Ranthambore National Park, India
Dawn, and mist holds the forest. Only a short stretch of red dirt track can be seen. Suddenly—emerging from the red-gold haze of dust and misted light—a tigress ambles into view. First she stops to rub her right-side whiskers against a roadside tree. Then she crosses the road and rubs her left-side whiskers. Then she turns to regard us with a look of infinite and bored indifference.
And then, as if relenting, she reaches up the tree to claw the bark, turning her profile to us, and with it the full impact of her tigerness—the improbable, the gorgeous, the iconographic and visibly powerful flanks.
The tiger. Panthera tigris, largest of all the big cats, to which even biological terminology defers with awed expressions like "apex predator," "charismatic megafauna," "umbrella species." One of the most formidable carnivores on the planet, and yet, amber-coated and patterned with black flames, one of the most beautiful of creatures.
Consider the tiger, how he is formed. With claws up to four inches long and retractable, like a domestic cat's, and carnassial teeth that shatter bone. While able to achieve bursts above 35 miles an hour, the tiger is built for strength, not sustained speed. Short, powerful legs propel his trademark lethal lunge and fabled leaps. Recently, a tiger was captured on video jumping—flying—from flat ground to 13 feet in the air to attack a ranger riding an elephant. The eye of the tiger is backlit by a membrane that reflects light through the retina, the secret of his famous night vision and glowing night eyes. The roar of the tiger—Aaaaauuuunnnn!—can carry more than a mile.
For weeks I had been traveling through some of the best tiger habitat in Asia, from remote forests to tropical woodlands and, on a previous trip, to mangrove swamps—but never before had I seen a tiger. Partly this was because of the animal's legendarily secretive nature. The tiger is powerful enough to kill and drag prey five times its weight, yet it can move through high grass, forest, and even water in unnerving silence. The common refrain of those who have witnessed—or survived—an attack is that the tiger "came from nowhere."
But the other reason for the dearth of sightings is that the ideal tiger landscapes have very few tigers. The tiger has been a threatened species for most of my lifetime, and its rareness has come to be regarded matter-of-factly, as an intrinsic, defining attribute, like its dramatic coloring. The complacent view that the tiger will continue to be "rare" or "threatened" into the foreseeable future is no longer tenable. In the early 21st century, tigers in the wild face the black abyss of annihilation. "This is about making decisions as if we're in an emergency room," says Tom Kaplan, co-founder of Panthera, an organization dedicated to big cats. "This is it."
The tiger's enemies are well-known: Loss of habitat exacerbated by exploding human populations, poverty—which induces poaching of prey animals—and looming over all, the dark threat of the brutal Chinese black market for tiger parts. Less acknowledged are botched conservation strategies that for decades have failed the tiger. The tiger population, dispersed among Asia's 13 tiger countries, is estimated at fewer than 4,000 animals, though many conservationists believe there are hundreds less than that. To put this number in perspective: Global alarm for the species was first sounded in 1969, and early in the '80s it was estimated that some 8,000 tigers remained in the wild. So decades of vociferously expressed concern for tigers—not to mention millions of dollars donated by well-meaning individuals—has achieved the demise of perhaps half of the already imperiled population.
My determination to see a wild tiger in my lifetime brought me to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, one of 40 in India. My first tiger was spotted within ten minutes, and in a four-day excursion I gloried in nine sightings, including a repeat appearance of that first tiger, a three-year-old female. In high grass she stalked with such patient, focused, deliberateness—each paw raised in slow motion and placed so very gently down—that it was possible to see her stealth.
It didn't matter that in most cases my experience was shared with a queue of other vehicles. Seeing tigers in the wild is now mostly a tourist experience—the Bengal tiger is not only India's national animal but also one of the country's largest draws. Elsewhere, my tiger-seeking travels had been made on rough roads, by river, forest trails, and even elephant, but in Ranthambore I departed at dawn in a jeep that awaited me outside the Oberoi lodge. In the jeep were a ranger, a guide, and most necessary in a place where tiger viewing is a blood sport, an expert driver, who barged ruthlessly to the head of the queue, ensuring me of that first, mystical tiger sighting.
India is home to some 50 percent of the world's wild tigers. The 2010 census reported a maximum estimate of 1,909 in the country—up 20 percent from the previous estimate. While welcome news, most authorities regard the new figure as reflecting better census methods rather than growth of the tiger population: Tiger counts, in India or elsewhere, are still at best only estimates.
A modest 41 of these carefully enumerated tigers were living in Ranthambore. Conducting me through the park one morning, conservator Raghuvir Singh Shekhawat pointed out the variety of wildlife that flourishes where the tiger is protected—langur monkeys, spotted deer, wild boars, collared Scops-owls, kingfishers, and parakeets. And he offered a ground-level glimpse of tiger conservation, stopping his jeep beside a canvas tent in a clearing. "Would you like to see the hard life the field officers lead?" he asked, lifting a tent flap to reveal three slender cots. "Here is their kitchen," he said, gesturing to a pile of canned food and bowls. "In 30 years of service, at least five years is under the tent." The rangers put in up to ten miles a day on early morning foot patrol, taking plaster casts of any pugmarks they encounter and making notes of evidence of prey animals.
