In October last year on my journey in India, I got really lucky.
I saw a Bengal Tiger.
Up close, about four meters away. Not in the wild, but as close to it as is really possible these days, in a national park in the north of India.
There must have been over 200 visitors to the park that morning; only 10 of us saw a tiger.
Thanks to non-use of radios or tracking equipment we were the lucky few to get a sighting that day. In a national park covering over 100 sq kilometers, the roads are well spread out with dense grasslands and jungle in between, and drivers forbidden to drive off-road: all meaning reduced chances of seeing a tiger from afar or deep in the jungle or undergrowth.
And so we went about wildlife-spotting the old-fashioned way. Our naturalist and driver listening intensely in the early morning air to the bird calls and noises of the jungle. Moments of silence punctuated by the rustling of animals in trees and their calls. They were listening for alarm calls—the calls that deer and other creatures let off when they see a predator such as a tiger to warn away other would-be-tiger-prey. We spent what felt like hours sitting and listening.
Trying not to move and just to be silent.
Eventually we heard enough calls to pin down a location, and we saw the tiger initally in the distance, almost camouflaged in the long grass. Steadily she crept towards us before disappearing behind a thicket. There were 2 other jeeps nearby and the drivers started calling to each other, telling each other to move back. They predicted, correctly, that the tiger was about to cross the road in front of us, so we should make space for her. She crossed not more than a few paces in front of us.
Seeing wildlife in a relatively free habitat walk that close in front of you is what I can only describe a humbling experience.
For those moments, I felt entirely present—nothing else mattered, I was just in awe of this stunningly beautiful but dangerous creature who looked at us as though saying ‘oh, you lot again’ before going about her business.
What stunned me most was the complete beauty of these animals.
But the fact is, seeing a tiger, in anything remotely resembling a wild environment is extremely rare.
According to the WWF, there are over 5,000 captive tigers in the US alone, but less than 3,200 wild tigers in the world.
In 2014, total adult tiger numbers were estimated to be around 2300 in India. The highest population anywhere.
Sadly, it is over the course of the twentieth century that the tiger population has declined so rapidly, with 3 sub species become extinct (the Javanese tiger, the Balinese tiger, and the Caspian tiger). The Bengal tiger—resident in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan— is the largest tiger population left in the world.
The biggest threat facing tigers is simply lack of space and human encroachment on their terrain.
As animals that roam great distances and have territories as large as 100km, tigers are literally in many cases being squeezed out of their habitat. As populations and urban centres increase and spread across India and the rest of Asia, tigers, as with many animals find themselves competing with humans for space. This has had tragic consequences where tigers have become man eaters or killers to defend their territory.
Areas where tigers were free to roam even as recently as a few decades ago have been broken up, so that only small sections of land remain and tigers become isolated in their patch – unable to roam, come in contact with other tigers and therefore breed.
In a country where tiger numbers are still perilously low, there is just as much a real risk of starvation and enduring poverty for much of its human population. The struggle for survival is real.
Several projects are now underway to restore tiger corridors—the opening up of much larger sections of protected land that flow into each other—to avoid the permanent extinction of this wonderful animal.
Something that will stay with me from my sighting experience was the reaction of some of the other jeeps that were lucky enough to see the tiger that day. Instead of being delighted at the experience, their immediate demand was: “ok now let’s go find the father and the cubs”.
Can it really be that we have become so used to being entertained that we view wildlife as simply an entertainment—where national parks become zoos—and those working in the parks as guides feel compelled to serve up the perfect sighting to their tourist customers.
It makes me realise that actually, not seeing a tiger is not necessarily the worst thing. Far from meaning that they have become extinct, it could be a future indicator that their room to roam has grown again, and that, as they had done for centuries before, that they can live undisturbed away from humans.
Despite the above concerns, there are some good signs for tigers.
Indicators show that census numbers have increased by a couple of hundred tigers in India between 2011 and 2014.
WWF also has a project called Tx2 which aims to double the population of wild tigers by the next Year of the Tiger, in 2022.
And how can we help? Apart from supporting conservation projects and initiatives, perhaps what we can do is accept that seeing these animals in the wild is not necessarily a good thing. And one thing that we can certainly help by doing is refusing to patronise any establishments that show tigers or other animals as entertainment: having a photo or a cuddle with a tiger at a tiger temple or “sanctuary” is in no way contributing to the conversation of these animals but rather encouraging their captivity and abuse as a means of making money.
This post is dedicated to all those, including my guides in India, who devote their energy and lives to saving and protecting tigers.