Dreams of Bengal tigers and visions of imminent extinction led Peter Matthiessen to a predator's last stronghold in the jungles of India. It was a place, the author discovered, where not seeing is believing.
For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.
THE HEART OF THE WILD TIGER COUNTRY in India is the Central Highlands state of Madhya Pradesh, on the Kanha plateau. A remote region of forest and savanna in the Maikala Range, the plateau was set aside in 1955 as Kanha National Park, where, in March 2001, from atop an elephant, among the wistful cadences of forest birds, I observed a male tiger on a gaur kill. The tableau was stirring, since the dark wild ox known as the gaur is the largest of all bovine animals, and the Indian tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, is rivaled only by another subspecies, the Siberian or Amur tiger (P. t. amurensis) as the greatest terrestrial predator on earth.
Unwilling to abandon its unfinished meal to the looming mass of the intruder, the tiger stretched its jaws wide in uneasy yawning, and with those incisors so close, the elephant was restless, too. Checking our beast’s skittishness with heel kicks and harsh grunts, the barefoot mahout who piloted the elephant let it shift in place every few moments to distract the tiger from any impulse toward departure. Eventually the fire-colored cat, affecting vast feline indifference, eased away into the trees, losing itself in the leaf shadow and dappled light of the dry woodland.
In the warming sunlight, as the elephant returned to the road, I fairly glowed with exhilaration, feeling fortunate indeed to have seen a tiger at all. As the new millennium begins, this magnificent species, which once prospered all across Asia, from the Caspian Sea to the East Indies, in boreal forest and hot tropical jungle, from saline mangrove estuary on the Bay of Bengal to alpine tundra in the Bhutanese Himalayas—in every habitat, in fact, except dry desert and rock mountain—has been reduced to remnant populations scattered across the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and southeastern Siberia (where the single sparse population survives in the Sikhote-Alin Mountains).
Of the last tigers left in the wild—estimated numbers range from 4,600 to 7,700—it is commonly supposed that about half may inhabit India and several of its neighbors, including Nepal and Bhutan. The highest estimates are probably optimistic, and in India, where roughly 40,000 tigers could be found at the end of the 19th century, there are probably fewer than 3,000. Even in its last redoubts, unceasing habitat fragmentation and degradation, made worse by relentless poaching of both the tiger and its prey, are hastening the end of one of the most beautiful creatures ever known on earth.
The Indian cheetah is already extinct, and the Asian lion is confined to a single small reserve in the Gir Forest, near the coast of Gujarat. Because there is still hope for the tiger, and because tigers are critical to the earth’s biodiversity, I was eager to work with conservation biologists and others who were studying their habits and ecological requirements in order to help save them. Beginning in Siberia in 1992, I made four journeys into tiger country.
In the winter of 1992, I spent three days at the small, exquisite park at Ranthambhore, south of New Delhi, by common repute the most dependable place in India to observe tigers, which commonly arrange themselves in the romantic ruins of old vine-grown stone pavilions at the edges of the lily lakes, and might even oblige the visiting photographer by leaping into the water to do battle with a crocodile over a luckless deer. But that winter, the Ranthambhore tigers were scarce and very wary; the wildlife safari group I was co-leading was warned by the former warden Fateh Singh that even a glimpse was quite unlikely, and in fact, we never saw one. Six months later, it was discovered that well-organized and well-armed local poachers, in collusion with park guards, had killed at least 18 tigers in the previous three years, almost half of the Ranthambhore population. (The immensely profitable trade in tiger parts, feeding the medicine trade in China, was already extinguishing the last tigers in eastern Siberia, Southeast Asia, and Sumatra; it was now epidemic in India, as well. Between 1994 and mid-2002, the Wildlife Protection Society of India documented the death by poaching of 622 wild tigers, and the WPSI believes that this figure represents only a fraction of the total loss.)
In January of 1996, I would see my first wild tiger in the coast range of the Russian Far East—a fire-striped creature bounding across deep sunlit snow in bursts of powder—but a month later, on an eight-day visit to the tiger reserve at Kanha, in India, I saw not one. Not until 2001 did the Indian tigers show themselves, and that big male on the gaur kill was an exciting sight. Yet even before I dismounted from the elephant, I became aware of something missing, something lost—in effect, some elusive aspect of the very different visit I had made to these forests six years earlier. For it was on that earlier trip, when I saw no tigers at all, that I came closest to an affinity with this great striped beast.
