The heat is scorching in Tadoba National Park. Water is scarce, and the tiger, over all animals, is supposed to reign supreme.
Only a few dozen tigers roam this 30,000-acre reserve in central India, according to the Hindustan Times. Yet they dominate the coveted water holes, where barking deer and hyena packs must come to drink. Even humans have to respect the laws of nature in this park. Last year, the Times reported, a tiger crossed paths with an unwary ranger and killed him on the spot.
So it was with natural caution Wednesday afternoon that safari guide Akshay Kumar led a group of tourists to the edge of a water hole called Jamun Bodi, which he knew to be the marked territory of the tiger called Matkasur.
A 7-year-old alpha male, all muscles and teeth, Matkasur sat in his pond in 95-degree heat. Kumar stopped his tour group a safe distance away to observe, he told NDTV.
The tourists didn’t know it then, but they were about to see a tiger challenged.
A sloth bear and her cub emerged from a band of thin trees, Kumar recalled. They wanted a drink of Matkasur’s water, but the tiger was not in a generous mood.
He chased the pair off easily enough but was not content to let them just escape. Matkasur kept pursuing the smaller bear through the woods, and Kumar began to film.
The cub scrambled between the trees, turning this way and that, losing ground. Matkasur did not seem to be in a rush. Even a full-grown bear would have little chance against a tiger, NDTV reported. The little one was easy prey.
Or so it seemed — until the mother bear came charging out of the trees. She barreled straight into Matkasur, who flailed and stumbled backward through the foliage.
The tiger was determined. He stood his ground at the tree line and kept trying to make a beeline toward the cub. But the mother turned herself into a barricade of flesh and fur. She blocked Matkasur whichever way he turned, like a goalie between trees.
When Matkasur still would not give up, the bear raised up on her haunches and engaged.
“She kept charging to protect her cub,” Kumar told NDTV. “It went on for 15 minutes.”
They fought in the trees, and then in the grasslands. They buried teeth in flesh. The cub yelped and hopped around them — no more able to affect the battle than the tourists behind the camera.
“Oh, my God,” said one.
“Oh, no,” said another.
Matkasur got the better of the bear, pinning her, biting down. The mother went still, and the cub ran away.
“No, no, no. Oh, no.”
But then — a grunt later — the bear moved. She somehow struggled free. A conservationist would tell NDTV it was probably her thick fur that saved her, though a fair amount of willpower had to factor in.
As Kumar said, it was a long fight. The bear and tiger kept tumbling over each other, each gaining the advantage only to lose it again, a red cloud of dust rising up from the shore of the water.
Finally, each drained, they disengaged and fell still beside each other. They rested for a moment like that, both wounded, as if at peace.
Then the mother reared up one more time. The long fur on her neck bristled straight, and for an instant she looked even bigger and more fearsome than the tiger that ruled Jamun Bodi.
And Matkasur ran from the bear; this time not turning back. She chased him all the way to the water hole. He splashed straight into it, as if it were sanctuary. Maybe it was, because the bear stopped at the water’s edge.
All she had wanted was a drink. But she left the tiger to his mud and walked off to find her cub.