Beside the Malani River in northern India, where the plains fold into Himalayan foothills, I saw my first wild tiger. She stalked out of grass yellowed by dry winter weather, crossed a dirt road in front of my safari jeep, traced a ridge and then disappeared into a dense forest.
As her fiery black-and-orange coat faded into shadows, I felt a surge of euphoria. Tigers are one of the world’s greatest predators, a muscular cat capable of sprinting 60kph and killing animals several times their size.
The tigress was also a reminder of a natural world quickly being extinguished by mankind. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the world’s tiger population has fallen from 100,000 to 4,000 animals.
India has the largest share of the great beasts, but the most recent government survey found only 1,411 tigers. They are threatened by poaching and habitat loss. Many experts fear they will suffer the fate of India’s Asian Lion, which remains only in one small wildlife reserve on the country’s west coast.
I traveled to India to see both tigers and the landscapes they inhabit. Because adult tigers eat about 5kg of meat daily, they need flourishing wilderness, and India harbors pockets of savannah and forest rivaled only by Africa’s great spaces.
In a single visit to an Indian national park, it is possible to see hundreds of wild animals including tigers, elephants, deer, antelope, monkeys, pythons and dozens of beautiful bird species.
I chose to fly to New Delhi, India’s chaotic capital, and to visit two parks, each within a half-day’s car or train journey. On a recent morning, I left the city’s smog and bustle for Corbett National Park, 132,000 hectares of forests, savannahs and river valleys that was declared India’s first wildlife refuge in 1936. Besides 160 tigers, the park supports hundreds of Asian Elephants, leopards, otters and some 600 species of birds.
My first stop was Camp Corbett, a clean and comfortable lodge opened in the 1980s by Ome and Suman Anand. The Anands had lived in England and then managed a tea plantation in India’s Assam state before buying 6 hectares of forest “to show people from the cities what they’re missing,” Suman explained.
Knowing I was anxious to stretch my legs, she sent me out for an hour-long walk, a journey that proved to be a test of courage. Tigers and leopards sometimes roam the area, and I had been reading Man-Eaters of Kumaon, a book by a British naturalist who lived near Corbett in the 1940s and who described hunting tigers that had developed a taste for human flesh. One animal reputedly killed 436 people before it was shot.
Deep Contractor, a wildlife biologist who guided me during a four-day stay in Corbett, tried to ease my anxieties. During six months working in the park, she had met tigers three times on foot. By backing away slowly, Deep fended off conflict.
But as we walked through a pretty forest, she rattled off a series of more ominous threats. Asian Elephants are “really bad news” because they often charge people who venture too close and will “make sure that you die,” she said.
Sloth bears, a species that made me think of Winnie the Pooh asleep after eating too much honey, are bad too. “They’ll attack people for no rhyme or reason and the worst thing is they attack your face,” Deep said. “They’ll take your face off.”