A low, urgent whisper. “Did you hear that?” My guide Balveer points to a bush in front of us. Maybe I’m a little tired, a little dehydrated. The terrible thing is, I just can’t tell whether I heard. For two weeks I’ve been waking at 4:30 am. I’ve spent long hot days tumbling about in a dusty open jeep hunting for Bengal tigers in India. I try listening again. Yes… I think I really did just hear the sound of tiger teeth crunching through bone.
Tigers feel so familiar. I see them on face-painted toddlers, fanatical football fans, tattooed boxers, and of course, tiger onesies. A symbol of strength, stealth and seduction. In reality though, there are less than 4,000 tigers in the wild, a staggering drop in two generations from 40,000 tigers in 1970. The Bali, Caspian, Java and South China tiger are all now extinct in the wild.
Searching for the remaining tigers means looking for echoes of where they might have been. A desperate sifting of evidence, frantically combining information on sightings with knowledge of tiger behaviour. Listening for the eerie alarm calls of deer and jungle fowl. Scattering dancing macaques. Chasing up and down bumpy tracks looking for fresh pug, scat and scratch marks. Scanning tree tops for crows – suggesting a tiger on a kill – or tentatively, reluctantly, sniffing for the distinctive, pungent smell of a rotting carcass after two or three days in the baking heat.
But all too often, we come to an abrupt, clattering, deflating stop as the signs disappear.
This time however we’re very close. The bone crunching has stopped. Silence. The tension is finally broken by the thwang of a branch and scrunch of paws on dried leaves. Quickly, panicking, I reposition myself, raise my camera, desperate for a shot of that most elusive wild tiger as it moves through the undergrowth.