The Year of the Tiger

In the Jungle with Sita, Part I
By Geoffrey C. Ward; Photographs by Michael Nichols
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Adapted from The Year of the Tiger, courtesy National Geographic Society. Thanks to Nina Rao of Rare Earth Explorations for arranging this feature.

I first saw the tigress called Sita in January 1987 in Bandhavgarh National Park in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. She lay asleep on a hillside when the elephant I was sharing with the Indian naturalist Hashim Tyabji found her, full-bellied after eating from the spotted deer that lay next to her and exhausted by the steady strain of having to feed and care for her first litter of three cubs. I could just make out the cubs cries from still higher up the slope amid the expectant cawing of the crows that teetered in the branches of the surrounding trees.

We were just 30 feet or so from the tigress, close enough to hear her steady, sonorous breathing. Three more elephants bearing tourists came and went over the next half hour or so. Cameras clicked. One overly eager photographer dropped a canister of film and the mahout loudly ordered his mount to pick it up with its trunk and return it to its owner. The tigress slept on, oblivious. Nothing seemed to faze her—nothing, until a rufous-and-white tree pie, smaller than a North American magpie, fluttered down onto her kill. She was up and fully awake in a millisecond, swatting at the terrified bird with one enormous forepaw and roaring so loudly the sky seemed to split.

It was the first time I'd been so close to so much tiger anger. I was thrilled but frightened, too, and looked to Hasliim for an explanation. Why had she become so furious so fast?

He smiled. "Tigers," he said, "do not like to share."

In the spring of 1997, I was back at Bandhavgarh starting out again at dawn, riding the same elephant with the same mahout, and looking for the same tigress.

Sita was said to be nearly 15 now, unusually old for a tigress in the wild, and she had given birth to five more litters over the 10 intervening years. A total of 18 cubs have been born to her. Just seven made it to adulthood. The rest all died or disappeared: One young male was killed by an adult male seeking to displace its father; another drowned in a monsoon flood. A female cub suffered from physical deformities, mysteriously lost her eyesight, then seemed to waste away. And all three offspring from Sita's fifth litter—born in March 1996—died barely two months later. No one knows for sure what happened to them.

Still, fewer than ten days after the loss of her fifth set of cubs, Sita was seen mating again, with the big, testy resident male. He is nicknamed Charger because of his enthusiasm for doing just that, once clawing his way up the back end of an elephant when it got too close and in the process traumatizing the visitors on board. (In fact, Charger has never actually harmed a human being; he rarely harms an animal for that matter. Rather than exert himself unduly, he prefers that Sita and the other three tigresses within his range do his killing for him, then he moves in for a free meal.)

The forest was still dark as we set out, and our fleet of five elephants moved along in almost total silence. But around us there were already morning sounds: Peacocks called from their nighttime roosts and were answered by the raucous barnyard crowing of jungle fowl, gaudy ancestors of the domestic chicken. Gray langur monkeys gave out the low self-satisfied hooting with which they greet the day and warn one another to be on alert.

Ahead of us we could just make out a broad stretch of swampy grassland, where I hoped to see Sita again and, if I was very lucky, catch a glimpse of the new litter of cubs said to be somewhere in the area, as well.

Well over half of the tigers surviving in the wild are believed to live in India and neighboring Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. When I started writing about Indian tigers in the early 1980s, their future, at least, seemed assured. Shooting them had been banned since 1970 and there were stiff penalties for anyone caught trying. Project Tiger, undertaken at the instigation of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1973, had set aside nine national parks for special protection (14 more have been added since). The core areas of these tiger reserves, off-limits to humans, were meant to be "breeding nuclei, from which surplus animals would emigrate to adjacent forests." Broad buffer zones, into which human incursions were to be strictly limited, were intended to protect the breeding grounds against disturbance. It was an extraordinary commitment for a relatively new nation beset by other, more pressing challenges; no Western country has ever mounted so serious an effort to save a magnificent but potentially deadly predator in such proximity to its citizens.

The program seemed to be working. In 1984 forestry officials declared that the number of wild tigers in India alone had more than doubled, from 1,827 individuals to better than 4,000. Project Tiger seemed so successful, its reserves were said to be so full of tigers, that some conservationists worried most about what would happen to all the surplus animals.

Then we began to get the bad news. The assassination of Mrs. Gandhi in 1984 swept from the scene Indian wildlife's most powerful defender. Afterward, as effective political power slowly shifted from the central government at New Delhi to local politicians in the individual states, enthusiasm for defending India's jungles slackened under pressure from ever growing numbers of poor voters who saw them primarily as easy sources of fuel, fodder, and forest products. The authenticity of the gains Project Tiger had claimed came into question as well. No one doubts that the number of tigers really had risen. But in reaching their ever more impressive tallies, forest officials had relied on identifying individual pugmarks, or paw prints—a system since shown to be unreliable—and then, concerned for their jobs if the number of animals under their care didn't steadily climb, some had inflated their already shaky findings well beyond the numbers the resident prey base could conceivably have sustained.

Meanwhile, the human population continued to climb. Promised forest corridors between the parks were turned into farmers' fields, inundated by dams, honeycombed with mines. Many of the "adjacent forests" to which the corridors were meant to lead simply vanished. There were fewer and fewer places to which young tigers could disperse, and more and more conflicts between tigers and human beings.

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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