IN FEBRUARY 1996, I flew inland from Bombay to the small city of Nagpur, in Maharashtra, from where a narrow, toilsome road led north-northwest toward Madhya Pradesh. In these leached and dusty landscapes, worn bare by swarming livestock and human beings, one could scarcely imagine that the Indian subcontinent, with 350 species of mammals and 1,200 species of birds, remained one of the richest faunal areas on earth outside Africa. The vast region of Madhya Pradesh, with its forests, savannas, ridges, and plateaus rising almost 3,000 feet above sea level, sustains the greater part of what is left of India’s tropical dry forest, and perhaps half of the nation’s surviving tigers.
In Madhya Pradesh, wooded hillsides appear, then small rivers and low mountains. At lower altitudes the forest is dominated by the sal tree, which, because its wood is hard and straight, was logged extensively in colonial days for railroad ties. As early as the 1860s, this region, where valuable teak and bija are also common, was set aside as a timber reserve, but since it was cut only infrequently, the forest remained sufficiently intact to support its abundant wildlife. In the early 20th century, it was used as a private hunting reserve for British viceroys, and in 1933 part of the region was set aside as the Banjar Valley Sanctuary. In 1962, seven years after the sanctuary was declared a national park, its area was expanded to encompass 172 square miles. By that time, according to American wildlife biologist George Schaller—who spent 18 months at Kanha in the mid-1960s doing research on predator-prey dynamics for his book The Deer and the Tiger—Kanha’s tiger population had shrunk to about a dozen animals. In 1973 the park was designated a tiger reserve and expanded to 363 square miles.
Depending on the driver’s willingness to blare his horn and bump through village crowds and milling animals, the journey overland from Nagpur to Kanha requires about five and a half hours. Toward the end of the trip, the ever-narrowing and deteriorating road crosses the Banjar River, a western boundary of the broad buffer zone around the park. Human activity is restricted within this zone, and one of the few settlements is a safari lodge called Kipling Camp, named for the British writer; the wonderful Jungle Book and Just-So Stories had their inspiration and location in this hill country. Read to me at bedtime as a child, Rudyard Kipling’s peculiar dreamlike tales, illuminated by the awe he brought to the imminent and unexplained, lay close to the source of my own lifelong fascination with the wild. Here in the heart of tiger country, the name of the camp filled my heart and mind with nostalgia and anticipation.
“But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat,” wrote Kipling in his story “The Cat That Walked by Himself.” “And all places were alike to him.”
What better description of the tiger, that solitary creature of tropical jungle and snow mountains and all habitats between, on its long age-old walkings over Asia.
AT KIPLING CAMP, I was welcomed by Rashid Ali, a naturalist in his mid-twenties, and his companion, Jan Malony, who together ran the camp with a local staff and some lively young English volunteers. The camp’s owner is a lady named Anne Wright, of an old colonial family, whose hospitable husband Bob turned up during my eight-day visit; the Wrights are residents of Calcutta and, more particularly, said Mr. Wright, the “Tolly”—the colonial-era Tollygunge Club. A large, florid, expansive man, Bob Wright retains something of the imperial aura of Kipling’s day, when Panthera tigris bengalensis (now P. t. tigris) was still known as the Royal Bengal tiger.
In 1972, when it was estimated that the tiger population in India had been reduced to less than 2,000, Anne Wright, one of the founders of World WildlifeÐIndia, helped convince Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to inaugurate an inspired program known as Project Tiger. Kanha was one of nine tiger reserves established the next year under that program (there are now 27). In the early 1980s at Kanha and Ranthambhore, the Wrights’ daughter, Belinda, and her then-husband, Stanley Breeden, filmed Land of the Tiger, arguably the best documentary on wild tigers ever made. In 1994 Belinda founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India, of which she is still executive director; it was she who arranged my stay at this simple, attractive, and unpretentious lodge, less than a mile from the park boundary.
After a late lunch in the terrace shade, I set off with Rashid Ali and two Kipling guests in a long-wheelbase Land Rover from which the top and sides had been removed for better viewing. At Kisli Gate we were assigned a forest guide who served as a spotter and also made sure that the vehicle never strayed off the track and that none of its occupants compounded its intrusion by disembarking or by hailing or otherwise accosting the other mammals in the park.
