The closest I have ever come to seeing a tiger in the wild is its pug marks.
I have seen them at every tiger sanctuary I have been to. I even know the routine now.
The jeep will screech to a halt. The guide will point and opine gravely: “Fresh pug marks. Tiger was here a few hours ago.”
Once my cousin muttered, “Maybe they hire some villager to go out every morning and make them for tourists.”
Pug marks are the consolation prize for frustrated tiger spotters.
This month, I headed to Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, hoping to break my tiger jinx. After extensive research, my partner had determined Bandhavgarh would offer us the highest probability of seeing a tiger in the wild. But every time someone said “Happy tiger spotting”, I would feel my stomach clench. It was like examination pressure.
Coincidentally, even as we headed to Bandhavgarh, the Prime Minister was in Bandipur in Karnataka on a tiger safari, releasing the results of the latest tiger census. India now has at least 3,167 tigers, up from 2,226 in 2014, though experts warned that while numbers had increased in northern India, the tiger was probably “locally extinct” in 15 of 53 tiger reserves. Also, as their habitat became more fragmented, tigers had less room to roam, which was bad news for the gene pool, though it made tiger spotting easier for tourists like me.
As our train rattled across the sun-baked brown expanse of central India, my sister sent a newspaper clip. The PM had not managed to see a tiger. “So you don’t need to feel bad if you don’t spot one,” she quipped. I wondered if he had been shown “fresh” pug marks.
Long before I was born, my father was overseeing the construction of a bridge over the Ken river in Madhya Pradesh. My parents lived in a mud hut in the jungle. One night, as my father was returning home, a tiger appeared on the side of the road. The driver cut the headlights. Human and tiger regarded each other. Then the tiger leapt across the road in one bound and disappeared into the jungle. My father would recount that story matter-of-factly, as if it was about two neighbours running into each other on an evening walk.
I too headed into the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, hoping to spot a tiger in the wild. Unlike my father, who never planned to see a tiger, I was paying for a tiger safari in a national park. When my father saw that tiger, tiger spotting was not big business. Few travelled to Madhya Pradesh for pleasure when the heat was searing and the landscape sere. Locals rode motorbikes with scarves wrapped around their faces. At midday, even the langurs went quiet.
But our resort, Bandhav Vilas, was full. A bus-load of middle-aged foreign tourists were braving the 40-degree Celsius heat on a Kanha and Bandhavgarh tiger safari. “We have been doing safaris for 10 days already. I think we have had some 20 sightings,” said an Australian. She had seen one that morning. “It was just rolling around in the dust,” she said. “It wasn’t doing anything interesting.”
I smiled. Even a splotch of orange and black in the elephant grass would be “interesting” enough for my bucket list.
A signboard reminded us that Bandhavgarh is “unique in many ways besides unique density of tigers”. Langurs gleamed eerily silver against patches of landscapes blackened by forest fire. Gaurs stood still like sentinels. There are leopards, sloth bears, elephants in Bandhavgarh. Every time I fail to see a tiger in the wild, I too piously hold forth about how that’s okay. There’s beauty in jungle fowl and majesty in sambar too. Yet the fascination with the tiger is hard to resist.
At our plush resort, all the furnishing, from the bedspread to the curtains, had tiger prints. The house-baked cookies had pug marks. As I swam in the pool, a hotel guest asked how the water was.
“Nice and cool,” I replied.
His next question was, “Seen a tiger yet?” A techie from California, his friends and he had booked themselves for morning and afternoon safaris every day for the next three days, hoping for good tiger pictures. Some amateur photographers were spending over one lakh rupees a day on all-day safaris to remain in the forest (in the blazing sun) after other jeeps had exited.
The hotel manager assured us that Ballu, our driver, had “good tiger luck”. As we drove to the park, it was not yet light. It felt chilly in the open jeep, it was hard to imagine that soon the temperature would hit 40 degrees. Our headlights caught spotted deer darting across the highway to feast on the fruit of the mahua tree. As we entered the park, Ballu said: “These first few hours you won’t see too many deer or peacocks. This is when the predators are still moving.”
The park was quiet. Suddenly, there was the noise of a deer barking. A predator was afoot. We stopped and waited. I realise now that 97% of safari time is about waiting. Those Instagram shots with hundreds of likes are from the other 3%. Nothing much happened. Two jackals emerged from the jungle and trotted off. A hornbill took wing. The water holes were empty.
Suddenly, Ballu pointed to the ground. There, once again, were the pug marks of a tiger. I braced myself for another pug mark souvenir but Ballu resolutely followed the trail through the dry sal trees and bamboo, pointing out where the tiger had rested. Then suddenly he said, “Sir, tiger.”
There she was—resting in the middle of the road, my first tiger in the wild.
Ballu seemed relieved. Guides are under huge pressure to deliver tigers. “Hum log generator waale hain (we are like the ones carrying the generators),” he chuckled. “Baraat aage, hum peechhey (The wedding party is up front, we bring up the rear).”
Two other jeeps had already found our tigress. Word spread like bushfire. More jeeps appeared. One raced up from the other side, unaware of the tigress, while everyone waved frantically, asking them to stop. They skidded to a halt, raising plumes of dust. The tigress was unperturbed. She looked at us quizzically and then settled down more comfortably.
Soon we were in a tiger jam. Jeeps jutted out at all angles around us. Photographers with lens longer than their arms jostled for the perfect shot, trying to coax other jeeps to move a little. A German tourist was reprimanded as he made tiger noises to get the animal to look at the camera. “Next they will want the tiger on the bonnet,” grumbled Ballu. Stuck in the middle, we could neither go forward nor reverse out while the tiger did “nothing interesting”.
Ten years ago, the crush was far worse. The court threatened to stop all tourism in core areas and vehicle numbers are severely restricted now.
The balancing act between conservation and tourism has no easy answers. Each needs the other. Ultimately, we think animals, even wild animals, exist for our entertainment. People with cameras stalk tigers, whether they are snoozing or trying to get a drink of water. Being a big cat today means no me time. There are even safaris to spot them in the dark.
On another safari on that same trip, we saw more tigers. One was padding through the jungle. I tried to take a picture but all I captured was dry bamboo. Another time, they were in the distance in a thicket of elephant grass—young tiger siblings, probably a year old, chasing each other through the grass. They would appear in flashes again and again, racing behind each other in some game of happy tiger tag. Later, when I looked at my photographs, I saw one had two of them in it. They seemed to be looking right into my camera. That was my lucky money shot.
When I told a friend, he asked how close we got. I realised there’s a pecking order here as well. There’s the tiger spotting my father did, the kind without a camera. Then there’s tiger spotting with photographic evidence. Finally, there’s tiger spotting from up so close you have pictures on your mobile camera.
On this trip we did all three. The bucket list was accomplished. Or was it?
On the way back from Bandhavgarh, I read Neha Sinha’s analysis of the tiger census for Lounge. She talked about seeing a tigress with cubs lying next to a sambar kill. Suddenly, the tigress sprang up, snarling, her tail prickled with tension. She had spotted a leopard trying to sneak up on the sambar.
All I could think was, “Wow. A tiger AND cubs AND a leopard in one frame!”
A week ago, I would have been content seeing a patch of tiger through the grass. But dil, I realised, always maange more, especially when it comes to tigers.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.