I want the species to outlive me, and for tigers to continue sailing past us, unconcerned and unworried. And I can only hope there is enough distance between our devious plans and the wild tiger
The sun shone with the intense clarity that comes in between rain showers. It’s as if the centre of the galaxy felt angry that its shining face had been blocked by monsoonal banks of clouds, and it was now compensating for its absence.
The trees in the forest moved occasionally, shedding baggages of water from their arms. It had rained some time ago, and the larger leaves in the lower canopy still had a filigree of drops on them, now glistening like crystals in the deep, sunflower yellow sunshine.
We were on a research visit. This meant uncomfortable living conditions, sparse food, mornings that began as the night still lay on the land, days of long walks, and nights with visits by mosquitoes. It alternated between two states only: pure, joyous surprise, and aches in newly discovered spots.
I was looking for a tiger, and it was nowhere to be seen. In the intense heat from the cloudless sky, my skin had started to sizzle. I felt my chin and lips doing a slow burn, my forearms already feeling raw with exposure. The vehicle rattled me like I was a can of beans being kicked around. I wanted to throw a tantrum, deciding this was the leg of fieldwork that was closer to pain than pleasure.
“Let’s turn around,” I said quietly.
Everyone was exhausted, and we had a lot of data entry to do. The brakes were pulled, and the old vehicle was slowly turned around. But the mud of the forest has its own mind. Depending on which part of the country you are in, it changes colour. It can be red and sticky, yellow and dusty, a rich brown that changes into a rust hue when wet. In the rains, dry, sparse-looking mud becomes a treacle of surprise. And if you’re really tired and in a bit of a hurry, your vehicle is likely to get stuck.
Before I could cluck my tongue in annoyance, we were royally stuck in wet mud. The angle was odd – we were facing neither side of the road. We tried to revv the engine in the least noisy way, resulting in embarrassing sounds that echoed our guilt at making so much noise in a place where animals lived.
Just then, she came.
A tigress walked out of the bush and into our view, huge, calm, poised and utterly nonchalant. We were in her way, and she already knew that. She must have heard us a while before. She was unfazed and unsurprised at our stupidity. She walked forward, towards us, her face coming closer like something out of a dream. As she drew nearer, she did so without batting an eyelid. And without looking at us.
As she came within an arm’s length of our car, she slid off the path with the natural ease of water running down a hill. Then she rejoined the path, tail swaying with her graceful walk. I was staring, slack-jawed and openmouthed, each nerve ready to sing in equal amounts of nervousness and joy. Her beauty, her closeness, her eyes – that is all that I could think of.
The same eyes that did not deign to fall on us. We were utterly useless to her scheme of things. She was unconcerned with our efforts with the car, with our field notes, and our presence. She seemed completely in control of herself, while we were hot, sticky, embarrassed, and with hearts clanging loudly in our chests.
And then, she turned.
Her face drew back into a snarl, whiskers prickling with power. The snarl was a soft command, a warning in a universal language all creatures would understand. “Don’t follow me.”
Tigers probably know the front side of a car. She knew we would go in the direction she was walking in, even if we were momentarily stuck.
And then, she was gone.
The only thing that remained was a row of pugmarks on the muddy path. The pawprints lay like a neat necklace, its motifs missing from the place where the car stood. A leaf swayed where her body had brushed past, and the air seemed to simmer from the presence of an imperious, intelligent spirit whose sheer size does not come in the way of its total ease.
That tigress, so at home in the heat, the mud and flies, the thorns of dry Indian trees, and the prickle of hunger on a day when she cannot catch prey – was never designed to escape a mega dam or a searing railway line.
It strikes me that tigers actually need so little from us, other than our benign neglect. They require habitat and a good prey base, and for us to give them space. The fact that the first tiger I photographed looked at me just once, was testimony to the idea that they exist so beautifully without us.
Yet, our actions force confrontation with an animal that basically wants to be left alone.
While we celebrate our slowly growing tiger numbers, we should actually be looking at where tigers live, and how these landscapes can remain connected with each other. It is only with the connectivity of forests bearing tigers that there can be genetic fitness and a healthy population. Genetic studies show that tigers from areas that are relatively cut off from other habitat (such as Ranthambhore and Sariska), have less genetic diversity.
And a slew of recent infrastructure projects are proposed near and in tiger reserves. Dams near Panna and Kamlang tiger reserves, railway lines in Melghat and near Kali tiger reserves, highway expansions all over Central Indian reserves.
While the tiger does not look at us, we don’t see it either, as we erase maps of forest to raise Frankenstein projects.
That tigress, so at home in the heat, the mud and flies, the thorns of dry Indian trees, and the prickle of hunger on a day when she cannot catch prey – was never designed to escape a mega dam or a searing railway line. Instead of bypassing and securing the forests, we are taking cities to places which are not even fully motorable after a strong shower.
The tigress that looked at me just once was the first one I photographed. After that, I have seen many tigers, several of which did not have the time to look at me.
Yet, one feels the eye of destructive projects is always on the riches of forests. While the tiger does not look at us, we don’t see it either, as we erase maps of forest to raise Frankenstein projects.
The beautiful, snarling tigress died soon after I saw her. Life in the wild is never easy. Tigresses that raise cubs alone know that well. The tiger, shorn of nervousness, seems to know life is short: it has to get on with the hunt, with its rest, with the business of raising or siring cubs.
I want the species to outlive me, and for tigers to continue sailing past us, unconcerned and unworried. And I can only hope there is enough distance between our devious plans and the wild tiger; enough distance so it can see us, but choose to look away.
All photos are the author’s own
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