The Year of the Tiger

In the Jungle with Sita, Part II
By Geoffrey C. Ward; Photographs by Michael Nichols
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Then, beginning about 1986, something else began to happen, something mysterious and deadly. Tigers began to disappear. It was eventually discovered that they were being poisoned and shot and snared so that their bones and other body parts could be smuggled out of India to supply the manufacturers of Chinese traditional medicines. Mixtures containing tiger parts have been used for centuries in China and in Chinese communities overseas. Millions of people believe in the efficacy of tiger parts against fever, rheumatism, and a host of other illnesses. After the virtual disappearance of the South Chinese tiger in the late 1980s, stockpiles of tiger bones were depleted, and resupplying them became a big business. No one knows how many tigers in India fell victim to this illicit trade, but the figures compiled by Ashok Kumar and Belinda Wright, whose tiny Wildlife Protection Society of India has spearheaded the fight against poaching on the subcontinent—94 tigers killed in 1994, 116 in 1995—represent only a small part of a very grim picture. Most poaching goes undetected, after all; the real number of butchered Indian tigers must have been much higher.

This deadly trade endangers not one but two embattled species: Tiger bones are smuggled northward across the Himalaya and bartered for wool taken from the carcasses of the increasingly rare chiru, or Tibetan antelope. The wool is used to make shahtoosh scarves, officially banned in most countries but still widely available and prized both for their warmth and a texture so fine that even a very large one can be pulled effortlessly through a finger ring. "One shahtoosh shawl equals one poached tiger," says P. K. Sen, the head of Project Tiger. "The murder of both these animals must be stopped."

Back on the track of Sita at Bandhavgarh, the sun was up and somewhere high above our heads a hive of bees, awakened by its warming rays, began to hum. The elephant continued to squelch his massive way through the swamp, leaving behind footprints as big around as wastebaskets.

There were signs of tigers everywhere. Pugmarks crisscrossed the inky mud. Deep within the tall grass lay a clutch of whitened bones, all that remained of a chital kill.

A sleek gray-brown jungle cat, the size of one of its domestic cousins, leaped soundlessly onto a fallen tree, the better to see down into the grass. Something small was moving there. The cat arced high into the air to maximize its pounce, disappeared for a moment, then returned to the log, a mouse wriggling in its mouth, and watched us pass before settling down to eat.

The mahout nudged his elephant to the left, toward a little stream that twists along the base of the hills.

The elephant began to rumble almost imperceptibly.

A tiger was nearby.

The mahout leaned forward, peering through the undergrowth.

Then, there was Sita, sprawled out in a clump of grass overlooking the stream. The crimson rib cage of a half-eaten chital rested just a few feet away. She gazed placidly at me, just as she had 11 years before. The noisy, odd-looking burdens on the backs of elephants don't seem to register with tigers as human beings—though the sight of a man or woman walking in the forest 200 yards away would have sent her rushing off into the forest. She rolled over and was soon fast asleep again, all four paws in the air, full white belly exposed to the sky.

There was no sign of the cubs. No tiny tracks in the mud, no faint, telltale cries among the distant birdcalls.

Had she lost this litter, just as she had lost her last one?

After some time, the mahout urged his elephant back from the tigress. He splashed across the stream, then along the bottom of the hillside.

The sun was high now, the forest silent.

We started climbing; the mahout's eyes were fixed on the hillside.

He stopped, smiled, and pointed upward through the leaves. It took me a moment to spot the three cubs the size of cocker spaniels lying on a little rock shelf perhaps a hundred feet above us. The two females dozed, but their brother was up and alert, his big ruffed head and his paws out of all proportion to his body. His bright eyes looked right past us, focused on his mother far below, waiting for her signal to clamber down the hill and eat.

Here at Bandhavgarh—and in every tiger forest where there remains enough to eat and human intruders are kept at bay—the life cycle of the great cats continues. Watching and listening, I remembered something Dale Miquelle had said to me. "We have to find the magic formula that allows man and tiger to coexist. That's not a dreamy goal. Finding it may be the key to man's survival as well. After all, we share the same ecosystem. If we can't save the most magnificent animal on earth, how can we save ourselves? I don't believe the tiger's cause is hopeless," he continued. "At least it's no more hopeless than our own."

Thanks to National Geographic Society for permission to adapt this piece from The Year of the Tiger, National Geographic Society, 1998.

Special thanks to Nina Rao of Rare Earth Explorations for arranging this feature.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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