I really wanted to see a tiger. Past efforts sent me looking in Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand as well as many months poking into the various tiger habitats of India and Nepal. I had seen tracks and was close on several occasions, including a wonderful- there he is right there- instant when atop an elephant in Manas, but I did not have my tiger. I have seen cheetah, lion and leopard in Africa. Watched a Jaguar swim a river in Peru, a cougar followed me while I hiked alone here in Montana, and I had a tiny speck on a distant dry hillside in Tibet pointed out to me as a snow leopard. But still no tiger, despite that the species is the largest and territorially most successful of all the cats. Yes, the leopard does occupy a larger area range, but where their territory overlaps, tigers do prey on leopards. Indeed, the tiger is alone among the large cats in that it has no natural predator, nothing looks at the tiger and thinks—meal. Hyenas prey on lions, leopards and cheetah. Wolves, coyotes and sometimes, though rarely, bears prey on cougars, which is also true for the snow leopard. While the South American jaguar must always be wary as it is on the dinner menu for anacondas and crocodiles. I could say, with a sense of humor, it is a jungle out there and that is what helps to make the tiger so unique.
In 2000, just after I met the woman of my dreams, I was in Nepal and on my way to Royal Bardia, a beautiful park lying in the Gangetic plains of western Nepal hard against the border with India. I had traveled via the impossible long overnight bus ride from Kathmandu, 12 hours of too loud music played over a long since worn out speaker system. As it grew just light enough to see, the crowded bus stopped in the wee early morning, and I climbed and crawled off the bus then stood along the road waiting for my just now awake eyes to adjust. A voice asked from the darkness, “are you John?” then a hand touched my shoulder. I replied then the hand guided me to a waiting safari car. The light grew steadily as the driver introduced himself before we began down the road for the resort where I would stay.
Very early the next morning, I bounced along in that same safari car with the same driver and a guide named Mohan, with us where two people from England, Neil and Liz Pitts. The couple really wanted to see a tiger, perhaps as much as I did. Our guide’s plan was to have us down by an oxbow of the Karnali River well before first light. He knew a spot where tigers often swam the river for the day protection of the national park after leaving the fields and villages, where they roamed at night. We sat quiet and expectant, waiting while the light. The heat grew, but no tiger. Oh well. We motored along in our safari car, checking several less well-used river crossing sites. We saw lots of deer and a rhino, but no tiger, not even a track. Mohan told us we would check one more place, a place where he sometimes saw wild elephants and then we would return to our lodge.
Our guide was first down the misty trail then our driver followed by Neil then his wife Liz. I brought up the rear. Damp low morning clouds rose like smoke. We were almost to a braid of the river, when the path broke out of the sal forest and into tall riverine elephant grass. In a tree to our right, across a good stretch of open ground from the main forest, was a large agitated troop of macaques, Macaca mulatta. Our trail went near this tree then down through the tall grass to the river. Our guide and driver were through the grass to the riverbank and Neil was almost to them when we heard the growl.
We all heard the growl.
Liz stopped short with me at her shoulder. She looked ahead to her husband and I looked right into the grass. The growl came again and had I the nerve I could have bent down and stroked the fur on the big cat’s head! But the tigress acted first, she reversed and raced through the grass out across the open river bank then threw herself into the river eventually disappearing on the opposite bank. Despite the distance covered, this took less than the time for one rapid breath.
At once, the macaques jumped down from the tree and hurried across the open ground to the forest.
The five of us gathered on the riverbank, in the open. With nothing near enough to hide anything large, we looked about and nervous-blinked our eyes until Mohan laughed then we all laughed that anxious laugh of the survivor.
Back at our safari car, we surmised that the tigress had come upon the monkey troop as they went to the river for a drink. No doubt, she surprised them and they rushed up into that isolated tree to avoid her, but then they were cut-off from the forest. The tigress knew her business, the day would heat, and the macaques would have to find shade or roast in the hot sun. If they stayed up in the tree, the heat would kill them. It was a matter of time before one of the monkeys made the dash for the deep forest and safety. What the tigress had not planned on were tourists coming along and ruining her hunt.
To this day, the sound of something heavy swishing in the grass makes me stop. And sometimes, late at night when I wake with a start, I can still hear the growl, feel the tigress near. We were lucky, all of us, that day, the tigress chose to run rather than change her menu. It was ever so spooky to be so near such a large predatory animal and not see her until she became angry with us and snarled her warning. There are those times when adventure becomes a tad too adventurous.
Last on my cat list is the cloud leopard. I understand they are difficult to see in the wild as they spend their lives up in the canopy and avoid contact with humans. This last little bit of information suits me just fine. Cheers.
Postscript: I wrote this years ago for my friend, Susan Sharma at the India Wildlife Club and for one reason or another she didn't publish it. Then I found it while looking for something else this morning. Seems like a long time ago but the memory holds strong.