Sun striped shadows

Close encounters of a wild kind in Chitwan

Chuck McDougal's first pressure plate photography traps in which the tiger triggered its own picture

Encountering a tiger in the wild is a privilege not to be taken lightly, and an experience never forgotten. Words cannot do justice to this most magnificent of all creatures, but many have tried to capture the instincts triggered by its terrible beauty, the reality of our inherent human frailty when confronted with nature’s most evolved predator.

Our consciousness is fully awakened by ‘Tiger tiger, burning bright’. Hairs rise, breath stills, time stops and the heart skips a beat as the sun striped shadows dissolve into the largest of the world’s cats, the sheer wonder of several hundred kilos of elegant muscle and striped intensity.

Read also: How many tigers in Nepal?, Kunda Dixit

First arriving at Tiger Tops in the Chitwan National Park, I was told: “You can live your entire life in the jungle without ever seeing a tiger.” The king of the jungle is essentially nocturnal, solitary and adept at avoiding people and encounters, its lone survival depending on self-sufficiency.

For our guests, Chuck McDougal and his naturalists shortened the odds by reading the signals, identifying tracks and interpreting alarm calls – barking deer, grunting monkeys and coughing chital. Jungle excursions and elephant safaris took place early morning and late afternoon to maximise the probability.

In the bad old days, a young male buffalo was tethered in the same spot every night, watched over by a shikari who ran back on swept paths to summon us from the lodge bar or dinner table. Barefoot, breathlessly silent and peering through the small windows of the grass machan, a tiger could be discerned crouched over its kill, bones crunching, illuminated by a rudimentary searchlight powered by an old car battery.

Despite such contrivances, tiger sightings in the wild are never certain. Even after we stopped baiting and depended on our naturalists skill, every year only one quarter of all Tiger Tops guests were fortunate enough to catch a precious glimpse of the planet’s largest cat.

And for me, every time was a moment of magic and quiet respect that such splendour coexists on this earth.

Originally protected as a sanctuary for Nepal’s Greater One-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), the fame of Chitwan was soon usurped by the tiger’s elusive glamour, the undisputed star of the show. Even the Latin name resonates with awe and mystery: Panthera tigris.

Chitwan’s rich habitat, watered by the Raptiand Narayani rivers with alluvial grasslands, mixed riverine forest and the sal-covered Chure Hills, had long been set aside by ruling Ranas as prime hunting country, reserved as a refuge to impress a favoured few royals, viceroys and maharajahs. The Shah kings were required to prove their bravery with bagged tigers and perform obscure religious rites that included climbing inside the carcass of a slaughtered rhino.

During Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1961, for which Meghauli airstrip was carved out of the jungle, Boris Lisanevitch catered an elaborate royal camp and 327 elephants were rallied for the game drive, Prince Philip famously refused to shoot. Yesterday’s hunters were evolving into today’s conservationists, and cameras were replacing guns.

Throughout its range, Asia’s apex predator had become critically endangered due to a combination of loss of habitat, depletion of prey species, human conflict, poaching and hunting. South Asian tigers drastically dwindled to less than 2,000 from an estimated population of 40,000 at the turn of the century, plummeting to less than 3,500 from 100,000 worldwide.

In response, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1973 launched Project Tiger throughout India, and the same year Chitwan’s 360-square-miles of undisturbed biodiversity were gazetted as Nepal’s first national park. Designated a natural World Heritage Site in 1984, and linked with adjacent reserves into the huge tiger conservation landscape of Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki in 1998, Royal Chitwan National Park rapidly became renown as one of the best wildlife viewing experiences in Asia, especially for the increasingly rare Royal Bengal tiger.

At Tiger Tops, a treetop lodge deep in tiger country since 1964, we were inevitably entwined and engrossed with its protection. An ideal base for wildlife research and filming, Chuck pioneered camera trapping, and helped the Smithsonian Institute’s radio tracking and long-term tiger monitoring.

The government often asked help with logistics, and Jim Edwards’s former hunting skills came in handy when Hemanta Mishra and the warden requested assistance with tranquilising a man-eater – after three attacks anaberrant tiger, usually old or injured, would be sentenced to life in Kathmandu Zoo. As the elephants fanned out through the hot dry grass, mahouts shouted to drive the aging tigress towards the waiting dart-gun and I clung nervously to the ropes of my elephant’s gaddi behind a tense driver – we knew she had terrorised villagers from across the river straying into the jungle to collect grass and firewood.

Nepal can be proud of its well-protected parks and successful conservation record, the envy of other tiger range countries with recovery of Nepal’s tigers well ahead of target. Nepali scientists have trained neighbours in scientific counting methods, we contributed sustainable tourism recommendations agreed by all tiger range countries (in Thimphu 2011), and naturalist guides have created conservation awareness with park visitors and celebrities.

Actor Bob Hoskins got too close for comfort during a tiger documentary in Bardia, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s passion for tiger conservation was first ignited at Tiger Tops Karnali, resulting in millions of dollars of WWF support.

In the 2010 St Petersburg Declaration, 13 countries endorsed the Global Tiger Recovery Plan to double the number of tigers worldwide by 2022, the next Chinese Year of the Tiger. Nepal committed to expand its tiger population from 121 to about 250. By 2013 we had already achieved 63% of this goal with 198 tigers resident mainly in Chitwan, but also Bardia, Shuklaphanta, Parsa and Banke protected areas.

No one should live in a world without wild tigers. We await the results of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation 2018 census, but Nepal’s tigers remain a powerful tourism icon and a potent symbol of Nepal’s conservation success.

The spelling of  Zbigniew Brzezinski in the caption has been corrected.

Lisa Choegyal