To Show A Tiger

A tigress looking at a bird taking off in a meadow of Kanha.

After months of musing over whether a writing break at the onset of winter was affordable, I went for it and in the process extended the writing break by writing about it. In my defence, there is a very good reason to do so, for after nearly a decade of planning and rescheduling and budgeting, my family visited Kanha Tiger Reserve with me, giving shape to this piece about showing a tiger in the global age of wildlife tourism of India.

The leisure that wildlife tourism – particularly tiger tourism – in India affords is a subject that I take no comfort in discussing. On the one hand, it offers an opportunity for citizens to cherish nature in isolation and on the other hand, it is a high-cost venture that is not afforded to every citizen. It’s the reason for the success of species-centric exclusionist-model of conservation and at the same time it is the reason for further alienating a large mass of people from benefitting from the fruits of its success, simply because it is rather expensive.

A tigress walks across the woods of Kanha.

Working in the field of wildlife – and in particular tiger – conservation, one starts to take watching wildlife for granted. Often, one forgets the count of how-many-tigers-have-I-seen, to a certain personal gratification and pride when talking to the masses. How important or fortunate this is, is anyone’s guess, but people generally accept the boasting for it expresses the tiger-watcher’s passion, and that’s that. How difficult it is to see one, how much time it takes, and how much money it costs, are often – in fact seldom – discussed. While this lies at the heart of this piece, it is also about being able to show a tiger and its reserve’s denizens to my parents, a first after they were able to show me my first in central India more than twenty-years ago.

A tiger walks in dark woods at 6:30 AM.

With temperature hovering between 10-15C, it was rather cold for my parents who came ready wearing thermals, winter caps, and gloves. Before the safari, I had asked them to not expect to see a tiger. I’m not sure if they sat back relaxed or disappointed as the jeep drove on. I am also not sure why we turned right while most vehicles turned left. As we lumber on before the sun breaks through the canopy, a large, round head stands out from the foliage twenty-yards to our left, like a glowing sun, within five minutes of our venturing in. It is T46, the dominant male of the area, also known as Bhaisanghat Male, scraping by the fire-line before proceeding to spray and disappear into the deep and dark woods. For such a large tiger, he is shy, we’re told, sticking into bushes if he sees humans huddled in their jeeps. In the very first instance, my disclaimer proved wrong even if the sighting did not last more than five minutes.

Something of a beginner’s luck, I tell myself, for in the vastness of this reserve that spans more than 2,000 sq. km, to see a tiger within the first few minutes is statistically quite uncommon. On that safari, we were the only one of the two vehicles to see T46. Lucky! a sighting that boosted morale but also triggered the cursed wish to see more and more. A thrilling experience nonetheless, overwhelming and majestic.

A tigress taking stock of the piling jeeps across the grassland.

In 2013, I was a part of an organization that prioritized awareness related to wildlife conservation in the government and private schools around the reserve, especially for the underprivileged students. We conducted awareness on a range of issues focused on biodiversity through a variety of programs, some followed by thematic competitions. The winners would get an opportunity to participate in the yearly Nature Education Camp and a chance to visit Kanha Tiger Reserve and talk with government officials, naturalists, and experts. On top of the itinerary was the jungle safari, and the cherry on the cake was to see the tiger. Conducted every winter, every tiger sighting was an exhilarating experience. Here are the students living closest to the reserve, some of whom experience the perils of living in close proximity to tigers, some even aware of tigers attacking their cattle, and many only hearing tales of what it’s like inside this fortress-like wilderness. To show a tiger, and to see their expressions – happiness and excitement that had to be contained when on a safari – and the glowing faces, I would never forget these moments, something I felt when on a safari with my parents. To show a tiger than to see one, as someone who has spent some time seeing tigers, is altogether a different experience.

On the next safari, we visit the Kanha zone for its museum housed in decades-old guest houses, and the new seven-minute audio-visual of night-time in the reserve, dark enough to forget the bright, crisp morning awaiting outside. There are no tigers to be seen on this wild-goose-chase, but many birds to keep us engaged through the slow drive through hills and forests and meadows. I’ve had more instances of a jungle safari with no tigers to be seen than most of my friends and colleagues. A bit afraid that we have already run out of our beginner’s luck, I moved restlessly in my seat as sparkling dust settled on my camera.