This rule has not required much enforcement since 1985, when British bird safari leader David Hunt, investigating an unknown birdcall, walked a short distance off the track at Corbett National Park, in Uttar Pradesh, and was fatally mauled by a tiger within earshot of his horrified clients. Such incidents, however, have become rare. Although India’s tigers in their heyday killed hundreds of human beings every year, one of the few man-eaters still vaguely remembered in the Kanha region was an elderly specimen that killed a young boy some 15 years earlier. These days, aging or wounded tigers and newly dispersed juvenile males, driven from established territories in the interior out toward the boundaries, where the hard-hunted game is scarce and wary, are those most likely to prey on livestock and come into conflict with human beings.
Rashid, a small, handsome man with a black beard and faintly melancholy eyes and smile, is a kinsman of Dr. Salim Ali, who was India’s foremost ornithologist and conservationist for many years and whose book on the birds of India, written in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution’s Dillon Ripley, was long the standard volume in the field. Rashid himself is a dedicated naturalist, and that afternoon he pointed out how the brown jungle babblers, squalling through the underbrush stirring up insects, were often attended, higher in the branches, by the racket-tailed drongo, with its extraordinary black “flags,” and higher still by the beautiful rufous tree pie, in what Rashid called “a vertical hunting party moving through the forest.” Farther along, he showed me a place where a tiger standing on hind legs and sharpening its claws had made deep slashes in pale tree bark 12 feet from the ground, a clue to its size that might give pause to any rival daring to trespass on its territory.
Kanha is one of five parks in India that may shelter as many as a hundred tigers. The official number was “exactly” 104, Rashid pronounced wryly. In his opinion, 70 tigers, plus or minus 20, seemed more likely (a guess more or less confirmed by tiger biologist Ullas Karanth’s 1995-1996 camera-trap survey in Kanha).
Crossing the western region of the park, the Land Rover purred quietly along hard sand-clay tracks of the sal forest and out across the Kanha valley maidans—old, overgrown cultivations of the Baiga and Gond aborigines or tribal peoples, grown up in warm, broad meadows. Through the open forest and over the maidans moved scattered herds of chital, a small red-brown deer named for the prominent chitti, or white spots, that camouflage its form in the sun-speckled wood edge. As the common deer of India, the chital is the main prey of the tiger, accounting for nearly 40 percent of its diet here at Kanha, and is also taken by the leopard and wild dog without noticeable depletion of a park population estimated at about 20,000.
Though no tiger was seen on that first afternoon, we had a fine sighting in good light of the small, dark barking deer, or muntjac, which sprang over the track and reentered the forest with its head carried low to the ground. The muntjac, with its peculiar tusklike canine teeth, is not so much uncommon as uncommonly encountered—perhaps once in every 14 or 15 trips into the park, Rashid supposes—and I was fortunate to see another a few days later.
AT SIX THE NEXT MORNING, in the highland cold, we returned into the park, as we would do each daybreak and midafternoon for the next six days. In the woodlands, a fresh set of tiger pugmarks brought the track to life, and the alarm yelp of the chital was accompanied by the deep wowk of excited langurs—slender, long-tailed gray monkeys that raged through the coarse leaves of the sal trees, bouncing the branches. When a tiger shows itself and the suspense is past, the chital stops yelping, after which it may follow its enemy some little distance, presumably to keep an eye on it and reassure the herd that the predator’s whereabouts are being monitored.
Not far away, a sambar deer stood motionless among the dark columns of the trees. Unlike the chital, whose explosive yelps compete with langur hoots and peacock squawks and the raillery of jungle fowl and the eerie sonorities of doves and the green barbet among the prevailing sounds of the Indian forests, the cryptic and dark-colored sambar remains silent, unwilling to betray its own location, half hidden by the leaves and dependent on the camouflage of branch and shadow. It cries out only when it sights a tiger, by which time it, too, has been sighted, and bolts away with a loud, weird pong, which Rashid calls “the most dependable sign of a nearby tiger in the forest.”
Like the tiger, the sambar, largest of all Asian deer, may attain a weight of up to 700 pounds, and the two are similarly well matched in their keen hearing. But the sambar has poor eyesight, while the tiger, listening and peering, misses nothing.
