World Tiger Day

On World Tiger Day, five lovers of the big cat describe their most thrilling brush with the animal

Valmik Thapar, Bittu Sahgal and others take a trip down memory lane.

Evidence of our fascination with the tiger can be traced back tens of thousands of years, to early rock art. Since then, it has symbolised courage, strength and ferocity, whether in mythology or in cartoons, literature and cinema.

Recently, the number of tigers we share the planet with has fortunately increased after dropping dangerously low, thanks to government programmes, the dedicated efforts of conservationists and strict monitoring. But continual poaching and habitat destruction remain an imminent threat to the animal, we aren’t in the clear yet.

On World Tiger Day, spoke with people who have fallen in love with the tiger and dedicated their lives to ensuring its safety. They recount their most memorable encounters with the animal – its charisma, majesty, and its power to change lives.

Neha Verma
Divisional Forest Officer

Photo credit: Ramnagar Forest Division
Photo credit: Ramnagar Forest Division

Ramnagar Forest: Some time ago, a team of 15 people and I went deep into the forest to inspect a site where two people who had gone to look for their cow, had been mauled by a tiger.

We crossed many streams and naalas to get there. The clearing [site] was barely 10 metres wide. We saw fresh tiger pug marks, along with the chappal marks of those two men. I remember pointing to the tree where we needed to place the camera trap, when suddenly, we heard an angry growl of a tiger.

Everything happened within seconds. I turned and saw this tiger midair, leaping towards me. I ran towards the bushes. Everyone was running here and there, but there was barely any space to run or hide. The tiger landed very close to me, turned to his side, and went away without attacking anyone.

We ran away from the site. We had barely covered 20 to 30 metres when someone from the team said that the tiger was following us. He said he could see his patterns behind the lantana bushes, where we were standing. As soon as he said the words, we heard the tiger growl again. Once again, the tiger leapt at us, roaring very, very loudly. One of my staff members fell down, so the tiger jumped over her and left. She didn’t get hurt because she was on the ground.

This was what is known as a mock charge – because if a tiger wants to kill, it will. But even when mock charging, tigers can cause fatal injuries.

I heard that growl in my head for many days after. That incident also made me think a lot about my staff – we were 15 people and we were still attacked. Usually, my colleagues go into the forest in twos or threes, and not all of them have weapons. It is a tough job.

Bittu Sahgal
Editor, Sanctuary Asia

Taboda Tiger Reserve: Over a decade ago, on a full moon night, Nitin Kakodkar drove Hemendra Kothari, the Chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Trust, and me along a fire line. Switching off the engine, we sat listening to the sounds of the night when, from a distance of around 40 metres, a tigress walked directly towards our parked vehicle. No one spoke a word. At 20 metres we saw a sub-adult cub trailing a few metres behind her. Then another, and another! The family of four were aware of our presence but felt no threat. For the next 30 minutes they sat within a few metres of our vehicles, doing nothing special, just being. Every tiger experience is special, but some sightings stick in your memory, like this one.

Valmik Thapar
Founder, The Ranthambhore Foundation

Photo credit: Valmik Thapar
Photo credit: Valmik Thapar

Ranthambore National Park: It was about 11 am when the call of a sambar made us jump. I said to my companion Goverdhan, “Let’s go and check it out.” As we reached that magical area between the lakes...[suddenly] a huge sambar stag came pelting out of the bush followed by Noon [the tigress] at full gallop. I followed quickly and there, right in front of us, on the jeep track, stood the stag and the tiger as if frozen in time. Noon had sunk her canines into the stag’s shoulder but it was not a killing grip…

In front of me was the tiger dream everyone hopes to see. In a clearing, a tiger and a sambar, face-to-face and frozen to the spot. All because Noon had got the wrong grip. If she had got the throat the sambar would have been down before I reached the spot. For eight long minutes they remained frozen and then suddenly the tiger changed her grip and attacked the sambar’s hind legs and belly in an effort to force it down. She had to find the throat but she could not release the grip she had....After twelve minutes of struggle the sambar heaved himself up and kicked out forcing Noon to release her grip.

The stag fled into the waters of Rajbagh. It was bloody and limping. Noon watched for a while from the shore. She was bleeding around the mouth – a bad kick…[the stag] then slowly hobbled out of the water and into a bank of high grass.

Even today, more than thirty years after that incident, it remains the most important tiger day of my life. Noon had taught me an unforgettable lesson about the struggles of predation – the fine art so necessary for survival.

Excerpted from Living with Tigers by Valmik Thapar, Published by Aleph Book Company.

Rohan Chakravarty
Cartoonist and winner of 2017 WWF International President’s Award

Copyright: Madhya Pradesh Forest Department
Copyright: Madhya Pradesh Forest Department

Kanha Tiger Reserve: Seeing my first tigress in the wild got me into drawing cartoons on wildlife. Back in 2005, our math professor, who was also interested in wildlife, took us to a safari to Nagzira. Within 10 minutes of entering the park we saw this gorgeous beast bathing in a watering hole. That’s when it struck me that this animal has a certain magical quality. The gaze of the tiger was hypnotic and it changed something within me.

But it was the last tigress I saw, a mother of four, that I got to spend time with very closely. I was working on a map of the Kanha Tiger Reserve and was taken right into their territory. I had the opportunity to observe the mother with the cubs, and I noticed there was a barbet calling from a considerable distance. Every time it called, the tigress would twitch her ears to point in the barbet’s direction. That made me realise that no matter how much science and research we do on the forests, we’d never know the forest like the tiger does.

Nilanjan Ray
Wildlife Photographer

Photo credit: Nilanjan Ray
Photo credit: Nilanjan Ray

Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve: I had this encounter during a road trip to the Nilgiris. It was a rainy afternoon. We [including the forest guide] had been driving very slowly through the forest and it was while crossing a stretch that we saw the tiger – we couldn’t believe our eyes! There was a pale coloured [tiger] sitting on the hill side, almost covered by undergrowth.

It looked like a semi-adult. I knew that I was seeing something unique but was more focused on clicking photographs. The tiger kept hiding. After some time, another tiger appeared – this was a normal, orange one. I figured they must be siblings, or perhaps the orange one was the pale one’s mother. They played hide and seek, and then they simply vanished.

At first I’d wondered if it was a white tiger, but it was slightly golden brown too. When I came back I told the forests department about what I had seen, posted the photographs on social media and later, had them validated by Sanctuary Asia and Belinda Wright. That’s when I learnt the tiger’s pale colour was due to a genetic mutation called colour morphism.

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