There was one NEC year when we could not sight a tiger; it brought down the spirits of the camp. Seeing a tiger is like winning a prize, you win some and you lose some. The students had won their way in school-level competition to see the tiger, but the jungle lore dictates that your past, your efforts, and your roots, are irrelevant when it comes to seeing the tiger. It depends, after all, on the tiger itself. I am reminded of a summer when a filming crew camped for nearly a week to document tigers, but had only one sighting from the many safaris. That same time, a family sighted the tiger several times, returning satisfied with tiger memories. It was a bit gruelling explaining this to the young students, and I hope they understood the jungle lore through the camp.

A tiger's ears have distinct markings called ocelli - false eyes - used in communicating with other tigers.

A jungle safari in central Indian parks, particularly in the state of Madhya Pradesh, are standardized, yet to see a tiger is completely up to chance. This makes everyone at that moment in time the same randomized entity out to see the tiger, starting together. What luck you may have is based on which turn you make at what time you make.

The same tigress, walking through the woods.

That same day of visiting the Kanha museum, we take an odd, quiet path in the afternoon only to find a tiger walking away around the bend in the road to the left. Reversing and stalking the cat, we find it walk away, again, into the forest, as several more jeeps roar around. Choti Mada – the small mother – we were told, as we see her sulk away into the dabbled forest. She is one of the oldest, daughter of the famous Badi Mada – the big mother – who mothered many tigers of Kanha. As she disappeared into the darkening forest, we swerve to the path from where she would likely break cover. And she does.

Breaking cover.

She swiftly walks past the many jeeps around her crossing point, her tail twitching as she disappears again beyond the pale of the sal forests that leads to Banjar river. Yearning to see more of her, we spend some quiet moments trying to listen to the jungle sounds, but the distant coughing-sneezing alarm call of the langur indicates that she has moved far away. As the cold crept in we are to learn the tigress was actually T106, known as Mahavir Female 3 – the third of the litter of Mahavir tigress – the sole survivor of that litter. She has two five-month-old cubs who have to be fed constantly, for which she is often out and about day and night.

Venturing in to the deep and dark woods.

Before making it at the gate, perhaps the biggest determinant of who gets to see the tiger is the cost it takes to reach here. Wildlife – in particular tiger – tourism is exorbitantly expensive. A single safari costs upwards of ₹5,000 (or up to ₹900 per person per jeep), a cost that most Indian citizens cannot afford, making wildlife tourism a rather niche and even elitist venture with little intrinsic value of creating awareness on an equal footing. Awareness programmes such as NEC were a way to give an opportunity, but in no way a solution to the disparity. The state runs an extensive awareness programme called Anubhooti, which aims to reach to all schools in the tiger reserves, and provide the students an opportunity to engage in wildlife awareness, with reserves such as Kanha making an effort to organise jungle safari to the participating students. These programmes, mixed-in with nature-themed games, are a great respite for the students, but that’s where it remains. The parents are left out of the equation, leaving a large gap between shared learnings and sharing of experiences.

A strong but subtle bond between nature and us is to connect it with your loved ones. It is a feat to be able to do so, and not everyone can make the connection. For someone such as me for whom the inspiration came from within the family, this is possibly easier than otherwise. For someone who has worked with students who has not seen the inside of a park they live next to, let alone see a prowling tiger, it is perhaps the most important to make the connection.

The morning after, heading to the meadows.

On our fourth and last safari now, we are only in for a few minutes when we see T106 again, around the same bend in the road. She walks with an urgency this time, no sloppy gait with drooping shoulders. She appears to have purpose. She looks a bit thin but determined. Feeding growing cubs takes a toll on a mother, and T106 was hunting almost daily to secure a meal. After seeing her vanish in one part of the woods, our jeep, along with several others, idled by the meadows, waiting for her to reappear in the sun. And she does, unexpectedly. While everyone was focused towards the patch of woods she disappeared into, unbeknownst to everyone, she emerged from behind and sat right on the path.

A tigress bathing in the morning rays; the photograph ruined by a frenzy of jeeps.

Only a few saw her bathe in the morning sun, aglow in an ethereal light. She looked around, and as I prepared to photograph her, a jeep with an oversized rear seat geared between me and her, blocking the view to my utter displeasure. These resorts with their specialized modified vehicles are more a menace to others than blending with the jungle. I curse under my breath, but keep my cool as we watch her walk into the meadow.

A tiger in the grass.