On a woodland ridge, attended by a group of juveniles and does, a chital buck, big antlers still in velvet, stared fixedly downhill into a wooded ravine, and his great tension fairly trembled the flanks of his herd. Though one young animal snatched fitfully at weeds, it scarcely chewed; all eyes followed the buck’s riveted stare. His antlers seemed to shiver as his pinkish ears switched this way and that, getting a range on the smallest sound that might pierce the racket of the langurs and fix the position of the tiger.
It was near midmorning. The big cats would lay up now until near dusk. Sensing this, the nervous chital lost concentration and resumed feeding. Rashid Ali and the forest guide were sure that a resting tiger lay just downhill from the track, in this ravine, but since the vehicle was not allowed to leave the track and barge into the bushes, there was no way to urge the animal into the open.
AT SUNRISE THE NEXT DAY, in fresh morning light, two chasing males of the tiny scarlet minivet sparkled back and forth and up and down among the spring leaves on the tall trees on the steep slopes of the grassland plateau called Bija Dadar. Passing beneath tall bija trees, the track leveled off on the ridge plateau. In the warm sunlight, little bee-eaters in dancing greens flared quick butterfly wings of turquoise and warm copper, and in the deep shade, two gaur bulls browsed the light, feathery shoots of new bamboo that whispered in the warm wind of the plateau. This great wild ox, which can weigh more than a ton, has thick backswept horns, a prominent head knob, and a massive boss, like a Cape buffalo. Slow to alarm, the huge beasts raised great ivory-snouted heads to contemplate the intruders with hard ocher eyes, switching hard manure-flecked rumps with their short tails.
Tiger pugmarks on the track were fresh, and so was what the forest guide, holding his nose, called “leopard scat”; despite the soft breeze, its reek filled a whole curve in the road. Rashid, murmuring to spare the young guide’s feelings, told me this was no leopard, but a wild dog, or dhole.
Hearing something, the driver stopped, and at once a loud yowling arose from the near undergrowth—a tiger cub, distressed by our idling motor. Earlier that winter, not far from the same place, one of these open vehicles from Kipling Camp had been false-charged by a mating tigress, roaring her outrage that a carload of voyeurs should be privy to her copulations, and the guide was concerned that the cub’s yowl might summon that same mother. Within moments, a tigress answered it from down the ridge, a loud sharp growl that might have been a warning to her restive cub. The Land Rover moved off a little ways to wait.
A golden-backed woodpecker in bounding flight crossed the fiery mountain light—a tiger light—which made the early springtime in these highlands seem like fall. The tigress did not roar again; possibly she had crept close to her cub and was watching from nearby. In the great stillness, a blue ground thrush picked and kicked through the bamboo. Were a tiger to take form in the roadside thicket or step onto the road, I thought, the taut landscape would crack like an old shard of gilt ceramic.
ONE MORNING, AS IF PROTESTING three long days without a tiger sighting, the Land Rover rather mysteriously quit on the forest track. Rashid, who served as driver-guide, set off on foot toward the main Kisli-Kanha road in search of aid; since he was not there to forbid it, I took advantage of a rare opportunity to stretch my legs.
On foot, one travels through a forest very different from the one patrolled so blithely in a vehicle. Hearing each fallen nut or twig, I was alert for the alarm cries of chital and langur; I saw wild dog sign and a snake’s curved track, paid close attention to tree shadows, and took note of a tiger scat so ancient that all was leached away except the coarse guard hairs of a deer, never digested.
A mile or more down the track was a stockade from which an elderly forest guard rushed forth, waving his stick: I was to go no farther, I must wait right there. Pretending not to understand, answering with something foolish about meeting Rashid Ali at the vehicle, I turned and headed back, so exhilarated by this brief safari that I trekked some ways beyond the car.
By the time Rashid showed up with another vehicle, noon had come and the woods had fallen quiet. On the return, a large black-tailed mongoose crossed the track (reminding me of Kipling’s cobra-killing mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, whose eyes turned red when he was angry). Two wild dogs accompanied the car some little distance, trotting just back of the first line of trees while keeping to the shadows of the forest.
Farther along, a kill had taken place just minutes earlier. Three chital bucks moved in a stiff, slow line, white tails upright. From the direction they were pointing, more chitals came running, gathering up small companies of their kind from open woods and meadow, until more than a hundred scampered past. A jackal trotted toward a brushy gully where the cat had dragged its prey, and jungle crows and white-backed vultures came gliding in to a dead tree, craning and peering. Since they did not descend, it was quite clear that the predator was right there on the kill.
