundred thousand, in 1910, to some thirty-nine hundred, in 2021—the result of poaching, hunting, and habitat loss—and they have vanished entirely from many areas. Tigers are listed as endangered on I.U.C.N.’s Red List of Threatened Species—one notch below “critically endangered,” which is edging toward “extinct.”

Badi Mata was an excellent mother, strict with lessons, but tolerant of goofy cub behavior, such as killing pangolins. (They smell terrible; no self-respecting tiger eats them; there’s no point in killing them.) As expected, the cubs left home when they were about two years old. T-15 set up shop not far from her mother. In 2008, she was the first tigress in Pench to be fitted with a radio collar, hence her nickname Collarwali, which means “collar-wearer” in Hindi.

That same year, Collarwali gave birth to her first litter, but she fumbled as a new mother and all her cubs died of pneumonia. In time, though, she developed serious motherhood skills, and her next litters flourished. In 2010, she gave birth to a mega-litter of five cubs. Tiger litters are usually three or four in size, and half of all cubs born die in the first year of their lives; to rear a whopping five cubs is world-class. Collarwali was a tough-love kind of mother, letting her cubs start hunting earlier than a more helicopter-parenting sort of tigress. Her methodology was so successful that her cubs not only overachieved—they even stayed in touch with her after they moved away, which is said to be rare in the tiger world.

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Tigers are India’s national animal and, in 1973, a conservation effort called Project Tiger was launched to try to stabilize their declining population. Tigers with wanderlust that leave conservation areas are sometimes killed by farmers (and farmers are sometimes killed by tigers). Collarwali’s sister, along with two of her cubs, died in 2016, after drinking poisoned water. (Five men, including a forest guard, were arrested in connection with the poisoning.) The market for tiger parts, which are believed to have health benefits, including as aphrodisiacs, continues to flourish. Nevertheless, conservation efforts, coupled with Collarwali’s fecundity, have made a difference, and India’s tiger population is slowly rising.
As it happens, Collarwali’s was not the only recent animal funeral in Madhya Pradesh. In December, a langur monkey who frequently visited the village of Dalupura died of cold exposure, and was sent to its eternal rest by a crowd of about fifteen hundred people. Langurs are relatively common throughout India, but they are considered sacred in Hinduism. The event, which included a procession and a feast, violated India’s COVID restrictions on public gatherings, and at least two people were arrested.

At Collarwali’s funeral, following her death from natural causes, social distancing was observed, but the occasion was equally stirring. The enormous tigress was covered with yellow, orange, and white carnations, and shrouded in white, except for her magnificent head. A line of mourners approached the wooden pyre one by one and offered her flowers before she was cremated. Collarwali’s remarkable fruitfulness did raise the risk of her cubs inbreeding, but, on balance, her mothering was a net positive and her loss a tragedy. After the funeral, the chief minister of the state wrote on Twitter that “the forests of Madhya Pradesh will always resonate with the roar of the cubs of the ‘Queen’ of Pench Tiger Reserve.”

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