She walks swiftly, gliding from one patch of woods to the other through the undergrowth, until we find her in the middle of the grassland, unheeded to our presence, licking her nose as she walks through browning grass, stopping only occasionally to take a gander for grazing chital. And as we drive alongside her, each of us are making memories of hers unique to each self, even as cameras and mobile phones roll on capturing moments. Three days three tiger sightings, my mom repeated several times later, as the memory of T106 became etched in our minds. This celebration was genuine, for this was our first together in so many years, and I don’t know in how many years to come.

A tiger in front of a sal forest with lantana undergrowth.

The openness of her habitat made this larger-than-life tiger appear significantly important to Kanha, but also proportionally smaller. As she closes in on the edge of the meadow, sal trees loom tall in front of her, giants in front of a giant, but significantly larger than life, than tiger, than the sheer force she was known for. Her stature was, of course, of my make. She knew, as she explored the vast expanse of her territory comprising meadows, dense sal groves, and the riverfront, that she was leasing a part of nature so she could survive and provide for her family.

In that moment I thought back to the time I tried to show the tiger to the students; I thought of where they are today, if they remember their tiger sighting; if they carry space for nature in their hearts. Of the tigers of nearly eight years ago. Of the trees that stood and those that have now fallen. And in all these the only constant remained I, still trying to find a tiger in the hay.

A tiger in the hay.

Her stripes dance as she walks past strands of grass. When she had had enough of us, she disappears into lantana-dominated undergrowth, the green curtain engulfing her whole. Our guide helped us with the direction she took as she walked on. Over the next half of the safari, we were informed of her making a chital kill, and then walking again towards the river to fetch her cubs for a meal. That night, they slept with a full stomach.

Between the two tigers, we were graced by several barasingha and chital herds, sambar ambling in bamboo groves, gaur making their upward migration to the hills, and plenty of birds, from the resident courting pair of Crested Hawk Eagle to the bathing winter migrant, the Verditer Flycatcher, and the owls and hoopoes and hornbills and ducks and vultures. The reason why I stick to tiger here is the symbol and the power this symbol holds on the larger populace.

A tiger pauses.

What if I could not show the tiger? The people who don’t see a tiger often dismiss a reserve as a mere grand elitist tourism venture. While the learned folks don’t believe in such conspiracies, the reserves should be accessible to everyone to dispel any belief that will separate nature from us. Wildlife tourism isn’t just about seeing a tiger, it is about trying to connect the dots, with the tiger being one, even if important for some, point of the big picture.

Tiger tourism.

Yet the modern-day wildlife tourism is not affordable. Keeping a day or a safari per week with lower prices particularly for local visitors would be a start to open the financially locked gates to underprivileged communities. To allow people – to invite people – inside this fortress that is visited by people from cities and from western countries. While school students are an important stakeholder of conservation, local elders, community leaders, and local elected representatives should also be given an opportunity to connect with protected areas with a proactive effort or at discounted rates so that they feel a part of this rather isolated venture.

That I, sitting miles away in Mumbai, am able to connect my parents with Kanha through the tigers, is an example of globalization that this increasingly inequal world cannot afford. In saying this I may be wishing for simpler days, but I argue that in this rapidly advancing world, special efforts need to be made to show the tiger, and indeed through the tiger the protected areas and its conservation success stories, to all the stakeholders living in and around such areas. The question is not about whether we – the NGOs – or the government can afford. They certainly can. The question is about whether such immersive experiential ventures would be led by anyone. But if there is a place to lead, it is in central India.

I kept in touch with some friends who informed me of some jeeps witnessing T106 chase a herd of chital in broad daylight, and of T46 emerging in the sun to look at the pesky paparazzi out to get him. These two individuals made our day, probably months and possibly the year. I wish that this is made possible for everyone, particularly to those who wish but have no means to make this connection.

Heading to the woods.

A tiger, in an age where those in wildlife conservation sphere discusses movement ecology, population bottlenecks, inbreeding depression, conflicts, and wildlife crimes, remains a singular thread connecting man with nature, much more than birds or butterflies could. And this uncomfortable fact is still poorly exploited than forests for coal. A tiger may yet bind conservation with communities. As a species, it holds that power of wonder, and this is, in part, the reason why you only see tiger in this piece. A symbol that still stands valid if we connect the dots, says I who takes more pleasure in showing six- and eight-legged animals.

As we close in on the year 2023, I am hoping the larger piece I have been working on sees the light of the day. May we hold on to our threads that connect us to nature – tigers, primates, birds, snakes, insects, what have you, and help others find theirs to hold on to.