27 July 2022
TO SEE A TIGER
As we celebrate World Tiger Day, long-term WWF supporter and Legacy Society member David Waterhouse shares his story of travelling through India and his rare encounter with the big cat.
Even up until the 1950s, when they were much more common, you could spend years in the wilds of India without obtaining so much as a glimpse of a tiger. As the numbers of these great cats were decimated through shooting, trapping, and poisoning, the chances of sighting one of the wary survivors became less and less.
Though their numbers have slowly risen in a few well-guarded sanctuaries in recent years, the odds of a visitor spotting one remain slim. Your best chance of seeing a tiger in India today is most likely to be in the Ranthambore National Park in the state of Rajasthan.
When I visited India in January 2019, a detour by train was arranged for me from the Bharatpur bird sanctuary to the station closest to Ranthambore, where the odds of my seeing a tiger in the cool of January were about 50/50 (in the heat of summer, the chances are even higher because some will come down to the deep river pools to cool off).
I had three safaris booked there: one in the early morning and two late afternoon ones. On the first two outings, we saw a range of animals, including deer, wild pigs, monkeys and even bears, as well as a variety of birds, but no tiger.
It was not until the third and final foray towards evening that I was lucky enough to first encounter the big cat. After combing the forest tracks close to the river, we decided to change tactics and negotiated a bumpy road that climbed up and around a rocky hillside. When we reached the top, we systematically scanned the slope opposite with binoculars, a procedure known as ‘glassing’ in the old days, or ‘shikar’ as it was then known.
For some time, we saw no sign of life at all except a flock of parrots. Then we spotted a huge Sambar stag close to a rock outcrop. It was standing quite still with ears pricked and seemed to be staring upslope. Suddenly, it gave vent to a loud call which sounded like a heavy bell clang and was clearly audible to us on the opposite side of the valley. After following its gaze several times, I thought I caught a glimpse of something orange moving through the clumps of grass above where the deer was standing. When the orange shape moved into a more open patch of ground, it revealed itself to be a huge tiger! Its striped coat shone in the late afternoon sun, and we were able to watch it for several minutes before the stag lost its nerve and bounded downhill and out of sight. With its potential meal gone, the tiger lost interest and also vanished into the scrub.
It had been a distant view but satisfying nonetheless. On the drive back along the track, I felt lucky to have at last seen a tiger in the wild, no matter at what distance. Halfway back to the park entrance, our driver spotted a sloth bear snuffling the ground for termites quite close to the vehicle. We watched and photographed it for a few minutes before it shuffled and snuffled its way deeper into the woods. We did not have a lot of time left to linger anyway, as it would soon be twilight, and we risked a fine if we did not arrive at the entrance checkpoint by dark.
We hadn’t gone more than a couple of kilometres when the driver slowed to a halt and pointed to his side of the track. He pointed and said simply, “Bagh!” which we took at first to be an exclamation until our English-speaking guide translated it to “Tiger!”
At first, we couldn’t see a thing, when suddenly, there it was: a supine clump of orange fur amongst the trees not far from the side of the road. For some time, it remained lying on its side, quite oblivious to our presence or in no hurry to move. It was not asleep as it twitched its tail and moved its head to lick itself now and then. Most of its body was hidden by a tree trunk, and it was not an ideal subject for a photograph. Even so, it was still splendid to watch at such close quarters.
Both the driver and the guide were concerned about the time but were willing to wait a few more minutes in case the beast decided to get up and go for a drink from the river not far away. Just as we were about to leave, it decided to get up and go for a stroll, moving parallel to us as we moved slowly forward along the track. It picked up pace as it moved through fairly thick cover, quite useless for photography. Luckily for us, it eventually moved into a clearing, still close by, and we all took a barrage of shots at it with our cameras before it unconcernedly ambled into thicker cover once more.
Wasting no more time, we were driven off smartly to avoid being fined. We all remarked on the fact that the big cat took no notice of us whatsoever as far as we could tell. Our guide said that at one time no tiger would ever react to a vehicle the way ours had and that some of them were becoming more and more used to visitors. Strict protection under the Project Tiger scheme may have come in the nick of time to help prevent the imminent slide towards the extinction of the Bengal Tiger in the wild.
If tigers continue to be well protected and they are still permitted some living space in a country crowded with humans, they may, in some places, become as tolerant of vehicles as lions are in India and Africa. This alone would enable both local people and foreign visitors to have a fair chance of seeing one and would make the iconic creature a valuable asset, worth far more to the country alive than dead.
Tigers are threatened daily. Their body parts are in relentless demand, leaving them in constant danger of illegal poaching. 93% of their habitat has been destroyed, and their forest homes cleared for agriculture, timber and road building. And when they compete for space with humans, they can be killed.
Large-scale global commitments like WWF’s TX2 Program are required to ensure tigers have a chance of survival into the future. TX2 is a WWF Global Goal aimed at doubling tiger numbers and securing the future of the world’s most threatened big cat. By working closely with the 13 tiger range governments to take action, tiger landscapes are being restored, demand for products have reduced, and reintroduction of tigers will continue.
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