The last tiger

He was orphaned as a cub, but managed to survive. For how much longer?
August 19, 2001

It is 5.30 on a late December afternoon in a hill-forest in Orissa, at about the spot on the map of India where, if the country were a revolver pointing south, you'd curl your finger above the trigger. The pale leaves on the tops of the tall trees are tipped with amber. Sitting well back from a river bank, among deckle-edged grass rising three feet above his head, is one of India's last tigers to make it to the end of the millennium.

One out of how many? It is hard to count tigers because of where and how they live. These days, you set photographic flashlights in the grass, you count faeces and pug marks. But the figures can be massaged like any others and in India tiger counts are politics as well as science. There are people who want the figures to be higher, and people who don't. In Victorian times, when tigers were thick on the ground, the estimate in 1900 was 100,000 Indian tigers in the wild, even after a century of manic tiger shooting. For India was the greatest prize of empire, and the greatest prize yearned for by male servants of the empire was to shoot a tiger. In 1870, when the future king Edward VII shot one in Purnea, Bihar, the whole race of Indian or Bengal tigers was rechristened the Royal Bengal tiger for a while. And Indian royalty had to outdo the British. By the time he died the Maharajah of Suguja had a tally of 1,150 tigers.

Last year, the London Zoological Society's Tiger Conference reckoned the Indian tiger population to be between 2,000 and 3,500. So this tiger on the bank is an important statistic in a shrinking tribe. He has done his best to pass his genes on recently, but he's got to stick around.

If you looked from behind, the white target spots on the backs of his ears would match exactly the blobby seed-heads scattered through the grasses, lifting and rippling in light wind like keys on a Pianola. Two paces in front, and you'd miss him entirely.

He has been away on a three-day mating spree, and is back now in the heart of his territory. Whatever neural flows and synapses take care of long-term planning in a tiger's brain are working full-time in him again. He must repossess his patch, respray it, check it over. Male tigers spend hours patrolling their terrain, scent-marking trees and boulders; taking in what's up, who's where, what's died. But first a spot of short-term planning: food.

Tiger life is alternation. It is all long quiet followed by furious action. You fast and fast, then feast. On average, a tiger needs 15 pounds of meat a day. That's what tigers thrive on in zoos. They can go without for several days, but when they have to find their own meals, they stuff themselves to balloon point when they can. Not very elegant, a near-to-bursting stomach spread out over the rocks, but tigers don't care; that average takes a lot of getting. Even in sleep, the animals that the tiger preys upon are always wary. They are made for running away, or fighting at bay with razor antlers and razor feet. Smaller animals, peacock and monkey, are swift and elusive and do things tigers can't, like fly, or climb to the flickery bendy tops of trees.

Hunting is the art of stillness. Tigers have great speed over short distances but are no good in a long chase. Once a tiger gets into a race, it has already lost. Cheetahs are light on their feet; they evolved their speed on open plains. Tigers are heavy-boned and heavy-muscled. They work through camouflage and cover: long grass, bushes, rocks. Geometry-the angle you come from-is everything. Head-on confrontation is no good; a tiger's job is to eat, not pick fights and get hurt. Wounds fester and go maggoty at once. Hunts end with a burst of explosive power, a few seconds of lightning and mayhem, but they depend on long, silent, trigonometric preparation. The 50 yards which a jungle-smart man will cover in two minutes, supposing himself quiet and invisible, will take a tiger 15 minutes. The tiger really will be invisible. Rather than risk the faint crackle of a dead leaf, a tiger will very slowly crush it into dust with the pad of a gargantuan front paw.

A tiger is consummately soft-footed, but sensitivity is not always an advantage. Thorny ground is terrible hunting country. Those pads, despite the strength of the claws they sheathe, are hopeless on a red-hot griddle fired by the midday sun. To foil him, deer will cross open ground at near-combustion point on heatproof hooves to drink at the hottest time of day. The tiger cannot follow without blistering his feet, and a tiger with blistered feet will soon be no tiger at all. A tiger needs to be perfect.

He is watching the river-bank from the grass, tail out behind him, flat as a draught-excluder.