KNOWING I’D SEEN A TIGER in Siberia, Rashid was anxious for me to see one in his country and especially at Kanha, where the ecosystem, including what field biologists call the “prey base,” was so evidently intact. But sightings were not so simple anymore, as Rashid warned me. The former custom of permitting the park’s tame elephants to pick up visitors along the tracks and trundle them to where the mahouts had located feeding or resting tigers had been suspended by the park director two years earlier.
In the old days, live bait was set out for tigers, first to accommodate famous hunters, then VIPs, then researchers. Growing accustomed to these easy feeds, the big cats could be counted on to remain there at the kill, all set for gun or camera in the morning. The practice of baiting, which acculturated and corrupted the dwindling tigers, was finally banned in the late 1970s.
In the years that followed, the mahouts and their elephants would go out early in the morning to locate a tiger on a kill. In this way, the elephant men remained familiar with the territories and routes and habits of the seven or eight tigers drawn to the vicinity of Kanha Village by the abundant prey animals in the maidans. When a tiger was found, word was sent to park headquarters, which dispatched more elephants to the nearest point along the tracks. There the assembled visitors, convened quickly, were laddered up onto a pachyderm and trundled to the tiger, which was often less than a hundred yards back in the bush.
In this manner, in what became known as the Tiger Show, most visitors “got” their tiger in short order. But in 1993, at Christmas, Kanha’s busiest season, the backing and filling at the road was witnessed at its most noisy and disorderly by important Indian conservationists, including Valmik Thapar, a noted tiger wallah and nature writer, and Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia magazine. These members of Belinda’s Wildlife Prevention Society were outraged not only by the unseemly spectacle but by the possibility that the whole circus was a transgression of the tiger’s domain, demeaning to the animals and dangerous as well, making them more habituated to the presence of human beings and therefore more vulnerable to poachers. A few months later, after Thapar, Sahgal, and fellow tiger conservationists protested with angry letters to the Minister of Environment and Forests and with op-ed pieces in Indian newspapers, the Tiger Show came to an end.
Rashid Ali acknowledged that the confusion occasionally got out of hand, but he also believes that it could have been controlled without eliminating the tiger viewing entirely and that, in the long term, the educational benefits and potential enlistment of public support for wildlife far outweighed any harm done by the carnival atmosphere.
One afternoon I accompanied Rashid to the park headquarters at Mandla, 47 miles away on the banks of the Narmada River. There we met with the urbane young park director, Rajesh Gopal, author of a noted book on wildlife management, whose opinion it was that this forested eastern part of Madhya Pradesh—and Kanha in particular—is the best tiger habitat in India. Despite a scarcity of water in the dry season, he explained, the forest produces an astonishing biomass of ungulates such as deer and wild pigs, which in turn support one of the highest densities of tiger in the country. Hearing about my unsuccessful quest, Mr. Gopal rang the office of the Forest Service at Kanha with instructions to provide us a park elephant for morning reconnaissance during the remainder of my stay.
KANHA VILLAGE, the stockaded compound in the center of the park, overlooking the broad maidans, is a settlement mostly inhabited by forest rangers and mahouts; it adjoins the park’s last thatch settlement of traditional Baiga forest people, small, dark-skinned hunter-gatherers who also practice shifting cultivation. Even at dusk we would see lone Baiga and Gond men walking the forest roads armed with nothing more than the thin stick they carry behind the head, across the shoulders. As animists who worship all life in the forest, the Baiga and Gond perceive the tiger as a forest deity and do not seem to fear it.
Beneath two huge and ancient sal trees, Rashid and I mounted the stairs of what looked like a small reviewing stand. The platform facilitated embarkation upon an elephant dubbed Bund Devi, Goddess of the Forest, whose howdah, or riding platform, was fitted with low iron rails, placed on sacks of meal, and secured by a hemp girdle of four ropes bound around the Goddess’s rumbling belly.
(This modest arrangement was not to be compared with the royal howdah on display at Kipling Camp, acquired some years earlier from a maharajah of his acquaintance by Mr. Bob Wright of “the Tolly”—in effect, a high-sided and capacious wicker basket resembling a balloon’s gondola and designed to accommodate three tiger killers of ample dimensions in complete security and comfort. A much smaller rear platform, all but aslide off the elephant’s hindquarters, carried sporting firearms and ammunition, alcoholic spirits, water flagons, and the plentiful comestibles lugged along on august outings in the grand days of the Raj, and also two natives—since even aboard an elephant, it would not do for important persons to be caught out-of-doors without a servant. However, no area had been allowed for such inconsequential beings, and how they managed was their own concern: Presumably the pinched space between plump hampers of sturdy British food was deemed sufficient for two humble rumps so much smaller and less rosy in hue than those installed up front.)
