Sunday, March 6, 2016

TIGER TALE: a true story


     On March 4 we were at Corbett National Park in the foothills of the Himalayas, in India. On the second day we did a safari where our guide explained we had a “chance” to see a wild tiger.
      Okay, I’ll admit it: I was a total skeptic. I mean, I know that wild tigers still exist in the Indian subcontinent, though in diminished numbers.  Naturalists estimate about only about 2,400 wild tigers are left. Corbett itself has about 240 tigers. But it’s a huge park—20,000 square kilometers. 240 tigers  in such a large area is like adding a spoonful of salt to a kettle of soup. You’d hardly notice it.
            We had met a friendly German guy at our lodge, another birder like us.
            “What’s your target bird here in Corbett?” I asked him.
            “Tiger,” he said with an infectious grin. “That’s why I’m here. I love huge mammals.”
            Yes, well, who doesn't? This fellow later went on two safaris but didn’t see any tigers, so he left feeling disappointed.
            Anyway, we left on our safari at about 2 pm: JoAnn, our guide Mahendra, a guide from the Corbett park, and driver. We were in an open jeep, no windows or roof, so there was precious little protection against any wild beasts. We jolted along on the rocky road; I concentrated on keeping my camera lens from smashing against the side. The park itself seemed dry though beautiful. Over the next hour or so we did see some fascinating owls and birds.
            “Wait,” Mahendra said. The jeep slowed to a stop. He stood up on the seat. “The spotted deer are making warning sounds.”
            Another jeep came. The guides exchanged words in Hindi.
            "What are they saying?"
            “The deer are nervous,” Mahendra said.
            For a long moment nobody said anything. 
            “There!” Mahendra cried softly, pointing at a field of tall, dry grass. “Tiger!”
            We jumped up, craning our necks. For the next five minutes we studied every inch of the field, but nobody could see anything.
            “Must be lying down,” Mahendra muttered. “Drive to the other side of this field.”
            So we did.
            “There!” Mahendra cried again. “Tiger!”
            JoAnn had her binocs glued to her face. “I see it!”
            The other guide and driver saw it, too. But I did not.
            “Where?” I asked, frantically scanning the grass. 
            “There!” JoAnn whispered, pointing. “See it?”
            “No.”  I couldn't see anything but endless blades of grass. I felt a stab of frustration. Was this some kind of ghost tiger only certain people could see?
            “Right over there,” Mahendra said. “Watch the grass moving.”
            Finally I saw something.

            At first it seemed like the grass had somehow thickened. I could make out vertical lines in the grass, but now other lines—darker, thicker—had inserted themselves.

      “It’s coming toward us!” Mahendra said softly.

            The grass was moving, or something below was making it move. It almost seemed as if the individual grasses were coalescing to create the shape of an immense animal.

            “Oh my God,” JoAnn whispered.


  The creature moved slowly and steadily, a study in nonchalance, not the least bit concerned that it was being watched. 

    Now it stood before us: a Royal Bengal tiger. Female. Nine feet from head to tail. Not a fiber of its being broken by mankind.

   Time stopped.

 She paused at the edge of the road, no more than 25 feet in front of us.

    More than fear I felt awe.

 I felt a surge of tears that such a creature could still exist on our planet. 

And when she stepped into the bush I got an intense feeling, one that’s hard to put into words. Shaken to my core. Inspired, of course, but also lessened in some way. My own self-importance, I guess, taken down a notch. I felt like a shadow when she finally disappeared.   

Ralph Fletcher
March 6, 2016