Remembering Collarwali: The tigress who put Pench Tiger Reserve on the map

On International Tiger Day (July 29), Taj Safaris hosted ‘An Ode to Collarwali’, a webinar conducted by Kopal Thakur, naturalist at the Baghvan, A Taj Safari, Pench National Park. We get her to retrace the awe-inspiring story of this iconic tigress and her legendary journey.

Pench Tiger Reserve, which straddles the border between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, is one of India’s most popular tiger sanctuaries. Until January this year, wildlife enthusiasts often encountered a special phenomenon while on safari here. The people-friendly Collarwali, a 16-year-old tigress who was often seen with her cubs.

Tigress, collarwali, pench national park, pench tiger reserve
Collarwali had always been a big cat with a big personality. Image: Courtesy Taj Safaris/Vipul Turkar.

Her demise on January 15 earlier this year was mourned not only by the entire nation but also globally. She had always been a big cat with a big personality. In fact, her stardom started even as a cub, when she, along with three siblings and their mother Badi Mada (T31) and father, Charger (T1), were the main protagonists of 2008 BBC documentary Spy in the Jungle, narratedbySir David Attenborough. Using footage collected by hidden cameras and elephant trunk cameras this was the most intimate portrayal of tigers ever filmed.

Born in 2005, she was initially known as T-15, before she was fitted with a radio collar at the age of three, on March 11, 2008, by the forest department in the hope of studying and learning more about tiger behaviour. As she was the first tigress in Pench to be fitted with a radio collar, she started being called Collarwali (the one with a collar).

Tigress, collarwali, pench national park, pench tiger reserve
She was the first tigress in Pench to be fitted with a radio collar. Image: Courtesy Taj Safaris/Vipul Turkar.

Kopal Thakur, naturalist at the Baghvan, A Taj Safari, Pench National Park, observes, “Her life was characterised by unusualness. She was unusually large for a female, so big that observers often mistook her for a male! And for an animal that is by nature shy and solitary, she was unusually friendly, venturing near our safari vehicles and, also near elephants and patrolling camps. Most notably, she was unusually fertile.”

Tigress, collarwali, pench national park, pench tiger reserve
“We will never have her block our roads, we will never witness her perfect ‘head-ons’. But, what we will have, is the legacy she left behind… the jungles will forever resonate with the roars of her cubs,” says Kopal Thakur, naturalist at Baghvan, A Taj Safari in Pench about the tigress. Image: Courtesy Taj Safaris.

In fact, this is the one reason that she has become such a legend. Between 2008 and 2022, she birthed a total of 29 cubs (that’s almost one per cent of the total tiger population in India!), nurturing them and helping them to attain maturity until each dispersed to establish their own territory. She single-headedly took the population of tigers in Pench and in India to a new level, earning a new name — Mataram — as she became a symbol of successful (and prolific) motherhood. Her progeny is now thriving in Pench as well as helping to populate other parks, such as T6 in Panna Tiger Reserve, which had lost all its tigers.

Tigress, collarwali, pench national park, pench tiger reserve
Between 2008 and 2022, the tigress birthed a total of 29 cubs, nurturing them and helping them to attain maturity until each dispersed to establish their own territory. Image: Courtesy Taj Safaris/Vipul Turkar.

We asked Thakur the secret to Mataram’s success. She replies, “Both, the high number of litters, and the high number of cubs in each litter of hers could very well be a result of great conservation by the forest department and availability of a healthy habitat with abundant prey. But it also had a lot to do with her choice of mate, safe denning sites, and encouraging early dispersal of cubs.”

While she lost her very first litter to the harsh monsoons, she learned from her mistakes. Every litter after that had three to four, and sometimes even five cubs, most of whom survived and thrived under her care. Roughly a month after losing her first litter, in October 2008, Collarwali produced her second litter of four cute and healthy cubs. The now experienced mother was doing everything right to not repeat what had happened in the past.

Thakur narrates, “The tiny cubs were growing fast, Collarwalli attending to their needs like a diligent tiger mother… making many hunts to feed four hungry stomachs, taking them around her territory to teach them things about being a tiger. When suddenly, one day, she disappeared!”

Tigress, collarwali, pench national park, pench tiger reserve
The clever tigress chose to remain separate from her cubs to save them from a male tiger that was not their father. Image: Courtesy Taj Safaris/Vipul Turkar.

The cubs were only 18 months old and forest officials wondered whether they had been abandoned by Collarwali. While the cubs were almost adult in size, they were still highly dependent on her and not very well equipped with the skills to hunt. “For 16 days, the cubs were alone. The forest department was thinking of intervening, but one experienced official pointed out that her mother too had done the same with Collarwali so that the cubs would learn to hunt by themselves faster than usual. It was decided to simply wait and observe,” she says.

Thakur recalls how the tiger community heaved a collective sigh of relief, when, as anticipated, Collarwalli made a comeback, reuniting with her cubs after they had made a few successful hunts. Although, this was not the only reason why she was not coming close to them.

Turns out, the savvy mother had stayed away from her precious brood to save their lives from a male tiger who had entered the territory! Mataram had litter after litter (eight in total) throughout her life, so even when her radio collar stopped functioning, the forest officials couldn’t tranquilise her to remove it as she was either expecting or rearing cubs all the time.

Tigress, collarwali, pench national park, pench tiger reserve
Her cubs even stayed in touch with her after they moved away. Image: Shutterstock/Dr Ajay Kumar SIngh.

“Let’s take a look at Mataram’s record-breaking contribution to the tiger world. No other tiger’s report card may look like this,” says the young naturalist, explaining, “Most of her litters had three to four cubs, which is also true for other tigresses. But it is common knowledge that half of all cubs born may die in the first year of their lives. To rear a whopping eight litters, with almost all making it to adulthood, is world class. Her methodology was so successful that her cubs not only over-achieved but even stayed in touch with her after they moved away. This is an unusual occurrence in the tiger world.”

Tigress, collarwali, pench national park, pench tiger reserve
The 16-year-old tigress showed few signs of aging. Image: Courtesy Taj Safaris/Vipul Turkar.

And what’s wonderful is that, besides a few cuts on her ears, saggy skin under the belly, and some black spots on the nose, the tigress showed few signs of aging. Even in her last week alive, Mataram was seen fighting Lmark, the dominant male in the park and securing her territory! “Her canines were perfect until her last day, and in her last moments, she slowly made her way to one of her frequently visited spots in her territory, drank water from a small stream, and lay there as all vehicles watched her in that evening safari…” Thakur describes the diva’s last moments.

“With heavy hearts we all did our usual round the next morning, knowing the park will never be the same again. We will never have her block our roads, we will never witness her perfect ‘head-ons’. But, what we will have, is the legacy she left behind… the jungles will forever resonate with the roars of her cubs,” says Thakur solemnly.

The naturalist from Baghvan a Taj Safari points out how the tigress and her terrific 29 lived in the protected area of Pench, which is the reason we know a little bit about Mataram’s secret life. Thakur muses, “Just imagine how many such tigers live in non-protected areas facing many challenges. With tiger numbers increasing slowly and forest cover going down, naturally, the next big question is how to accommodate this growing number of tigers in the ever-shrinking habitat.”

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