“SHOULD we get rid of the tiger? No, that would not be right. He has the right to live just as we do.” The quiet words seem unremarkable, except that they are coming from the mouth of a 17-year-old whose mother was killed by a tiger. “The last time I saw my mother alive was in the morning before I went to school,” says Jyoti Meshran, a shy girl whose sudden smile when we meet lights up the bright day even more. “When I came back in the afternoon, my mother was not there. She had gone into the forest to cut firewood. They took her body home. The tiger had taken a bite out of her neck – that was the only part that was missing.”
Jyoti lives in the village of Sirkada, a collection of a few poor houses whose families live by rice farming. She has never seen a tiger. “I know people come here from all over the world to see them but I do not want to,” she says. “My mother used to tell me that the tiger is very frightening and we should not be going to the forest but we need to.”
The “forest” is the woodland bordering the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, a 625 sq. km. region that is home to around 74 of the 169 Bengal tigers in Maharashtra State. The reserve is a hard six-hour drive from the city of Nagpur, which sits at the exact geographical center of India. Only a crumbling colonial-era monument to this unique setting attracts tourists to the town. As Jyoti says, those who come are heading straight off to places such as Tadoba-Andhari.
The drive is marked by the non-stop beeping of car horns and constant swerving to avoid potholes, pedestrians, farm carts and other anarchic traffic. As my car nears the reserve, its headlights pierce the dark night to reveal squatting figures lining the roadside, each with a tin can in front of them. I realize that we are interrupting local villagers using the snake-free tar as their evening toilet, the can holding water to wash with afterwards. It is a vivid illustration of the poverty of this region.
Inside my lodge in the reserve, the contrast could not be more different. Hot showers, gin and tonics, spicy curries and a luxurious bedroom await me every evening when I return from tiger spotting. Each day starts before dawn, in a biting chill that actually deepens as the sun comes up when our open-top jeeps start hurtling down the reserve’s bumpy roads and dusty tracks. The wind searches out every weak spot in my defenses of scarf, hat and layering, followed by a fine red dust that I am still finding in my cameras and clothing weeks after my return home. As the sun comes up, the layers come off until the break for lunch, followed by a reverse process when the afternoon drive sees the baking sun fade suddenly into darkness and another chilly, madcap drive back to the gate before it shuts.
Then I see my first tiger and all this is forgotten. Alerted by the alarm calls of deer, we are sitting in a long line of jeeps parked by the roadside, looking deep into the forest along a firebreak. Then a movement ahead catches my eye and, striding nonchalantly along the road towards us, comes a full-grown tigress. She paces down the tarmac, ignoring the metallic clack of multiple camera shutters, before taking a side road and then sitting down. As if to deliberately annoy the photographers, she sits well in range but with her back turned to us. Then, tiring of her game, she strides elegantly offstage. How long was she in view? I have no idea – a heartbeat of time but a memory to last for a lifetime.
I know I have been very lucky to see a tiger on my first day. In a country whose population will overtake China in the next two decades and needing to develop fast to keep pace, these biggest members of the cat family face many pressures. Prices for their body parts are astronomical in the Asian alternative medicine market, a fact which feeds poaching, while farmers and industries such as Maharashtra’s massive coalmines encroach on their reserves. There may be 1,700 left in India, out of a global population of less than 4,000. Counting these solitary, nocturnal animals is notoriously hard and the recent replacement of optimistic figures based on counting pug (paw) marks by harder data using camera traps delivered a sharp shock to India’s pride in its conservation efforts.
“We have no idea how many there really were,” says Aniruddha “Jhampan” Mookerjee, a consultant to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). “At its lowest, between 1992 and 2002, certain parks were wiped out. They were near to urban centers and hunting tribes, and they were being attacked in a planned manner. That was the worst period.” A fascinating man, with a wealth of stories about India’s wildlife, he has studied tigers since he spent his childhood playing with orphaned cubs. “But I don’t see an extinction, I see a difficulty. In my father’s time, we were down to 1,400 tigers and we are down to that figure again. It goes in cycles of complacency, then numbers drop and a panic sets in. Our protection laws are stronger than anywhere else in the world but they are largely on paper and not implemented unless there is some sort of crisis. Numbers seem to drop and rebound in a ten-year cycle.”
One major issue facing the reserves in Maharashtra is opencast coal mining for thermal power stations. “All the reserves sit on mineral deposits and there is great reluctance to declare any more areas protected, or protect any buffer areas,” says Jhampan. “You can see a huge open-cast mine just outside a reserve. But this exploitation of the mineral rights is not benefitting the people. The rights are being sold to huge mining conglomerates and exploited for use in cities – nothing to do with these people – so they feel cheated. It is providing electricity for shopping malls in Delhi, while some of the villages will have no power or running water. Our development system is mimicking the US. It is an issue that can be exploited by extremists.”
Every reserve is supposed to have a core and a buffer zone. By law, the core area is inviolate and any human activity prohibited – including tourism – but a major shock ran through the country’s tourist industry in 2012 when the Supreme Court granted an activist a temporary order actually applying the law. The ban was soon lifted, subject to better policing of the core areas, leaving the role of tourists the subject of hot debate. In Tadoba, I see the unedifying sight of a mass of jeeps, including my own, racing to a tiger sighting. Drivers and rangers know tourists will tip more generously if they see a tiger, so some have no hesitation in breaking the rules.
