The Cubs are Born

Arjan Singh played a leading role in the creation of the Dudhwa National Park, a forest sanctuary to the south of the Nepal-Indian border surrounding his farm 'Tiger Haven'. In 1976 he was awarded the WWF Gold Medal for his conservation work. Today, at the age of 85, he is founding a trust to ensure the continuation of 'Tiger Haven' as a conservation and research station.

In his book 'Prince of Cats', published in 1982, Arjan tells the story of how he raised and tried to rehabilitate the leopards Prince, Harriet and Juliette in the early 1970s. As this is my favourite book I'm delighted that Arjan allowed me to publish any excerpt. In the following I present some passages of the chapter 'The Cubs are Born'.

Although I could not immediately see the cubs, I knew from small sounds that they were in there, and I was flooded by a sense of great relief. At last Harriet had found a secure home. The cavity - hollowed out by generations of chital licking at the salty earth - was spacious and well-guarded: the roots coming down over the entrance protected the chamber almost as effectively as a screen of wire mesh. I was particularly pleased by the symbiotic nature of the place: in this hollow made by deer searching for minerals, a leopard had found shelter for her young.
Harriet with her cubs, by Arjan Singh

Photo by courtesy of Arjan Singh

Here she settled down to a perfect domestic routine, spending long hours with the cubs and showing no desire to go off and leave them. The chamber was big enough for Harriet to remain out of sight if she wished, but often she would groom the cubs in full view.

One of them looked much darker than the other, although the colouring of both - solid dark spots on a grey background - was more like that of a fishing cat than that of an adult leopard.

Whenever their mother was away they would remain out of sight, but while she was at home they would sometimes come to the entrance and peer out at the strange world beyond the roots.

Harriet came to Tiger Haven every day for a meal, but her appetite was not as great as I expected, considering she was feeding her cubs as well as herself, and I suspected that she was getting part of her rations by hunting. My hunch was confirmed one day as I sat watching the den: when a herd of chital crackled and rustled the dry leaves on their way past the ravine, she shot out of the entrance in a low crouch and tried to stalk them. Even though the attempt failed, a later examination of her droppings revealed large quantities of hair which looked like that of a langur, mixed with some of my own !
This cosy routine was broken abruptly by the return of Prince, who arrived during the night of May 15 and ate 3 lbs of meat that we had left out on the Junction Bridge. Next morning Harriet seemed fascinated by the scent messages he had left, and while crossing the flyover she kept up a continual sniffing and grimacing.

He arrived again on the evening of the 19th. It was a wild evening, with a thunderstorm brewing and a cold breeze blowing. To the east a troop of langurs swung in the trees, their joyous whoops sounding above the mutter of thunder. I was moving cautiously along the path below the escarpment when I heard two muffled snarls, different from the booming of the monkeys, though not easily discernible among the welter of low-frequency sounds. I had gone only a few steps further when I heard a grunt in the bushes and some large animal dashed away. A moment later Harriet appeared out of the same patch of undergrowth, and from the way she rolled on the ground and grimaced, I was sure she had been with Prince.

The meeting seemed to throw her out of her maternal stride. Until then she had been a most solicitous mother, but now, after her evening meal at Tiger Haven, instead of jumping into the boat for her return passage to the jungle, she climbed on to the roof of the house and spent the night there. In the morning, after chasing some chital unsuccessfully, she went to sleep in a tree, and had to be persuaded to go back to her cubs.

Her behaviour - so different from a few days before - worried and puzzled me. But then, next morning, she seemed to have reverted to normal, and sat at the mouth of the den looking perfectly at ease. As I tried to work out what had happened, I wondered if, by keeping away, she had been seeking to conceal the existence of the cubs from some potentially hostile visitor. I realised that what to me were the menacing hours of darkness must to her be the protective velvet of night, in which the scentlessness of the cubs, in their secluded den, was the best possible form of defence. Had she been with them, her own scent might have drawn a passing tiger to the spot; on their own, they stood a better chance.