The tigers are looking at us, we shouldn't fail them

3,000. That's roughly the number figure of tigers we have. It is easy to assign blame just on the farmers and poachers for their deaths. Several recent government decisions are structurally harmful to tiger reserves

Neha SinhaNeha Sinha   29 Aug 2019 10:10 AM GMT

The tigers are looking at us, we shouldn

That was the first time a tigress and I locked eyes. Her eyes were amber, her whiskers pinpricks of meaning. Don't bother me, don't touch me, don't come after me, she said. And just like that, she was gone. Effortlessly part of the forest again, to be seen by us only when she willed it so

The tigress in the rain

We had gone with all the hope of seeing a tiger in Ranthambhore. Rajasthani forest spread out around us like an amphitheater-- brown trees, brown ground, scrubland, thorny, strong-willed, meant for the desert state's famous heat.

The sun was climbing in the sky, white-gold and blinding. It was the monsoon, that time you don't get to see the tigers. We had come anyway, a motley group of researchers, in different kinds of headgear for combating the unbearably dazzling sunshine that comes after rainfall.

The 4.15 AM start was not just a memory in our phone alarms: it was etched like a beating into our tired, grubby bodies, wracked with too little sleep and tossed around in the uncomfortable 4 x 4 Gypsy vehicle. We had been looking for tigers for hours, eyes narrowed in concentration in our still-not awake heads.

The familiar brown, dry landscape held several golden-yellow tigers. The tiger was built to melt into the dry, spindly bushes; merging behind leaves, gathered into the arms of the thicket, and pixelated and camouflaged by grasses. I felt dizzy with effort. And there was no tiger. The heat, the flies and the white sunshine felt like a bottle had been broken on our heads. We decided to leave and started turning our car around. On cue, the car got stuck in the wet mud.

India is home to 70% (2,967) tigers in the world. Photo: Neha Sinha

And then she was there

A tigress had appeared. Out of nowhere. We were blocking her rightful path, so she was on the road behind us. She was like an apparition, fairy-dust, not there one second, and conjured the next. And we were in her way. We were all looking at her, mesmerised. She had better things to do; she didn't cast a single glance at us. She got off the road, like honey falling silkily off a spoon, and just as coolly got back on it.

And then, she turned, body tensing like an inhalation. Her face slipped into a snarl; a quick, instant movement, whiskers bunching together, teeth exposed. But it was a delicate, quiet expression, like a crease on silk.

Don't. Follow. Me.

That was the first time a tigress and I locked eyes. Her eyes were amber, her whiskers pinpricks of meaning. Don't bother me, don't touch me, don't come after me, she said. And just like that, she was gone. Effortlessly part of the forest again, to be seen by us only when she willed it so.

3,000. That's roughly the number figure of tigers we have, as per an estimation just released by Prime Minister Modi. The estimation was a huge effort conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India, National Tiger Conservation Authority and a host of NGOs, covering thousands of kilometres of forest. The number of tigers we have is both achievement and responsibility. There are traditional threats of organised poaching; and also the more stochastic retaliatory killing of tigers. Farmers and villagers are known to poison or beat tigers, saying they eat cattle.

The tiger in the grass

I was on a survey in Sariska tiger reserve, Ranthambhore's lesser-known cousin. We had a device that intercepted the signal of the tiger, which had fitted with a satellite collar. The signal was beeping like a purring kitten. The tiger was very close, an issue of excitement and trepidation both.

The animal in question was no ordinary one. It had left Ranthambhore tiger reserve and decided to walk hundreds of kilometres to find a new forest. It had gone to Mathura, passing towns and villages, and then to Bharatpur's Keoladeo bird sanctuary, a long and desperate search for forest.

With nearly 3,000 tigers, we are the world's most valuable gene pool of tigers. Photo: Neha SinhaWith nearly 3,000 tigers, we are the world's most valuable gene pool of tigers. Photo: Neha Sinha

On the way, it had killed a young man in the densely populated places it passed through. While no one should go too close to a tiger, this one was definitely not to be trifled with. The signal kept beeping; there was no sign of movement of the tiger. I was in a crouching position in the Gypsy, and I finally stood up, cramped beyond endurance.

At that very moment, the tiger rose. It had been next to us all along, behind a bush, not even a hundred metres away. It had known we were there; we were the ones who were ignorant. The tiger had raised its head and was rapidly moving its ears. Clockwise, anti-clockwise; precise movements.

The white spots on the back of its ears looked like an extra pair of eyes. As it stood, its huge face filled my vision. The tiger was the only thing that existed in the world, it was beginning and its end. I was transfixed. If at that time a thunderclap had sounded next to my ears, I wouldn't have flinched or broken eye contact. And then the whole body moved, into a lazy stretch. The hypnosis was broken. It got up, sauntered off; un-worried and unhassled. The dangerous tiger in the grass, deciding to walk away.

With 3,000 tigers, we are the world's most valuable gene pool of tigers. And while it is easy to assign blame just on farmers and poachers for their deaths, this would be unfair. Several recent government decisions are structurally harmful to tiger reserves. Many have been opened up for wider roads, railways, huge new irrigation channels. River-interlinking through reserves is planned. And the government has just granted permission for the survey and exploration of Uranium in Telangana's Amrabad tiger reserve. If Uranium is found, it won't be left in the ground.

New tiger numbers don't mean we don't have problems; we have old and new problems both. My mind goes back to the cold snarl of the tigress and the hot gaze of the tiger; the tigress is dead already, found killed with her cubs just outside Ranthambhore.

Still, the tigers are looking at us. We shouldn't fail them.

Neha Sinha is with the Bombay Natural History Society

(Views are personal)

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