TIGER’S GAZE

It's man's invasive presence that is eliminating this majestic animal from the diminishing forests of India
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

My tiger moment happened quite unexpectedly. While returning from Palia through the forests of Dudhwa National Park in Uttar Pradesh with friends many years ago, we found our car stutter to a stop. It seemed my petrol guzzling Ambassador car had run out of oil again. After all it was a vehicle with unenviable fuel efficiency - two kilometers per litre. No matter how much oil we got filled up in the tank, it was never enough.

As our car lazily came to a halt right in the middle of a forest where the rays of the sun were barely streaking through the thick foliage, we were met by a strange silence. There was no chirping of birds or the call of the wild monkeys. The barking deer or other animals - all seemed to be on a furlough. A little uncertain and a little diffident of stepping out in an eerily quiet jungle, a friend gingerly opened the door of the car and stepped out. 

His intent was to see whether the wretched vehicle could be brought back to life by giving it a big push. It was then that one of us saw a pair of eyes staring at us. It did not take us a moment to realise who was keeping a watch on our misery. 

The reason for the eerie silence and the disappearance of the wildlife all came together instantaneously. We were being watched by the Tiger. A nervous whisper reached out to the friend outside the car to return quickly. In a flash he was breathlessly back. 

Once we were settled in the car, there was nothing to do but to wait. In those days as there were no mobile phones we could not share our excitement of being tracked by a tiger with our mother, father, girlfriend, neighbour or anyone - or even call for help. 

In the middle of the dark forest there was no one, but four friends in a car with no oil, little money and with a hungry tiger lurking around us. As we were figuring out what to do, we saw the tiger majestically step out from behind the bush and head towards the road where our car was stranded. About maybe 8-10 metres away from us, the beast sat down - looking straight at us. 

It was a sight to behold. It seemed the tiger, too, was aware of his amazing beauty. Black stripes aesthetically weaving into deep yellow shade, the animal seemed flawless - deserving for a major role in a Hollywood film. His eyes so hypnotic that we believed in stories that animals like monkeys just fall off from the branches of trees when they lock eyes with him. Built strong with big paws and limbs, he clearly showed the capability of reaching our car in a microsecond. 

We did not want to test his speed and strength by stepping out to even take a leak - despite the fact that we had a strong urge. The tiger just sat on the road to assess a strange immobile black object that had four nervous beings that were stoking his phenomenal capacity to smell his prey from a distance. 

To deepen our fears, the tiger came a few steps closer to our car and plonked itself again near the car. For maybe an hour or so, the eyeball to eyeball confrontation carried on between us. We realised then that the tiger does not blink easily. At times, out of boredom or due to a pesky fly, the tiger would look the other way, but it never gave an impression of lowering its level alertness. We just could not step out and quickly relieve ourselves. 

The beast waited patiently hoping to tire us and compel us to come out of the car and into its murderous embrace. Memories of Jim Corbett and his experiences in his book Man-eaters of Kumaon started coming back to me. Going by Corbett's description, man-eaters were mostly old, injured and unable to hunt. He never shot a tiger till it had been conclusively established that it had become a man-eater. 

He turned down requests from villagers who just wanted the tigers to be killed so that they could fearlessly do farming in the forests. Surely, the stately beast blocking our road did not meet the man-eater's description. 

Then what did this tiger want from us? Surely, not to hitch a ride in a car that had no fuel. 

After what seemed like an eternity, the tiger moved. In a silent forest it seemed to have picked up a noise ahead of us. Taking a few quick strides, the tiger had disappeared into the bushes. A quick rustle of gently moving leaves provided any hint that the tiger had gone deeper into the wilds. 

A minute or two after, we heard the familiar rumble of a vehicle. Noise was returning to the forests. We knew that it was a matter of time when the birds, monkeys, barking deer would start talking again. 

A while later we saw a Jonga head towards us. We started waving desperately for it to stop, which it did. Nonchalantly, the occupants stepped out and asked us, whether we had seen a "tiger"? We jumped out of our little prison of the past hour and collectively screamed "yes"! We rushed to the place where the tiger was giving us its own version of a matinee show. 

The pug marks were huge. It was a big animal, we remembered. We pleaded to be taken back to the Dudhwa National Park's headquarter. Our rescuers were well-equipped and had a rope to pull our dry car back to the camp. As we told them the story of our long stand-off with the tiger, they pointed out that we were lucky to see the big cat in the wilds, even when we were stranded in the middle of nowhere. 

Our return to the camp spread a murmur of excitement all around. It is not always that people get to see a tiger. Many wildlife enthusiasts spend days moving on an elephant or a covered jeep in search of the big cat. Were people envious of us in the camp!
Next day, we organised some oil for the car and headed out of the forest. This time we were confident that our calculations about our mileage would not go wrong and we would not have to spend another session with the tiger. 

A few days later, after we reached home, I heard about the menace of the tiger in the area through which we had reached the Dudhwa forest. News reports claimed that the animal was picking up people working in the sugar plantations of Lakhimpur Kheri in UP. 

Expectedly, the tiger was shot dead to satisfy the villagers who were baying for his blood. I am not sure whether it was the same tiger that kept us in thrall the other day, but it became abundantly clear why the tiger is losing its right to survive in its rapidly encroached habitat in Terai and in other parts of the country. 

Immediately after Independence, large tracts of forest land were given to refugees from Punjab and other people. Clearing of jungles also meant obliterating precious wildlife. 

Over the years, tigers, bears and tuskers were reduced to souvenirs on the wall. Their skins and ivory adorned the drawing rooms of the nouveau riche. As the forests seamlessly merged into sugar plantations and wheat and rice fields, the animals just could not discriminate, at times, with what was their land and what was owned by the farmer. Chasing food, they ventured into the farms and compromised their lives. And when they do, there is a mad clamor amongst farmers to demand their death. 

Interestingly, the Mughals were not very forthcoming in entertaining these requests. In a paper written by Divyabhanusinh, 'Great Mughals go hunting Lions', which has been reproduced in, Environmental Issues in India, edited by Mahesh Rangarajan, it becomes clear that the Mughals did not allow indiscriminate killing of wildlife as was the norm during the British Raj. 

"The great Mughals restricted the hunting of game animal and birds, and for the smaller creatures which could be snared they set aside large hunting grounds as well." After the protection of the Mughals was withdrawn, the big cats were mercilessly chased down. 

There are important lessons to be learnt from the Mughals and their attitude to wildlife. The big cat can only survive in the country if the government is determined to protect it. In the absence of sovereign assurance, there is no relief for them.

The British were mercenary in comparison and had little love for the country they were ruling. A British army officer boasted of killing 300 lions. Even if this was an exaggeration, the numbers are far more than the number of Lions Emperor Jehangir slayed during his 39 year rule - only 86. 

The struggle of the cat family to survive has worsened with the growth of population. A figure extrapolated by social scientist Ramchandra Guha shows that the misery of lions and tigers has been directly proportional to the growth of population. In 1600, the population was 116 million, which rose to 159 million in 1800. In the next 300, it grew astonishingly to 1.2 billion people. 

It is easy to infer how the Tiger habitat is being taken over by human beings.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2010