Mr Stripe




“...She was a jolly good shot, was the memsahib,” Colonel Raghuvir ‘call-me-Rags’ Singh had said over afternoon chai. “Never met anyone who was a better companion in a treetop machaan…you’d have long ago dozed off when a jab in the ribs would alert you to the arrival of Mr. Stripes.” Back in the hunting days of the fifties it was not unusual for a shikari (hunter) to spend weeks in the bush without getting a shot at a tiger. Entire platoons, armed courtesy of Messrs Martini Henry and Lee-Enfield, had scoured the country – helping to reduce the population from 40,000 at the turn of the century to 1,800 within 70 years. Mr. Stripes had to learn to maintain an extremely low profile if he was to survive at all.

Rags’s hunting reminiscences came back to me as I lay in wait – not in a treetop machaan but in an open jeep – happy that Mr Stripes had little to fear from the Nikon- and Canon-wielding shikari around me. The relative openness of the dhok forests and grasslands of Ranthambhore National Park have earned its tigers a reputation for ‘unusual visibility’ and it is rare for a visitor to spend more than three or four days on safari here without a sighting. Despite the burgeoning hot season it was a good time to be on safari in India: the flame of the forest trees were bursting into scarlet blossom; chital stags had lost the velvet of their horns and were already sparring; monkeys were clutching their newborn babies and behaving like neurotic parents; peacocks were engrossed in their dangerous dances around shrinking waterholes.

Though my first five hours on the trail had remained fruitless, as far as actual tiger-sightings go, they had been filled with frequent spine-tingling reminders that I was a potentially unwelcome voyeur in predator territory. The pugmarks in the roadside dust were far bigger than I had expected. The territorial scratches on a lacerated tree reached much higher than I could have imagined. The rising sun was already giving a taste of its powerful midday heat and, as we followed the trail across a dry streambed, a troop of langur monkeys were hugging the night’s coolness out of the rocks.    Then, just as we had reached the end of the nallah, the sultry air was split by the – Ow! – alarm call of a chital. Almost immediately the bell of a sambar stag confirmed the danger and the driver had sped the jeep towards the spot where the drama seemed to be unfolding. Like the hunting technique of our ‘quarry,’ successful tiger-spotting is made up of 98% patience and 2% frantic activity.  

Patience, like invisibility, is a tiger trademark and the tigress could easily have out-waited us. But it was a sign of her confidence that Ranthambhore’s famous ‘Lady of the Lake’ (belle of film crews from US to Japan) now rose lithely to her feet. In the mottled shade behind her I discerned the shape of two adolescent cubs also standing in grass that suddenly seemed too unsubstantial to have ever hidden them.

Three large tigers had been crouched barely twenty metres from us and even the experienced eyes of my guide had been unable to detect them!
I had heard many reports of how a tiger sighting in the wild is a potentially life changing experience and it was easy to appreciate the viewpoint of the indigenous Minas warriors who shared this area with one of the world’s greatest predators and worshipped him as Vaghdeo, the tiger god.

When President Clinton’s Ranthambhore convoy was halted, in March 2000, by the huge male Bumbooram he described the experience as “one of the most memorable moments of my life.” While the resort’s verandas frequently resound to the gushing tales of yesterday’s tiger-virgins, old time tiger-wallahs are often surprised anew by powerful insights into the secret lives of animals that they have long known on first-name terms: “I’d been working with a team of researchers, following ‘Lady of the Lake’ for a solid month,” photographer Aditya Singh began. “She had two young cubs and the big male Nick Ear was out to kill them. She’d tried every trick in the book – including even mating with him, though she wasn’t in season. Finally, the showdown came on the meadow in front of the old hunting lodge…

“Two tigers fighting is something indescribable. Our drivers – brave, experienced tiger-men – just covered their heads and refused to watch. The best way I can describe the terror of that fight is to tell you that I personally saw monkeys falling out of the trees...Dead! With heart-attacks!” On my penultimate day at Ranthambhore, Aditya and I saw Nick Ear – a huge, healthy male, more than ten feet long but still bearing a deep puncture hole where the wrathful mother had sunk her canines into his shoulder. He was making a beeline for one of a trio of caves where he would doze away the heat of the day, digesting what, from the size of his distended belly, seemed to have been a very successful hunt.

"Those are the old sadhu’s caves,” said Aditya. “A holy man lived there when there was still a village here. Word has it the old fella was visited once or twice while he was still in residence.” In 1973 Ranthambhore came under the umbrella of the newly founded Project Tiger conservation programme and ‘Save The Tiger’ became an international rallying cry. But the rangers of many of India’s national parks are sceptical of the division of funds. As Aditya pointed out: “If all the money that was put into saving the tiger had actually arrived in the parks, the tiger would have been saved many times over. Conservation organisations and NGOs all fly the flag – usually with the greatest intentions – but most of what they do won’t see the light of day in terms of effective field conservation.”

