Ranthambore National Park, India.
I knew they were out there somewhere, and I was determined to find them.
Like most tourists who visit Ranthambore National Park in India, I went with just one goal in mind: to see tigers in the wild.
Twice a day, all year round, 10 open-topped trucks are allowed to rumble along the park's dirt roads for a few hours. It costs 360 rupees (about $8, U.S.) to buy a seat on one of the trucks. Glimpses of tigers are free.
Starting off on a tiger safari at Ranthambore National Park, India.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. Forty tigers roam Ranthambore's 388 square miles. But tigers hear and smell us long before we can see them. Some tourists I met near the park were lucky enough to see a handful of tigers up close during just one safari. Other people saw none, even after going out six or more times.
Still, I couldn't pass up the excursion. It was an opportunity that might someday disappear. Tigers are among the most endangered animals on Earth.
In India, where about half of the planet's remaining 7,000 wild tigers live, tigers face a number of threats, especially from a growing human population. More than a billion people live in India today, and development is rapidly expanding into what was once largely tiger territory.
Conservationists nonetheless remain optimistic. "The tiger will not disappear," said P.K. Sen, director of the Tiger and Wildlife Program for World Wildlife Fund–India (WWF–India). He was kind enough to meet with me in his New Delhi office on a Sunday, the only day I spent in the city during a recent 3-week trip to India.
There's no way, Sen said, that people will ever let the majestic cats die out. "The tiger has been a symbol of strength and might for thousands of years," he said.
Hundreds of years ago, there were many more tigers on Earth than there are today. An estimated 40,000 tigers used to live in India, Sen said, an area that once included modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other neighboring lands.
P.K. Sen of WWF–India with a photo of sparring tigers.
From the beginning, tigers inspired awe, respect, and fear in people. And with good reason. An adult male Bengal tiger may weigh more than 500 pounds.
The graceful cats stalk, crouch, and explosively pounce on their prey, which includes deer, pigs, cattle, and other large animals. To kill, they grab the prey by its neck and either snap its spinal cord or suffocate the animal. One tiger can eat more than 40 pounds of fresh meat in one sitting.
Tigers repeatedly star in Indian stories as symbols of power and strength. The powerful Hindu god Shiva, for one, is often shown wearing a tiger skin. The Hindu goddess Durga rides a tiger into battle, symbolizing her ability to defeat demons that no one else can vanquish.
In palaces throughout India, I saw old paintings of maharajas, or rulers, on epic tiger hunts. Even though the hunters usually rode elephants into the jungle to protect themselves and used guns to hunt, killing one of the planet's most powerful animals was a way for men to show off their own strength. A successful hunt usually brought home one or two dead tigers.
As weapons grew more sophisticated, though, one hunter could kill more than 1,000 tigers in a lifetime, Sen said. At the same time, the Indian government decided that tigers were a threat to people and offered rewards for killing them.
"Can you believe that I have seen in my lifetime as little as 20 rupees (that's 40 cents) paid by the government for shooting a tiger," Sen said.
Beginning early in the 20th century, tourists from around the world flocked to India just to shoot tigers. By the late 1960s, however, most visitors couldn't find any. A rough count at that time turned up fewer than 2,000 tigers in all of India.
Losing tigers would be an enormous disaster, Sen said. Tigers are important predators at the top of a food chain. They play a vital role in India's ecosystems.
Without tigers to keep deer populations in check, for instance, deer would multiply out of
control and eat up all the vegetation in an area. That could lead to flooding or soil changes. Silt could fill rivers that people depend on for irrigating their fields.
Losing tigers would also be a shame because the animals are so breathtakingly beautiful and impressive. "If you see a tiger in the wild, you will fall in love," Sen told me, as we sat sipping cups of spicy milk tea. "You'll simply be hypnotized."
"You forget everything when you see a tiger," he said. "Every movement is phenomenal. They are powerful, swift, cunning, smart, charming. They are the most attractive things in the world."
Sen is not alone in his passion for tigers. The animals are now so important to India's national identity that the government started a program called Project Tiger in 1973 to put aside land just for the protection of tigers. Today, there are 27 tiger reserves, covering more than 37,000 square miles.
Tigers are thriving inside the reserves. Outside of them, however, things aren't going quite as well. As human populations grow, conflicts between people and tigers are becoming more common, and tigers usually lose. When tigers attack grazing cattle, for instance, farmers often retaliate by poisoning the cats.
In response, WWF–India is setting up a compensation program in a number of areas around the country. When someone's cow is killed by a tiger, WWF–India will give that person money to make up for the loss and turn him away from taking matters into his own hands. The money comes from donors to WWF–India.
Other organizations are battling the problem of poaching. Some people illegally kill tigers to sell their valuable bones, furs, and other body parts. The Wildlife Protection Society of India, for one, helps officials nab poachers and seize their wares.
Disappointed with my safari and desperate for at least one tiger experience in India, I decided to go to the zoo in New Delhi on my last day in the country. In a fenced-off area, I saw two tigers lying lazily in the sunshine. One looked at me and yawned. The other barely twitched a whisker.
A Bengal tiger at the New Delhi zoo in India.
As I was about to leave the zoo to catch my airplane home, I heard a spine-chilling roar. There, behind me, was a giant Bengal tiger pacing fiercely around a small cage. A crowd of people gathered to watch the tiger strut and bare its teeth.
The sight was both magnificent and terrifying. I was glad the cage bars were strong. Maybe I didn't need to see a tiger in the wild after all.