As soon as the gates open to the Ranthambhore National Park a frantic race begins. I’m struggling to hold onto the side of the jeep, while trying to anticipate the twists and bumps of our frenzied ride. My guide Balveer won’t answer my plea. I shout into the wind. “What has been spotted?” “Is it Noor and her cubs?” Infuriatingly he’s trying to manage my expectations by pretending this is just an every-day, casual drive. This is a fantasy. He can barely contain his own excitement as we dart down hidden short-cuts and supposedly closed roads. “BRANCH!” Thankfully we all duck.
Scanning the forest I can see two other bouncing jeeps converging. Noor and her three eight month old cubs have been spotted. Will we get a fleeting glimpse, a clear sighting, a shot, a good shot, maybe a great shot? What if there IS a great shot and I miss it? My fear of missing out is taking over.
Fast approaching, I release my stabilising grip on the jeep and snatch twenty fuzzy, jumpy, awkward shots. I curse myself for not resisting, for being such an amateur. These photos will all be deleted. Still moving, I try to assess the scene. Where is the sun, is there cloud cover, are there ugly shadows? Where is the clearest view, the cleanest background, an eye-level position, an interesting or beautiful natural feature? What are Noor and her cubs doing? What might they do next?
We come to a screeching halt of choking, blinding dust. Anxious and tense, I give short, sharp location instructions to our driver; knowing I could be completely wrong and could miss or mess up our one and only chance. Reverse. Reposition. Reverse and reposition again. This is excruciating.
And then finally we settle. I need to breath deeply now, slow down, stop and look. I need to engage my brain and start to shoot consciously rather than emotionally. Noor and her cubs are completely relaxed. They are un-phased by the oooooohhhhhhs and aaaaaaahhhhs and constant camera clatter.
Compared to Noor, the cubs look like babies, but in reality a playful swipe from a cub would knock you to the floor and a gentle bite would fracture your arm. Born blind and helpless the cubs are now at a tipping point where their individual characters are starting to form. Is any one cub showing dominance? Maybe the dominant cub is the one with the stick, climbing the tree or initiating the fight? Was that the same or a different cub? They all look alike to my untrained eye. The dominant cub will leave Noor in the next eight months to gain an advantage over its siblings by being the first to establish its own territory.
One cub is also likely to die. As I’m watching I wonder which one it will be. Will the cub be killed by a wandering male, starvation, an accident, poaching? Am I seeing mother and all three cubs together for the very last time?
Suddenly, Noor is up and stalking. Spinning around I’m trying to see what she’s seen. Should I change my lens – no, adjust my camera settings, shift my position in anticipation of what might next happen? Noor bounds across my view, changing from a nuzzling, caring mother to a taught, focused killer. She jumps into the river, creating a blinding splash of white water and flailing limbs. She’s missed the drinking Sambar. All this within five seconds. Did I miss the shot?
For the past two months the cubs have been learning to hunt with Noor by their side. In around four months time they will be adult size and able to hunt for themselves. For now they practice stalking while Noor leaves to find food.
The following morning we return to see Noor bringing back a light snack. This isn’t enough to feed all three cubs and one cub is pushed aside while the other two squabble over their breakfast. Has the fate of this single cub already been determined? Are the other two working out who is dominant? Balveer watches with interest, safe in the knowledge that, for now at least, these three cubs represent a return to plenty for him and his own three young children.