Ranthambore's history reflects in miniature the history of the tiger in India. Formerly the private hunting estate of the maharajas of Jaipur, its original 109-square-mile core reserve is ringed by a containing wall, within which undulating forest skirts romantic maharaja-era ruins. One evening I met with Fateh Singh Rathore, the assistant field director of Ranthambore after it became one of India's first Project Tiger reserves in 1973. Tiger hunting was legal in India until the early 1970s, and as a young man, in the days when Ranthambore had been a hunting estate, he had worked as a game warden. "To shoot a tiger, maybe a hundred rupees," he recalled—a couple of dollars.
Always fragile, tiger populations have fluctuated in recent years. Between 2002 and 2004, poaching of some 20 tigers in Ranthambore essentially halved its population. This was better than the fate of the nearby 300-square-mile Sariska Tiger Reserve, found to have no tigers at all: Every single one of its tigers had been killed by professional gangs—and in a reserve just 70 miles from India's capital, New Delhi.
Ranthambore is a hub for a contentious new conservation strategy—the relocation of "surplus" tigers to places like Sariska. Only days before, at a wildlife conference in New Delhi, I had heard heated criticism and questions from India's many outspoken watchdog organizations challenging the strategy: What constitutes a surplus tiger? Had the issues in Sariska and elsewhere been solved before importing new tigers? What research had been conducted regarding potential trauma to both the transported tiger and the home population from which it was taken? And what effect might such trauma have on breeding?
So far, relocation has met with uneven success. Three tigers transported to Sariska were found to be siblings—undesirable for breeding. More eloquent than any of the valid scientific concerns was a story unfolding in the national media: The determined trek toward his home 250 miles away by a lone male removed from Pench Tiger Reserve to restock Panna National Park.
The trek of this solitary tiger highlights another crisis. Many reserves exist as islands of fragile habitat in a vast sea of humanity, yet tigers can range over a hundred miles, seeking prey, mates, and territory. An unwelcome revelation of the new census is that nearly a third of India's tigers live outside tiger reserves, a situation that is dangerous for both human and animal. Prey and tigers can only disperse if there are recognized corridors of land between protected areas to allow unmolested passage. No less critical, such passages serve as genetic corridors, essential to the long-term survival of the species.
It is a heady experience to see an idealistic map of Asia's tiger landscapes linked by arteries of these not-yet-existent corridors. A spiderweb of green tendrils weaves tantalizingly among core populations to form a network that encompasses breathtaking extremes of habitat—Himalayan foothills, jungle, swamp, deciduous forest, grasslands—that pay tribute to the tiger's adaptability. Close scrutiny breaks the spell. The places that have actual tigers—here-and-now, flesh-and-blood tigers—as opposed to hypothetical tigers, are represented by a scattering of mustard-colored blobs. The master plan represents a visionary undertaking, but is it feasible? Over the next decade, infrastructure projects—the kind of development that often destroys habitat—are projected to average some $750 billion a year in Asia.
"I've never met a head of state who says, 'Look, we're a poor country, if it comes between tigers and people, you just have to write off tigers,'" said Alan Rabinowitz, a renowned authority on tigers and the CEO of Panthera. "The governments don't want to lose their most majestic animal. They consider it part of what makes their country what it is, part of the cultural heritage. They won't sacrifice a lot to save it, but if they can see a way to save it, they will usually do it."
Seeing a way has proved difficult amid the plethora of tiger strategies, programs, and initiatives jostling for attention—and funding. The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save the Tiger Fund (which has now partnered with Panthera), Global Tiger Patrol, Saving Wild Tigers, All for Tigers!, WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Panthera, International Year of the Tiger Foundation, the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative—the list is impressive. "Five to six million dollars is spent a year for tigers, from all philanthropic organizations," said Mahendra Shrestha, former director of the Save the Tiger Fund, which gave grants totaling more than $17 million between 1995 and 2009. "In many instances the NGOs and tiger-range governments just fight each other."
Long-term conservation must focus on all aspects of a tiger landscape: core breeding populations, inviolate sanctuaries, wildlife corridors, and the surrounding human communities. In an ideal world, all would be funded; as it is, different agencies adopt different strategies for different components. With time running out, tough priorities must be set. "Since the 1990s, there has been what I would sum up as mission drift," said Ullas Karanth of the WCS, who is one of the world's most respected tiger biologists. The drift toward tiger conservation activities like eco-development and social programs, which possibly have greater fund-raising appeal than antipoaching patrols, siphons funds and energy from the single most vital task: safeguarding core breeding populations of tigers. "If these are lost," Karanth said, "you will have tiger landscapes with no tigers."
Decades of experience and failures have yielded a conservation strategy that, according to Rabinowitz, "allows any site or landscape to increase its tigers if followed correctly." Central to this protocol are relentless, systematic, boots-on-the-ground patrolling and monitoring of both tiger and prey in those sites assessed as harboring realistically defensible core tiger populations. Under the protocol, a population of a mere half dozen breeding females can rebound. Such, at least, is the hope for the largest single protected tiger reserve on Earth, a remote valley in northern Myanmar.