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June/2004 * 06/25/04
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Cold and dark - somewhat surprising adjectives to use in India, but this is northern India in the middle of January, and it is early - 5 am. I am awake and out of bed for breakfast and a safari into Ranthambore National Park. On the hunt. For tiger.
First, breakfast. Fried eggs, toast, chai (spiced, sweet tea - a good reason in itself to visit India). The chef obviously did not quite understand the concept of fried eggs. The eggs had been boiled, cut in half and then fried. Oh well.
The pickup eventually arrived, late. Why I continue to turn up at the advertised time in India is a triumph of hope over experience. A dozen fellow travellers, all Indian, are already ensconced. A 20 minute drive in an open top vehicle at 80 kph. My excited anticipation is being whittled away by the chill wind.
The park has an air of lightness about it, with small, widely spaced, thinly leaved trees and shrubs, with lime green and light yellow foliage. The terrain is hilly, with solid sandstone bluffs. The roads are coated with terracotta coloured sand.
There are few animals to see until we arrive at the first waterhole, where deer, birds and waterfowl are drinking. Note to diary: Animals at waterhole. Animals drink water. Later I will learn to appreciate the smaller things, but for now I am impatient for bigger fish, or rather cats.
We sit, passive, reflecting the stillness in the water and in the air. After fifteen minutes pondering the lack of activity, we continue.
The next hour or so are spent driving up and down the roads, occasionally passing tumbledown buildings. Ranthambore used to be a Maharajah's' country pad. I contemplate these remnants of the Raj. A ramshackle gatehouse, a gazebo, a couple of walls, at right angles, futilely trying to hold each other up. Unused and uncared for. More listing than listed.
We drive on.
We come across a lone hyena, its shoulders hunched, shambling shiftily along a dry watercourse.
Suddenly there is a flurry of walkie talkie action, and we quickly drive to where some people imagined or wished they could see an animal that might have been a tiger in a different life. Excitement lifts, as does expectations. I have been in India a couple of months; I should have known better. We hang around for ten minutes, in this empty space where the tiger should be. Still it is at least getting warmer.
We drive on.
Anticipation and excitement are being replaced by boredom. Thoughts drift to food and drink. The two boiled/fried eggs seem a long time ago.
A few minutes later we arrive in a clearing, and come across two jeeps. They are parked askew, just off the road. The passengers are all looking and pointing in one direction. Our heads and eyes follow the pointed fingers and cameras. There. A tiger.
It is a moment of stillness and awe. Maybe the stillness I feel is partly the primal brain at full attention, deciding whether to fight or flee. There is no need for either.
A young male tiger, lying down; its head up, slowly moving from side to side. 50 metres beyond the tiger, a small herd of deer feed. A still, perfect moment. Unexpected, both in its arrival and its effect.
I feel a sudden surge of emotion and have to bear down before the tears arrive. I breathe, in, gently, and hold the air. If I do not exhale, maybe this moment will not pass.
A few seconds later I stop being part of this dynamic and become an observer. I grab my camera and snap away with little thought to composition or light.
The tiger seems used to humans; it appears to ignore us, maybe it registers us when its eyes sweep across the terrain. Do I want to be noticed by this magnificent animal? I feel as though I should have dressed with more care for this piece of drama.
He slowly rises. Head, then front feet lifting. He paces slowly to the right, occasionally glancing towards the deer. Each paw seems to be slowly, deliberately, set down on the ground. This is a hugely powerful animal. I remember playing with lion cubs in South Africa, their paws already as big as my hands, even though they were only a few months old.
A couple of minutes later, the tiger begins to move away, towards the deer; a kind of desultory stalking. The deer seem to guess as much, as they slowly move away, not yet startled into flight.
As it disappears into the bush, I feel glad to have had to chance to see this animal, and left wanting more. But we have to go, we cannot follow the tiger. The sense of achievement and fortune I feel remains. To have seen a tiger in the wild is a tremendous feeling. I left feeling exhilarated - and sad. There are only about 6,000 of these beautiful, magnificent animals left.
when the romance and emotion have receded, I thought
on the fate of the tiger. The fact is, any animal prepared
to stand, to fight for its territory, like the tiger,
is almost certainly doomed. The end will not be dramatic,
the pressure from human expansion will reduce their
habit, their numbers will slowly dwindle. Eventually,
there will be insufficient tigers to maintain the population.
Even my trip to the park is part of that encroachment.
But I am too selfish to resist the chance to see this
animal in the flesh. The fact that there are so few
tigers left makes them, ironically, even more attractive.
If you want to see tiger, do it now, while you can.
David O'Hanlon is a freelane writer living in the UK
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