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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