On the trail of tigers in India

Unlike some cats, tigers have no aversion to water, as this Bengal demonstrates at Van Vihar National Park. There are 39 tiger reserves in India, four of them in Maharashtra state in western India, which last month authorized forest rangers to shoot poachers on sight. PRAKASH HATVALNE / Associated Press

RANTHAMBHORE NA­TION­AL PARK, India — My greatest wor­ry as a boy was be­com­ing separated from my parents and hunted down by a fe­ro­cious ti­ger, a night­mare triggered, I now sus­pect, by Wil­liam Blake’s clas­sic poem "The Tyg­er." The thought of coming face-to-face with one of these man eaters dur­ing a re­cent trip to Ranthambhore National Park in north­west India re­kin­dled my child­hood angst. Es­pe­cial­ly af­ter I learned that a big cat had killed two villagers near­by only the week be­fore.

A ma­trix of lakes and sharp gorges in the shad­ow of the Ara­val­li and Vin­dhya Mountains is the per­fect back­drop for panthers, car­a­cals, jackals, sam­bar deer, and 200 types of birds. But the main draw is the ti­ger. My guide, Hem Singh, assured me that tigers perceive jeeps as too for­mi­da­ble to at­tack. As long as I remained in­side ours, he said, I would be fine.

These leg­end­ary or­ang­ish cats with thin stripes have al­ways evoked a mix of fear, ad­mi­ra­tion, and mys­tique. In Hin­du lore, the god­dess Dur­ga rode them into bat­tles to save the world from de­mons. In ear­ly times, grate­ful peasants did their best to pro­tect them. But weaker animals pushed out of their nor­mal ranges posed a threat to humans and even­tu­al­ly triggered a back­lash. By the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry, India’s ti­ger pop­u­la­tion had become so depleted that in 1970 the gov­ern­ment outlawed hunt­ing the animals and, in 1973, launched "Pro­ject Ti­ger" to bol­ster their numbers.” What is now Ranthambhore National Park, a tra­di­tion­al hunt­ing ground of maharajas and kings, became one of nine orig­i­nal In­di­an preserves. Only a few thou­sand tigers ex­ist in the world to­day, rough­ly half of them in these preserves. Visitors who want to glimpse the animals must ap­ply months in ad­vance for a per­mit, be accompanied by guides, and be armed with noth­ing deadlier than cameras.

That hasn’t stopped poachers, who have sneaked into var­i­ous preserves in efforts to slay the animals at night and ab­scond with their car­cass­es. Driven by huge profits, they sell var­i­ous parts of the ti­ger to practitioners of Chi­nese med­i­cine. Powdered ti­ger bones are used to treat ulcers, rheu­ma­tism, and ty­phoid; ti­ger eyes are thought to be ef­fec­tive against ep­i­lep­sy and ma­lar­ia. A bowl of ti­ger pe­nis soup (to boost vi­ril­i­ty) goes for $320 in Tai­wan, while a pair of ti­ger eyes fetches $170. In Seoul, South Korea, powdered ti­ger hu­mer­us bone (ulcers, rheu­ma­tism, and ty­phoid) brings up to $1,450 per pound. Be­cause of the de­mand, dozens of tigers that once roamed In­di­an preserves — now numbering 39 — have disappeared.

The road to Ranthambhore is typ­i­cal of oth­er dusty thoroughfares in this land of 1.2 bil­lion. Close to towns and villages, it becomes clogged with cars, buses, and belching, mo­bile contraptions propelled by wa­ter pumps. And, of course, tuk-tuks, mo­tor­ized mini-taxis that are built to hold six peo­ple but that some­how al­ways seem crammed with more like 35. Adding to the con­ges­tion are oc­ca­sion­al camels, elephants, and sa­cred cows, whose wanderings some­times abrupt­ly halt traf­fic. At small shrines just off the road, the trav­el-wea­ry can pay hom­age to Ga­nesh, the el­e­phant-head­ed god of wis­dom and re­mov­er of obstacles, and Lord Hanu­man, the pop­u­lar Hin­du mon­key de­i­ty. Or they can un­wind with a glass of fresh sug­ar­cane juice or hun­ker down around a hoo­kah pipe with lo­cal farmers, whose wives sell fuel and building materials fashioned from cow dung that they col­lect fresh from the road each morn­ing.

As we got closer to Ran­thambhore, this eclec­tic pa­rade ceased en­tire­ly, replaced by a lone vil­lag­er, a sa­cred co­co­nut clutched be­tween his two outstretched hands, crawling be­side the road, one body length at a time, to­ward some dis­tant tem­ple to seek spe­cial favors from one of 333,000,000 Hin­du deities, Hem Singh hy­poth­e­sized. Or per­haps hope­ful that his act of pen­i­tence would spare members of his fam­i­ly as well as him­self from the fate of the two villagers killed by the ti­ger.