Awaiting us without evident pleasure was Kuarlal the mahout, a sinewy man of saturnine demeanor who urged his elephant with quick brown feet: The toes were applied behind the ears while the heels drummed tirelessly upon the elephant’s nape. Harsh cries of Mal! Mal! (Go! Go!), enforced by hard cuts of his whistling stick upon her brow knobs and down between her eyes, advised the Goddess to get moving, which she did, but not before relieving herself of a large load of manure, which struck the hard ground like a Turkish ottoman.
As the Goddess swung across the maidans in the early morning mist, a leopard came running toward her in light, graceful bounds. Seeing the elephant and her towering cargo, the cat recoiled backward in a somersault and unrolled rapidly in the opposite direction. Apparently this animal, climbing a tree, had leapt the high fence that enclosed a large meadow to rest it from overgrazing. As we watched, the frantic leopard probed for an opening along the bottom of the fence on the far side, although it could have clambered up and over the unbarbed wire almost as easily as it entered in the first place. When, quite suddenly and mysteriously, it disappeared, we assumed it had found a gap beneath and wriggled out.
“What a wonderful start to the morning!” Rashid said, and I, too, was delighted, for this was the first leopard I had ever seen in Asia. In most regions, the tiger will drive out or kill the leopard, but in Kanha, where prey animals are so plentiful, these two species of the genus Panthera can exist together in fair numbers.
At last we had escaped the dusty track. Entering the cool forest, the Goddess passed between the dark trunks of the sal trees. Shifting comfortably along, she descended into shady streams and followed the stony beds awhile before heaving back up onto the bank and climbing a hillside through thick stands of bamboo. Kuarlal was still beating a tattoo on her sparsely haired gray hide, and occasionally she closed her nostrils, filled her trunk with air, and then, as if to clear away her understandable exasperation, expelled the compressed air in an odd, loud explosion, not unlike a blowout or backfire, but more like booting a bass drum. “It pleases her to do that,” grumped her mahout, who knows there is no accounting for the ways of elephants.
Kuarlal said a tigress with three well-grown young hunted this territory. He located a bed in the long grass where the four tigers had lain sprawled out together, and a nearby tree trunk where they had scratched deep to scrape off old chitin and sharpen their long claws. But none of these signs was very fresh, and the sun was climbing, and even if the tigers had not left this territory, they would now be resting somewhere until dusk.
Kanha elephants are worked only in the morning, composing themselves as they see fit in the afternoon. On the return toward the Kanha meadows, Kuarlal spotted the leopard again, still trapped in the far corner of the fenced meadow. But as the elephant drew near, it miraculously disappeared in the short, sparse grass, and the frustrated mahout, with wild kicks to the ear, turned the Goddess back along the fence, anxious to find it. Just at that moment his eye picked up a small, tawny tuft that differed minutely from the surrounding stubble. The mahout shouted and his elephant stopped as a long, spotted tail rose slowly from the grass, wavering like a cobra. Then, with a deep, growling roar—the leopard, despite its modest size, is one of the four “roaring cats” (which include the jaguar and lion)—it writhed swiftly away across the open ground, so flat to the grass that it looked legless, like gold molten lava. Within an instant it was 50 yards away at a shallow gully, where it poured over the rim and disappeared.
A TIGER HAD BEEN SEEN on the day before near a fork in the road above the Nakti Ghati, a stream or nala that descends from the springs and escarpments of the Bija Dadar, about nine miles southeast of Kipling Camp. That one might meet a tiger on the road in so much forest seemed astonishing, since cats must hear the drum of tires on the hard dirt track from a mile away. But as in eastern Siberia, where Amur tigers take advantage of the lumber roads in the deep-snow country, Indian tigers have adapted to the tracks, which are well suited to soft and silent travel. They are also useful in the hunt, since the hoofed prey graze and browse the open edges where sunlight pierces the forest canopy, encouraging new growth. Near the road today we saw all five of the main prey species—chital, sambar, gaur, wild pig, and barasingha.
