Tiger Tiger!

 

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

A few years back, I had written an article on our family trip to Ranthambhore, India, in the hope of seeing a tiger. I decided to write this post on the same topic but with a different emphasis. Recently I came across data on the alarming decline in the tiger population in India, mainly from poaching. This is fueled by the insatiable demand for tiger body parts, mainly in China. Can we sit back and allow this magnificent beast immortalized in the famous poem by William Blake, the first verse of which is quoted above, to simply disappear from the earth? Certainly not. In this post I describe the awe and joy I felt coming face to face with a tiger in the wild.

I had read William Blake’s poem in high school and since then had always wanted to see a tiger. Yes, I have seen tigers, cramped in zoo cages or jumping through flaming hoops in circuses. But these are mere caricatures, a sorry shadow of one of the most powerful, awe inspiring and fearsome predators that roam the earth. The full throated roar of a tiger can strike fear even in the bravest hearts. I had always dreamed of what it would feel like to come face to face with a tiger in its natural habitat. That dream turned into reality on a family trip to India in 2008.

My wife, son and I visited Ranthambhore near Jaipur, Rajasthan, a one-time hunting preserve for royalty now transformed into a tiger sanctuary. Most of the pictures one sees of Indian tigers on TV, magazines and newspapers are filmed in Ranthambhore. The chance of viewing a tiger there is higher since the vegetation is mostly scrub and bush with occasional lakes and swamps.

We arrived, settled into a tent-camp and a few hours later, with great anticipation, set off on a safari in an open jeep. It was late afternoon. The sun was slowly setting and the animals were out foraging, a good time to see predators. We saw nilgai, sambur and several deer. They were anxious, restless and keeping a sharp lookout. Our guide said they had sensed a tiger nearby. That was good news. When we heard the barking alarm call of a chital deer, our excitement reached fever pitch. But no tiger! We did see fresh footprints however, a poor consolation, but it gave us some hope for the next day.

Footprint of a tiger.

Footprint of a tiger.

We returned to camp slightly dejected. But our spirits revived when we sat around a blazing campfire, under a canopy of a billion stars and dug into a dinner of rice, chapati, vegetables and free range local chicken washed down with beer. We swapped travel tidbits and safari stories with other travelers and wildlife photographers. I could feel the stirring of an ancient atavistic urge; perhaps ancient travelers relaxed just like this around a roaring fire under the stars, swapping yarns before turning in for the night.

A herd of nervous deer

A herd of nervous deer on the lookout for a tiger.

Early next morning we left for a second safari. It was dark and freezing cold. I live in Pennsylvania but the cold here was different. It was intense, and bone-chilling. But we were forewarned, so suitably layered. Plus, there were blankets in the jeep thoughtfully provided by the organizers. They gave an added layer of protection. We entered the reserve and drove along a narrow, rutted path. We came across a family of three Himalayan black bears, a mother with two cubs. They came frolicking down a hillside in front of us on to the track, saw us, turned and ran. They were hilarious and kicked up so much dust that it was difficult to get a good picture. One cub ran up a tree chasing a monkey, much to the consternation of mama bear.

Three Himalayan black bears hidden in a cloud of dust.

Three Himalayan black bears hidden in a cloud of dust.

Still, no tiger.

Suddenly we heard the call of a jackal, immediately followed by another. Our guide stiffened and put a finger to his lips. Just as an arctic fox follows a polar bear in the hope of feeding on scraps, a jackal often shadows a tiger, and at times, warns the jungle of its presence.

A jackal in Ranthambhore.

A jackal in Ranthambhore.

We scanned all around us but did not see anything. Our jeep moved on. As we crested a low hill, we saw on our right a tigress walking away from the trail. She was about 35 feet from us. Our jeep speeded up to stay level. She went behind a bush and turned around to face us.

She was magnificent; beautiful and fearless and was perfectly framed against the bush. Her bright orange coat with jet black stripes blended perfectly with the scrub and dry leaves of the winter forest. I could see her breath frosting in the chill morning air. I knew immediately that this was the picture I had been waiting for. I stood up. My left hand came down on the driver’s shoulder. “Stop”, I said in a whisper. He braked. With my left hand on his shoulder, I brought my right hand with the camera to eye level, pointed the telephoto lens at her, looked straight into her eye and gently squeezed the trigger. This was an old camera and I was still using film.  But I had to take that chance, risking every photographer’s nightmare, “camera shake”. I fell back into my seat and let the adrenalin drain out of my system. I looked back. She had simply melted into the forest.

Tiger in Ranthambhore, India Photo: Ranjan Mukherjee

Tiger in Ranthambhore, India
Photo: Ranjan Mukherjee

We returned to camp in high spirits. This was a very successful safari! We had seen a tiger and three bears plus numerous deer, jackals, monkeys and birds. Our guide told us that the chance of sighting a bear is rarer than sighting a tiger. So, we considered ourselves quite lucky.

Back in the US, I developed the films. The picture of the tigress framed against the winter forest turned out to be perfect. I use it as a screensaver for my laptop and it never fails to elicit a gasp from viewers. That picture is above.

I started this post quoting the first verse of Blake’s poem. Looking at the picture, the power, grace and majesty of the tiger, I cannot help but think back to the last verse:

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Adapted from an article that was first published in the Travel section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, March 15, 2015

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