On reaching the park, we lined up be­hind oth­er jeeps and canters crammed with tourists to whom vendors were trying to sell sa­fa­ri hats. A rang­er who checked our res­er­va­tion told me that the tigers were spread more or less even­ly across the park, mark­ing their ter­ri­to­ry with a mix of urine, gland secretions, and claw marks on trees. Be­cause the animals gen­er­al­ly hunt at night and sleep up to 17 hours, most­ly dur­ing the day, I stood only about a 40 per­cent chance of spotting one, the rang­er said.

At opening time, each ve­hi­cle head­ed to­ward its designated zone, past a welcoming par­ty of gray-tailed moth­er le­mur monkeys nursing their babies and peacocks that greeted the morn­ing calm with bois­ter­ous cries that sounded like they came from agitated al­ley cats. As we drove deeper into the pre­serve, herds of sam­bar deer became in­creas­ing­ly ap­par­ent through the sprawling roots of a co­los­sal ban­yan tree. Farther still, an­oth­er herd of sambars, knee-deep in wa­ter, nibbled on aquat­ic plants, seem­ing­ly ignored by marsh crocodiles that basked in the ear­ly-morn­ing rays. Near­by, moorhens, pond her­ons, cormorants, and black-winged stilts lazed in a small pond that seemed ex­clu­sive­ly reserved for birds.

But where were the tigers? Eyes peeled, we test-drove the area be­fore taking up a po­si­tion overlooking a lake. No ti­ger. Af­ter awhile, we relocated to yet an­oth­er wa­ter body, where a croc­o­dile glided non­cha­lant­ly past a drinking doe. Still noth­ing. As the sun climbed higher, we al­ter­nated be­tween one lo­ca­tion and an­oth­er, looking to no avail for pugmarks — footprints — and listening in­tent­ly for the dis­tress­ed cries of monkeys, birds, and oth­er creatures that would sig­nal a ti­ger’s pres­ence. Zilch.

Fi­nal­ly, a pass­ing jeep driv­er alerted us about a fresh sighting, and we im­me­di­ate­ly peeled out. Af­ter sev­er­al bone-jarring minutes, we halted in com­plete si­lence, our at­ten­tion guided to a row of trees about 150 feet from the road. With the aid of my tele­pho­to lens, I clum­si­ly ze­roed in on an or­ange, fur­ry head that oc­ca­sion­al­ly bobbed up, as if stoked by a bad dream. The cat’s dis­tinc­tive markings, like fingerprints, belonged to T-24, or Ustaad, I was told, one of the older, weaker cats that had been spotted on the main road, making him a prime sus­pect in the kill­ing of the two villagers. The onlookers waited pa­tient­ly for Ustaad to rise from his rest, but he seemed in no hur­ry to ac­com­mo­date them.

A group of rufus treepies alighted on our jeep, ap­par­ent­ly in hopes of a hand­out. We ea­ger­ly snapped pictures of the birds, but had no food to of­fer them. One camped on my base­ball cap, refusing to leave un­less we ponied up some grub. An­oth­er bold­ly land­ed on my fin­ger. The per­sis­tence of the hun­gry, or­ange-breasted moochers reminded us that it was time for lunch. As we head­ed out of the park, they fi­nal­ly flew off.

We re­con­vened — sans birds — in the dining room of the near­by Oberoi Vanyavilas, whose pri­vate, walled gardens and lux­u­ri­ous "tents" are flush with images of — what else? — tigers. Ob­ses­sion with the cats is so deep­ly in­grained in the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ty that it would come as no surprise to see a ma­ha­ra­ja step from one of the many paintings that ap­pear through­out the Vanyavilas and join us for a bite. Or per­haps Wil­liam Blake or Rud­yard Kip­ling. In­stead, Balendu Singh, pho­tog­ra­pher, lo­cal ti­ger au­thor­i­ty, and the broth­er-in-law of Hem Singh, sat down at our ta­ble.

