[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
To my guide, the soft dust read like a newspaper report of the night’s drama. Tiger pugmarks the size of dinner plates were punctuated by a mysterious shorthand scrawl that told the story of the recent demise of a chital fawn. To me it seemed like very circumstantial evidence, but Aditya Singh identified the murderess as ‘The Lady of the Lake’.
Playing a dim Watson to his worldly Holmes, I asked him where she would go now.
“She’ll need to kill again soon,” the ace tiger tracker said confidently. “A single fawn isn’t much of a meal for a full-grown tigress and two cubs.”
We’d been tracking tigers through Rajasthan’s Ranthambore National Park, in India, for three days. That’s a long time to be looking for something, but there had never been a dull moment. The wooded valleys were thick with rutting deer, and monkeys chased each other around the ruined temples like crowds of rowdy Jungle Book extras. Aditya explained that this was a boom period for the local tigers: peacocks were so busy posturing for peahens that they made an easy snack and the sturdy sambar stags were so exhausted with courtship that they were lazy prey for the world’s biggest cat.
The rising sun was already giving a taste of its powerful midday heat when we drove across a dry streambed where a troop of langur monkeys were hugging the night’s coolness out of the rocks. Suddenly a harsh bark echoed through the bush and the monkeys squealed and scampered into the trees. It was the warning alarm call of a sambar stag – a clear sign that something dangerous was stalking the bushes nearby.
The suspense that had been steadily building seemed to be almost overflowing from our little open-topped jeep as we rattled onwards, sleuthing after the Lady of the Lake. It’s incredible how alert the primordial human senses suddenly become when you think you might be within pouncing distance of a 600-pound super-predator with six-inch fangs. Aditya was certain that the tiger was around here somewhere. We scanned the dense grass until our eyes watered and we strained our ears for fresh news from what the legendary hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett called ‘the jungle folk’.
Corbett – who spent decades tracking and dispatching some of the sub-continent’s most feared man-eaters – knew that the surest way to find this master of camouflage was to wait for one of the better-equipped jungle dwellers to report his whereabouts.
This time word came to us from an unlikely direction. I would have overlooked the crow and the ubiquitous group of Indian tree pies that fluttered through the trees. Aditya had been studying their agitated behaviour, however: “They’re watching a kill. They won’t come down because the tiger is still close…”
He trailed off into silence and I followed his stare to a movement in the grass. A huge tiger had silently materialised there. As if sensing that the game was up, an almost full-grown cub stood up beside her. Then another rose to its feet just behind them. Three big tigers had been crouched in the grass barely 40 feet from us and we hadn’t seen a thing.
The orange and black stripes that appear so vivid in a zoo or in photographs make incredibly effective camouflage. Throughout seven more sightings in the following week, I would realise, with a distinct feeling of discomfort, how easy it is to turn away from a tiger in the bush, only to be unable to spot it again when you turn back a moment later.
Ranthambore is the only place in Rajasthan where you can see tigers in the wild but the park has a chequered history. For the first 15 years it remained the unofficial hunting reserve of a local maharaja and, more recently, there have been bouts of such heavy poaching that nobody is certain today how many tigers remain. Recent estimates have run to as low as 15. Carefully nurtured tourism is perhaps the only thing that stands between these awe-inspiring predators and extinction.
As we watched, spellbound, the Lady of the Lake licked the last taste of the chital from her white muzzle, gave a slight yawn and, with her powerful shoulders rippling, led her offspring silently away. One of the cubs turned to look back at us one last time. Then they walked away – the second cub swatting playfully at the tip of its sibling’s tail – until they disappeared into the dusty air. That was when I remembered to breathe again.
Watching a Bengal tiger in its wild habitat is certainly one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles and there are many anecdotes about how it is a potentially life-changing experience. Bill Clinton visited Ranthambore and described the sighting of a big male as “one of the most memorable moments of my life”.
As I sat around a campfire sipping gin and tonic that previous evening, Aditya’s wife, Poonam, told me how a single sighting 10 years ago had inspired her and her husband to leave successful careers in New Delhi to establish Ranthambhore Bagh Resort. “I was absolutely floored,” she said. “I couldn’t understand how I’d gone through all those years without truly understanding that such magnificent creatures really exist out here.”
For simple ways to improve your photographs of animals, take a read through these tips from pro wildlife photographer Dale Morris.