On Global Tiger Day, three conservationists, wildlife photographers and filmmakers tell Anusha Parthasarathy about their first tiger sighting
Majestic. Enigmatic. Awe-inspiring. Most importantly, difficult to sight. And, even rarer is a chance to view the drama that unfolds during its prey attack — alarm calls, fleeing mammals, the ambush, the low growls and finally, the calculated strike... Though millions of tourists, wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists frequent the jungles in search of the elusive big cat and the drama, only a few get lucky.
S. Theodore Baskaran
Naturalist, WWF-trustee and author of The Dance of the Sarus
Our family has a tradition of spending New Year in a wildlife sanctuary. On one such trip to Bandipur, we were driving with a naturalist guide in search of the shama. It’s a rare bird to sight and one of the most beautiful singers. We stopped at a thicket, watching and listening to the bird on a tree to our left.
Suddenly, a langur gave an alarm, and we knew a big cat was on the move. We turned off the engine and just about 50 mt away, a tiger crossed us. It was a transcendental experience. The tiger is on the top of the food chain; it is not afraid of anything in the jungle. When it walked past us that day, it looked as if it owned the jungle. This was 11 years ago, and I have spotted tigers many times since in Mudhumalai, Ranthambore, Kanha and Top Slip.
Wildlife photographer and filmmaker
My first sighting of a wild tiger happened one early morning, on a field trip during my Masters days. I studied Wildlife Biology from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, and we were taken on visits to different sanctuaries. That morning we were trekking on the Shiwalik range on the foothills of the Himalayas. The landscape is quite spectacular with fragile, steep ridges and valleys with rocky, river beds. We had just reached the top of a ridge and were scouring the slopes for goral (Himalayan mountain goat) when we heard deer alarm calls. There were nine of us and the echo from the ridges was driving us crazy because we couldn’t pin its source. Suddenly, from among the bushes, two spotted deer appeared on the dry riverbed nearly 300 ft below us. Their tails were up and they were stomping the ground in tense deliberation. I was completely engrossed in them when a friend, who was an expert with tigers grabbed my arm and pointed to an opening about hundred ft from the deer. A magnificent male tiger crossed the river bed, his coat bathed in the beautiful morning light. A faint mist was rising from the water pools and I stared at him, completely mesmerised. It was just for a few seconds, but the memory of that tiger is etched in my mind forever. That’s where I also learnt an important lesson — if you spot animals calling out an alarm, don’t look at them but at where they’re looking, and you might just spot your first tiger!
In 1987, I was at Bandhavgarh National Park and we were waiting in a vehicle when we spotted Sita. She had grown to be on the cover of National Geographic, and was one of the most photographed tigresses in the park. I spent four-and-a-half years along with a friend, tracking her and getting her to habituate to the elephant and the camera. When she had a litter, we were trying to spot the cubs. They’re so small, it’s rather difficult to find them from atop an elephant. So we got down and the protective mother that she was, she charged at us. But just a few feet away, when she saw who we were, she stopped, growled a warning and walked away. That maturity in an animal and that connection we had with her at that moment is something I’ll never forget. I have spent 17 years of my life filming tigers, and my job has been to record the unrecorded aspects, such as the tiger making a kill. There are so many animals in the forest, and yet, there is something about a tiger that catches people’s eyes; the animal’s sheer power and aura is alluring.