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.