The magnificent barasingha is the southern race of the swamp deer of the Nepal borderlands in the Terai, that thousand-mile strip of savanna, swamp, and jungle south of the Himalayan foothills. In Madhya Pradesh, the barasingha’s habitat has been progressively usurped by village livestock, and its numbers in the Kanha region had fallen to less than a hundred by the time the park’s current boundaries were established in the early 1970s. While it has substantially recovered, it is now confined to the area in and around Kanha National Park, having nowhere to wander in the agricultural landscape beyond the buffer zone.
On a slow return to Kipling Camp through darkening forest late that afternoon, the Land Rover surprised a herd of ten or more wild hogs. The big, scrofulous boar had a black shoulder mane on its bristly black-brown hide; snorting, it rushed its careening sows and shoats across the track and downhill through the understory.
Farther on, a chital doe slowly raised and lowered the warning flag of her white tail. She stamped and yelped that musical alarm as a nearby buck pointed his antlers this way and that with a frantic flicking of his ears. The spots fairly flew off his trembling flanks as if he might explode at any moment.
Once again there fell that imminence of the great tiger. For long minutes, we searched the woodland with binoculars, scanning beneath bushes and past leaf-hidden rocks as the chital shapes withdrew into the darkness.
THE NEXT MORNING we headed off again for our assignation with the Goddess, yet with so much fresh sign and evidence of tigers near the Nakti Ghati, we made a detour along that road on the way to the Kanha meadows. Instead of the yelping chital and hurtling wild boar of last evening’s encounter, we were met by calm langurs plucking coral blossoms from the tree called flame-of-the-forest, but beyond the Y-fork near the Nakti Ghati, on the steep winding road that leads eventually to Bisanpura, were two fresh sets of tiger pugmarks headed in opposite directions and crisscrossing each other for more than a mile. There was also a fresh tiger scat, still shining.
Though no one dared say so, we were certain that we were about to overtake the tiger, which had left these big bowl disks preceded by four round marks in a crescent made by its sheathed claws. Instead we met a car filled to the brim with a large Indian family—the windows were all eyes—which had shrouded our road of crisscrossed tracks in a fine, light film of dust.
Atop the Goddess, we headed up and over forest ridges, through deep underbrush and tall bamboo, then down the drying Sulkum Nala, with its clear pools and softly sculpted rocks. The Goddess forged across dense canebrakes much frequented by tigers, to judge from the antlers and white shards of bone in the copper-colored swales where the cats had lain. The elephant, upon command, plucked up an antler, and Kuarlal lodged it in a tree fork; he would later retrieve it for use in native medicines. “Rocks, bamboo, deer, and water,” Rashid sighed, leaning back in resignation, hands behind his head. “Fine tiger habitat!” In his gentle and ironic way, Rashid seemed more frustrated than I was.
In the dry sand beds down the nala, leopard pugmarks crisscrossed those of tiger, but here, too, the prints were old. The Goddess twisted off mouthfuls of bamboo and other forage as she barged along. “All you care about is stuffing your mouth!” Kuarlal cried. To us he said, “I don’t know why people would pay to ride around an empty forest. Used to see ten tigers in a day—now they’ve all gone away into the mountains!”
In the Land Rover that afternoon, we returned almost obsessively to the road of the crisscrossed tiger tracks. From the trees on the slope above, an excited langur was venting its harsh, tearing cough, and for one heart-piercing instant, I saw the recumbent fire-colored shape of my first Indian tiger, curled at the base of a pale kudu tree up the brushy ravine. Our driver and the forest guide were too polite to disabuse me; but when I laughed, they laughed, too. To want to see something so badly that one conjures it up out of one’s own head—what could be said of such a fool?
By now, the jungle fowl had started up their vespers and the rose-ringed parakeets were screeching over the treetops on their way to roost, and the forest guide hinted with a gentle shrug that we must turn toward home.
On my last day at Kanha, we forsook the Nakti Ghati road in favor of the Goddess, heading out across the dreaming maidans and the stately sal groves of this vast, mythic deer park. Swaying along atop our redolent warm beast to the creak of the hemp ropes lashing down the howdah and the mahout’s grunts and loving oaths and patter of quick feet, heeding the outcry of alarmed animals and exotic birds, aswim in the fecund fragrance of a flora evolved on this fragment of primordial Gondwana that appeared long ago out of the southern oceans to collide with Asia and remain affixed as its subcontinent, forcing the Himalayas high into the sky—in this moment-by-moment moment spun free of space and time, one did not need to be a Hindu or a Buddhist to rest in the myriad sounds and smells of the morning forest, in the all-encompassing great silence of the One.
IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED, I completed Tigers in the Snow, in which the main subject was the Siberian tiger. But I hadn’t forgotten India, or those days in the forest on the Goddess, and in March 2001 I returned to Kanha as a field leader for a wildlife tour that traveled around northern India on the reconstituted royal train, visiting historic sites and tiger parks along the way.
At Kanha I learned that Rashid Ali was no longer at Kipling Camp (he is married now to Jan Malony, and living in Bombay), and that some of the Baiga people had been relocated. In Kanha, as in other parks, the controversial Tiger Show had been restored, and on the first morning the mahouts, armed with walkie-talkies, spread the news of a big male tiger on a gaur kill; phalanxes of elephants headed toward the scene, where we arrived not long thereafter in a Land Rover.
That male tiger on the gaur was the first tiger I’d ever seen at Kanha; I would see a second and a third that afternoon. Not far from the meadows, on a road I knew from the grand old days aboard the Goddess of the Forest, an elephant drew up beside our open Land Rover. Using the canopy frame, we managed to clamber up onto the howdah, after which the elephant proceeded to the lair of another adult male, not out in the open on a kill, but so uncannily hidden in thick, high tussock that even when the mahout pointed at it with his stick from ten yards away, one could scarcely make him out; the eye glint in the tawny grasses was the first I saw of him. Then the striped form jumped into focus, though the tiger in the shadows never stirred.
Not far away, on a grassy bank within growling distance of the male, a sleeping tigress sprawled, indelicate white belly to the sun: Seemingly as tame as a zoo animal, she paid her visitors no heed whatsoever. The mahout, who knew this slattern well, said she had three small cubs hidden nearby. Not liking the prospect of looming over terrified wild cubs, I was greatly relieved that we made no attempt to find them.
In one day we had seen three tigers at Kanha; we could just as easily have seen six. At two smaller parks in Madhya Pradesh, we saw six more, in addition to another three in Rajasthan, at Ranthambhore. That I saw so many tigers where in other years I had seen none was partly attributable to the hot, dry season between rains, when prey animals and their predators collect near the scarce water. (On the previous journeys I had come in winter.) Another reason, I would like to think, was that India’s poaching, though not yet under control, had at least been slowed by greater vigilance. But the chief reason, sad to say, was the restoration of the Tiger Show in three of the four reserves we chose to visit.
Having written that, I wonder why I’m so sad to say it, though I know when and where those doubts began. That morning at Kanha during this visit, returning toward the track after seeing the big tiger on the gaur, we met another elephant on its way in toward the kill with a fresh howdahful of craning, camera-clicking human beings. Against my will—or perhaps against my romantic sensibilities—I found myself confronted with the People Show, and it was me. This was what the last wild tigers are compelled to look at. And try as I would to maintain my exhilaration at the exotic spectacle I had just witnessed, I felt instead a kind of baffled yearning and regret that was not offset by comparing such “success” to those long days of failure in this forest six years earlier.
Without some semblance of the hunt, the joy is no longer in the finding, but in the acquiring: Did you get your tiger? As in picking a beautiful wildflower, one destroys the moment’s fragile evanescence, and with it the fleeting mystery of creation and the lost paradise that lies behind what we imagine that we seek. As tiger biologist Ullas Karanth has said, “When you see a tiger, it is always like a dream.” Alas, this can never be true of a preordained and highly organized observation.
HAVING HAD THE GOOD FORTUNE to observe and study wilderness and wildlife all around the world for more than a half-century, and to take delight in this lifelong avocation, I must also accept the sadness of recording the precipitous decline of land and life in that half-century brought about by the rampaging activities of my own species. The Siberian tigress I saw in 1996, and another we were snow-tracking that winter, would be slaughtered by poachers in 1998.
As George Schaller has written, “Future generations would be truly saddened that mankind has so little foresight, so little compassion, such lack of generosity of spirit for the future that it would eliminate one of the most dramatic and beautiful animals this world has ever seen.” In the end, whether or not I “got” my tiger or my leopard is of small importance; what’s important is to know that they are there.