A Ranthambhore driver (who asked to remain nameless) was more specific: “When a big conservation organisation makes a song and dance about donating 10 patrol jeeps to a reserve they don’t realise that what they’ve really done is donate 5 to officials in Delhi, 4 to VIPs in Mumbai and parked one jeep at HQ for the police chief’s family-outings. Meanwhile the forest guards go barefoot in fear of snakes and scorpions; what we need here are not $15,000 jeeps but $15 boots!”

In 1992 the horrific news broke that Ranthambhore had lost fifteen tigers to a new wave of poaching and the forestry ‘foot soldiers’ – some of whom have died in action – are still the only real defence against the poachers. Today the trade in tiger bone continues and there are reports that an increase in price (now as much as US$3,000/kg) has led to its revival among some wealthy Chinese who now see it as a status symbol. #

When the park became part of Project Tiger the Minas who lived in the area’s twelve villages had to be resettled outside the buffer zone. Now almost 100,000 people (and many more head of livestock) live within five kilometres of the park and people are beginning to look back towards the resources that their fathers gave up for the tiger. Unlike some other parts of India (most notably the Sundarbans, in West Bengal) the Minas of Ranthambhore seem never to have been at the mercy of man-eaters and pilgrimages still frequently take place in the park. With as many as a million people walking to the Ganesha Temple at Ranthambhore’s historic fort during the big annual festival, it is perhaps surprising that (at an official count) only 16 people have been mauled by tigers, bears or leopards since the park opened. As we watched Nick Ear disappear into his cave I was forced to think how amazing it is, not that tigers will occasionally attack humans, but that they have not made more of a meal of what is naturally the weakest link in the food chain.

As Aditya put it: “If you really want to see how tough you are try locking yourself in a room with a deer for twenty minutes!” My departure from Ranthambhore the next day prevented me from taking my friend up on this astonishing invitation and instead I spent 48 hours in a flophouse behind the Taj Mahal, wrestling with some of the sub-continent’s most voracious microbes.

An overnight train and a four-hour drive reminded me once again just how immense India is and brought me from the aridity of the north to Madhya Pradesh and the lush hills that inspired The Jungle Book. There is little hope that we can ever return to the times when Kipling wrote about hills that were ‘infested with tigers’ but thanks to its tiger-tracking elephants, the 1945sq km Kanha Tiger Reserve is rated by many as the best place in the world to see these cats. Early each morning three elephant patrols track the predators and radio coordinates back to HQ where jeeps scramble to collect a queuing ticket that will allow their passengers to rendezvous with the elephants. While its champions claim that Kanha is India’s finest reserve, the very convenience of the ‘Tiger Show’ has inspired detractors who say that such carefully orchestrated sightings lack the ‘thrill of the hunt.’

It might help you to come as close as possible to ‘guaranteeing’ that once-in-a-lifetime sighting, but the Tiger Show is no substitute for a few early mornings spent driving through the majestic sal forests and savannah-like meadows that are renowned for their large herds of chital, sambar, blackbuck, barasingha, awesome Indian bison (the world’s largest wild cattle), almost 250 bird species, great packs of dhole wild dogs, 75 leopards…and most of Kanha’s 120-odd tigers.

Since the advent of Project Tiger, India’s wild population seems to have frozen at around 4,000 and there are fears that these islands of protected territory are not going to be enough to maintain a thriving population; the potential for inbreeding is already becoming evident and young tigers are being forced to search out territories in outlying areas where they are coming into increasing confrontation with India’s exploding human population.  Experts agree that the world’s captive tiger population could never be reintroduced into the wild and it seems that – three decades after the tiger was almost given up for dead – we are again facing our final chance to save him. On the day that the last wild tiger dies we will have committed an unpardonable sin. For, as the Minas believed, on that day we will have killed a god.


TIGER FACT FILE

TIGER FACTS:
•    The tiger can weigh as much as 675lbs and measure up to 13 feet.
•    It can cover 30 feet in a single leap and can swim 3 miles without a pause – one was once found swimming 8km out in the Bay of Bengal.
•    In most cases man-eaters are driven to hunt such ‘unnatural’ prey by injury or age. The notorious ‘Champawat man-eater’ had her jaw shattered by a hunter’s bullet before she started on a spree that resulted in 436 human kills.
•    Only 6,000 tigers are left in the wild: less than 4,000 in India; 1,000 in Indochina; 650 in Sumatra; 150 in Siberia; 30-60 spread across remote areas of South China. The Caspian, Javanese and Balinese sub-species have been driven to extinction within the last 50 years.

 

 

by Mark Eveleigh