Balendu Singh grew up on ti­ger stories written by the leg­end­ary hunt­er-con­ser­va­tion­ist Jim Cor­bett. Like Cor­bett, he has come to re­gret the de­ple­tion of the ti­ger pop­u­la­tion by poaching and, in the Unit­ed States, deals that en­able the sale of tigers and oth­er exotic species to "canned hunt" operations. Texas alone has hundreds of such operations, which en­able wealthy hunters to gun down "tro­phy" animals — typ­i­cal­ly originating from zoos, circuses, and pri­vate collections — in confined areas, then pose proud­ly for pictures with their car­cass­es. But the tigers in Ranthambhore are more rig­or­ous­ly protected. The num­ber of cats in any given sec­tion of this and oth­er In­di­an preserves depends on the den­si­ty of their prey, Balendu Singh said. When the ti­ger pop­u­la­tion increases, weaker animals get pushed out of the protected areas and some­times turn to kill­ing do­mes­tic live­stock or, as suspected in the case of Ustaad, even humans, who are no match for the heavi­ly muscled Bengals, which grow to 10 feet nose-to-tail and weigh up to 500 pounds. But he was most pas­sion­ate about "grand­moth­er" Machli (T-16), who, at age 17, is believed to be the oldest free ti­ger in the wild and, thanks to three pop­u­lar BBC documentaries, per­haps the most fa­mous. A po­ten­tial ri­val for most pop­u­lar was T-25, Zalim, a male who, af­ter losing his mate from nat­u­ral causes, nurtured their two cubs rath­er than eating them, rare if not un­heard of in tigerdom.

Reenergized by lunch, we head­ed back to the pre­serve. Every ti­ger has its own iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber, Hem Singh explained, and unique stripes and whiskers that dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from oth­er cats, just like his own trade­mark jodhpurs, hat, boots, and in­sid­er knowl­edge about fa­vor­ite ti­ger rest­ing, hunt­ing, and watering holes dis­tin­guished Hem Singh from oth­er guides.

He proved the point by leading us di­rect­ly to grand­moth­er Machli. YouTube videos show this ce­leb­ri­ty ti­ger nurturing her cubs, fighting off competitors, and kill­ing crocodiles. But when I spotted Machli, she appeared to be napping, oc­ca­sion­al­ly raising her head above the brush. Af­ter waiting in vain for her to spring into ac­tion, I joked about creeping for­ward to flush her out, only to be warned that such an un­der­tak­ing was no laughing mat­ter and could be a one-way tick­et. Who knew? With Machli getting on in years, she just might per­ceive me as an easy snack. I snapped a few shots, but stuck to the jeep.

As we waited pa­tient­ly for Machli to stir, a pass­ing driv­er ex­cit­ed­ly re­layed news of an­oth­er ti­ger sighting on the op­po­site side of the lake. Given the speed at which our jeep sud­den­ly lurched for­ward, over bumpy jun­gle back roads, near­ly sending us flying, some­thing big clear­ly was up. By the time we got to our des­ti­na­tion, sev­er­al oth­er jeeps and canters full of visitors had al­ready arrived.

All eyes trained on an imposing male Ben­gal trying to get some sleep, and a perky cub rolling around in deep grass be­side him. This, Hem Singh said, was Zalim, the cat that opted to nur­ture his cubs rath­er than eat them. Word had spread, and oth­er jeeps and canters pulled along­side. Many of the passengers soon grew im­pa­tient with Zalim’s re­luc­tance to get up, and some of their drivers started their engines in attempts to rouse him. When that didn’t work, some­one whistled.

"Por fa­vor, silencio!" scolded a vis­i­tor.

Be­fore long, yet an­oth­er alert. Wea­ry of waiting for Zalim to rise, we found our­selves bar­rel­ing down long, chop­py stretches of road with bigger, more un­wieldy canters in hot pur­suit. When the dis­tress­ed barking of a sam­bar deer pierced the din of the engines, our jeep jerked to a halt. For a long mo­ment, Hem Singh listened in­tent­ly be­fore singling out a ti­ger as it darted across the road ahead of us, then disappeared into thick for­est. Com­mo­tion on the oth­er side of the jeep jerked Hem Singh back around. Af­ter getting his bearings, he point­ed to­ward the crest of a steep in­cline. "There!" he said. "One more. T-17." In the dimming light, I managed to de­tect the out­line of yet an­oth­er cat camouflaged be­hind thick branches. It was raining tigers, I thought, aiming my cam­era.

Through my tele­pho­to lens, I managed to spot the an­i­mal perched roy­al­ly on his haunches near the crest of the hill, and caught the un­mis­tak­able glint in his eyes. But with­in seconds he shifted his weight and then disappeared into the sun­set, though not be­fore I managed to snap a cou­ple of shots. With dark­ness clos­ing in, it was time for me to go, too. These fi­nal photos, no mat­ter how they turned out, would al­ways be for­ev­er engraved in my mem­o­ry.

Seeing tigers in the wild not only cured my child­hood fear, it enabled me to cap­ture the pas­sion and pow­er of the big cats so coveted by Jim Cor­bett and oth­er great white hunters of yes­ter­year — as well as great white canned hunters of to­day.

My only tro­phy was in savoring what amounted to a small vic­to­ry for tigers — the knowl­edge that those in Ranthambhore are safe, at least for now. But with poachers al­ways on the prowl, I could not help but won­der if these ma­jes­tic creatures, which carried Dur­ga into her epic bat­tles against evil, will ever be tru­ly out of the woods.


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