Fearful felines in an Indian forest reserve
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Tigers are massive. Not elephant-style massive, but simple, pound for pound, feline power, stealth, arrogance and confidence. It shines out of every hair on their bodies. They move majestically, slowly and with that inner knowledge that no-one, no living, breathing being is going to dare to get in their way. I was desperate to see at least one in the wild; to meet it, from a safe distance, in its territory, not at a zoo or on TV.
The battered, beaten, open-topped, four-wheel drive, steel-bar surrounded, safari ‘bus’, plus signs that proclaimed that, even though the safari is through one of the six routes of the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, India, visitors should not expect to actually see any of these shy animals, did not put me off. Just a glimpse would be enough.
Within ten minutes I caught that glimpse. This magnificent beast was reclining on a stone ledge half hidden by scrub, dry bushes and bare tree trunks and branches, and then it moved. Long, thick, fur-covered legs stretched, and it rose and walked alongside our ‘bus’, oblivious to the gasps, stares and clicking camera shutters of the 20 aficionados watching its every move. I was stunned, and the tiger moved on.
We sat back. Langur monkeys chattered, deer and antelope grazed, and we took in the unfolding views as our transport sidled and climbed bumpily up dry river fords and stone-strewn inclines that would defy most vehicles.
A short and exciting hour later we approached a broad, shallow lake where a myriad of different types of bird flitted and flew, strutted and posed for the cameras. Ten minutes later we drew to a halt on a ridge. On our right was the lake; on our left in a shallow valley, a stream and by it a green meadow – one of the few areas of green in the entire Reserve.
On the meadow, sleeping in the rising heat, were two tigers: an enormous male, and a few feet away a large and imposing female. They weren’t posing, but the clicking of cameras, and muted gasps and cries of wonderment from our ‘bus’ in languages from broad Scots to Hindi, Japanese and Chinese, didn’t disturb them. Half an hour later, emotionally and photographically sated, we set off again to see more sights and animals, including a relaxing family of wild boar who, were they able to speak, would have let us know how much they enjoyed being disturbed by a pack of noisy humans.
It was soon time to return and the route took us back to our sleeping tigers. We stopped; more photographs; and then the huge male awoke.
His head was like a Chinese dragon’s, seemingly far too large for its neck as it shook slowly in a rolling, stretching motion. Then a leg extended and a massive, furry paw faced us: clear and in detail from just 50 yards away. The other three legs followed as the tiger rose and looked around. He spied his mate, still supposedly sleeping, or at least pretending to! She awoke, rose and then settled back down again.
The male’s short walk was majestic. Ripples of power shuddered through every step of each of those massive legs. He looked at his mate, shook his head again, moved round her rear and she rolled slightly. This towering example of feline, male beauty, straddled his mate and thrust forward, grasping her neck in those powerful jaws and showing the watching crowd long and vicious teeth.
A few seconds later, mating was complete. The male released the female’s neck, stood up, and roared. It was a rolling sound that bounced and echoed around the gentle slopes of the meadow valley; it thundered and crashed against the higher slopes and rebounded at seemingly greater volume. The magnificent male strode away, faced the distant hills, stretched his long body and neck, and seemed to take stock of who he was and where he was. He was the king, the leader, the emperor of the Reserve and he was damn sure that he was going to let everyone and everything know it.
The return trip was always going to be a deflation after such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but how could it be? Another tiger was spotted moving stealthily along the hillside and, in front of it, deer and monkeys stopped, sniffed and began their loud and urgent warning cries to other members of the herd and pack.
There are in life experiences that will stay with you forever. Dad rugby tackling me as I careered down a slope near Beeston Castle in Cheshire, and thus saving me from ripping my neck open on a strand of barbed wire; my first day at senior school; riding on a bench over the buffers of a train up the Khyber Pass; my wedding day; the birth of my daughter – and now a safari at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.
Maybe I should go back and celebrate the birth of the new tiger? Perhaps that’s best left to the care and sustenance of the kitten’s magnificent parents?