Jhampan has a clear vision of how the tiger could be protected and feels the government is spreading its resources too thin on India’s 42 reserves. “The best way forward would be to choose large reserves where the tiger can survive and put effort and money into them. We need to focus on the huge landscapes like Tadoba, where tigers can breed and then perhaps be relocated. The wildlife trade is the biggest threat. The only reason the tiger is dying is poaching for parts like tiger penis used in Asian traditional medicine. You have to cut supply and demand. Demand seems impossible to tackle so we need tough measures to cut off supply. Arming anti-poaching rangers is one approach, but more effective will be providing alternative sources of income for villagers. We also have to educate younger people that the hunting practises of their fathers are no longer acceptable.”
Paul Goldstein, wildlife guide and photographer with adventure travel company Exodus, has a passion for tigers that has seen him run marathons and even climb Mount Kilimanjaro wearing a tiger costume to raise money for their preservation. “The fact that these animals are butchered on account of a ludicrous traditional medicine that has no medical benefit makes my blood boil,” he says. “There are tiger farms in China with more pelts in their deep freeze than there are tigers in India. The poachers are paid very little but at the end of the chain in China, Taiwan, Thailand or Vietnam, there are vast profits. Until they are educated and ashamed, they would wipe out all the wild tigers as then all their stockpiles of tiger parts would go up in value even more than they are now.” He calls for an unemotional response. “Bogus numbers won’t help tigers. Spending money won’t help. Blaming tourists won’t help,” says Paul. “If the tourists stopped, the poachers would move in the next day. But you have to make it valuable for people living around the reserve so they send the poachers packing. If an Indian girl walks 12km to her rundown school and sees tourists passing her in sleek cars on their way into a park, why should she give a stuff about tigers? If her school has new classrooms, an ablution block, a borehole, her father has a job and there is a village ambulance to take her sick mother to hospital, then she can’t imagine life without her striped neighbor. We need to be pragmatic. We are well beyond anything emotive.”
During the following week in Tadoba, the tigers stay elusive but I find I am noticing more and more the local people who live nearby. Lines of brightly-clad women walk miles into the reserve every day to cut the verges against the threat of forest fire, while the forest guides are alive to every sound and can identify each one. The forest is also full of birds and insects, unusual tree and plant species, and herds of wary deer. I see spotted deer (chital) and the larger sambar – the tiger’s main prey – as well as a cheeky pack of wild dogs, several crocodile on the park’s vast lake and a magnificent leopard. Bird-spotters are in paradise, with some 160 species to be seen in the area.
I have one more very brief glimpse of a tiger dozing in thick undergrowth, almost completely hidden by his camouflage. However, as Jhampan points out: “Most tourists understand that it is a game of chance. No sightings are guaranteed. But people keep coming back because the tiger is a charismatic animal and you can never have your fill of them.”
One man who does come back often is Sandeep Mukherjee, the managing director of a design company in Bangalore – India’s technology hub – and a photo safari regular. I meet him one cold dawn as we both wait for Tadoba’s gates to open. “I get just as excited each time I see a tiger as my first time,” he says. “I can remember each of my sightings vividly.” I ask if the appeal is the tiger or the challenge of photographing it. “As a wildlife lover and an Indian, I take great pride in the fact that India is almost the last stronghold of the Royal Bengal tiger,” he says. “India has been associated with the tiger for centuries and our lives have been so strongly intertwined with it that it is almost impossible to separate this from the very consciousness of each one of us.”
His insight helps me to understand the attitude of those Indians I talk to who have had very different encounters with the animals. As well as Jyoti, I meet Kalangasha Meshram who lives in another village nearby and is lucky enough to have survived a tiger attack. A wizened but strong-looking farmer with thick black hair, his appearance belies an age which he puts between 52 and 58. “It was around 11am when the tiger attacked,” he says. “I was walking with a few bullocks down to the fields to graze. It is the only time it has happened in this village, although tigers walk through here often. I don’t remember anything about it – it was so sudden. The bullocks ran off in fright when they smelled the tiger and that may be why he attacked me – I was the only one left. He just grabbed me with one front leg on my shoulder and the other on my chest and we both rolled into a ditch. The rolling scared him and he released me. I thought it was the end – I was very scared. I went limp and did nothing. The forest department took me to hospital and I was treated for scratches and infection but I was fine really.” Kalangasha received 50,000 rupees ($900) in compensation, which he used to marry off his four daughters. “I do not blame the tiger but I am still very scared of them,” he says.
Not everyone is so lucky. In Bhagwanpur Village, inside the reserve’s buffer zone, 55-year-old Ganpat Nama Pendam lost his wife to a tiger attack. “We were in the forest collecting bamboo which I used to make things with. She said she needed to go behind a tree and I faced the other way. I heard a sound and I rushed over and saw my wife lying on the ground. She had died instantly. I thought the tiger might return to the body so I waited. He did come back and started growling and baring his fangs but I waved my axe and stood my ground. He eventually went off, so I ran back to the village and fetched some help. When we got back we found the tiger had dragged my wife’s body about 100meters but hadn’t eaten any of it. This tiger was known for coming around the village but had never killed anybody. People would drive him away. I do not know why he attacked – it was not the usual behavior, so it is strange.”
When I ask him if he would like to kill the tiger, his reply is moving: “He is an animal; he does not think like us. What is the point of killing him? A life is lost and we cannot get that person back.” Even more fascinating is to find that his son Vijay Ganpat Pendam (28) is now a park guide, whose job is to find the animals for visitors. “The jungle is part of our lives,” he says. “I like it and wanted to get involved in some way. There are very few job opportunities here, so it was a good chance to do something close to my heart. I have spent my life in the forest. I did feel very scared [after my mother was killed] but life eventually went back to what it was. When it is evening I hear the roar of the tiger. If I don’t hear it, I would miss it.”
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