D. MADHAVAN stares into the eye of a nursing tigress and lives to tell a tale of family and togetherness

A quiet battle is raging in an enclosure at Vandalur Zoo. Three suckling cubs jostle for the lion’s share of their mother’s milk. Actually, tiger’s.

These cubs were born in captivity December last, to a white tigress and a Royal Bengal tiger. The event marked the first successful cross-breeding exercise of its kind, at Vandalur.

Namrata, the white tigress, licks her ‘warring’ young as they eagerly push against her. Having had their fill, they stretch themselves up and gambol around the enclosure.

“In the wild, cubs can range over a wide area. Staying in an enclosure, these three don’t enjoy that privilege. Having been born into this small space, they are blissfully unaware of what they are missing out on. They are always playful,” says an animal caretaker with a smile.

Namrata is recumbent, but her watchful eyes follow the cubs. With a chilling look directed at the zoo staff standing at a distance, she seems to say: “This space is just for me and my little ones.”

From their early days, the 3-month-old cubs have been confined to this enclosure together with Namrata, just to ensure her focused attention on their growth.

“The cubs are fed morsels of chicken. But they will rely on their mother’s milk for six months. Another reason for keeping them in seclusion, with their mother of course, is their sensitive ears. Noise is not very good for them,” said a zoo vet. In effect, visitors to the zoo will not be able to watch these cuddly little cubs until they are six months old.   

One striking thing about the cubs is how different they look from Namrata. All three resemble their other parent – Vijay, a nine-year-old Royal Bengal tiger. Vijay had an unenviable love life, remaining without a pair for five years since he was brought to Vandalur zoo from the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park,Vishakhapatnam in 2007, under an animal exchange programme. Finally, when hope seemed to be running out, Namrata roared into his life. At Vandalur, white tigers are crossbred with Royal Bengal tigers to prevent inbreeding among the former. The exercise is aimed at strengthening the stock of white tigers, believed to be genetically weaker than Royal Bengal tigers. Leaving Namrata alone with her little ones, we proceed to check her extended family, living a few hundred metres away. In this enclosure, a nine-year-old white tigress Anu – who is Namrata’s mother – stays with a large family of white tigers, including four newborn cubs. Paired with Bishmar, Anu gave birth to the four in October last, two months before her daughter raised a family of her own. Before coming to Vandalur in 2006, Anu and Bhishmar (Namrata’s parents) enthralled visitors to the Delhi zoo. With Namrata and her mother Anu’s new cubs, the number of big cats at Vandalur has touched 21, with white tigers leading the pack at 13.

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