Out of 20 tiger charges-all that powerful, beautiful bounding-19 fail. Lions and wolves hunt in groups; a tiger takes his risks alone. On every hunt he weighs the maths, balancing the next square meal against catastrophic injury. Which way is the wind blowing? How can you avoid being seen, not just by prey, but from above, by hundreds of grey langur monkeys, the eyes of the jungle, packing the trees with black judgemental faces and nothing to do but watch for you and yell.

Alarm calls cross the species barrier. They are the jungle's lingua franca. Everyone wants to know when a predator is around, especially the largest, so a tiger will base his strategy on not letting any animal know where he is. Once you are pinpointed by alarms, or if you charge and miss, you have to give up and start over somewhere else, or you won't eat. It is a precarious way of life. Hunt for hunt, the tiger is the least successful of all cats, surviving at odds of 20 to one against.

Animal shapes are appearing now by the reeds at the water's edge, through flexed stems and spiny stipules of wild madder. They are mostly in shade, but from time to time an ear or bony rump is lit by the horizontal rays of the sunset.

A tiger's eyes are less efficient than ours at gauging shapes, but adept as an alchemist at weighing up the slightest movement. And in low light, a tiger's vision is six times as good as ours. If you shone a torch in his direction the centres of his eyes would glow. A colour photo would bring them up fluorescent green. This is the tapetum: the reflective patch, a small dished sequin in the centre of the retina. It maximises the concentration of dim light and makes the eyes of dogs and cats shine in the dark. Human eyes do not shine.

If we followed his gaze, we would see only dark shapes. They could be wild dog, or maybe wild boar; six or seven shapes, moving slowly, head down, head up, side by side, grazing (so not dog) and drinking. If we locked into the tiger's vision we would see four sambur does, two with half-grown fawns; a young stag; and an older stag whose antlers spread a wide spiked U into the golden dusk.

Sambur love water. They spend hours up to their thighs in the shallows, drinking, ruminating, but all the time flicking up their heads and spreading wide spoon ears to catch any stir of grass, slip of soil or blowing leaf. Their eyes have a tapetum too; the tiger has no unfair advantage here. But the samburs' medium is danger. They eat anywhere-that's their job-but they know they are the tiger's first-stop restaurant. They know that he depends on them.

Some tigers are brilliant at hunting deer in water. In 1990, a tiger at Ranthambhore National Park-the park rangers called him Genghis-did it all the time. He developed a hunt handwriting unlike any other tiger. He even had an imitator, an impressionable young tigress whom the rangers called Noon, but she never matched his style. Taking wading sambur by surprise, Genghis would charge from cover, single out his victim, disappear under water and drag it out a few seconds later. Even the crocodiles were wary of him; and one in five of his charges ended in a kill.

This tiger, though, has never been watched or named. There are 23 official tiger reserves in India, but two-thirds of the country's tigers live outside them. This tiger, with the asymmetrical black eyebrows, was born on the fringe of Similipal National Park five years ago, one of three cubs. One of them, when six months old, was caught in a poachers' iron trap. The edges of reserves are full of people who know the forest, and make money selling carcasses to people from the towns. This tigress watched her cub die in the trap before the poachers came-furious, with no one to be furious with. Then she moved her territory west; away, although she didn't know it, from the doubtful sanctity of the reserve.

Tigresses are passionate, dedicated, adoring mothers. It takes two years to train a tiger for its solitary life. There is much rubbing and pouncing and playing together, but the tigress's main job, apart from defending them, is teaching them to hunt and kill.

She does it in stages. First she brings them, say, a dead monkey as an educational toy, to worry, pounce on, quarrel over. Then a dead deer with the hide on, so they learn a new use for their growing teeth, to slice through tough and hairy skin. Then she teaches them to stalk, wait, calculate, watch the vultures and langurs, and to spot the sprung-back branch, the rubbed hair on the tree trunk. Finally the tertiary education: the angles of attack, the steel self-control and the killing grips. If you break cover a split second too soon, you've lost. Even two-year-old tigers are not much good at killing on their own. It takes months of painstaking teaching, of watching your children cock up your own long stalk, and dozens upon dozens of missed kills.

When this tiger's bereaved and agitated mother moved territory with two young cubs, she left the protection of their father, the one male who could be relied on never to harm them. In her confusion, she stepped into the territory of another male. An alien adult male tiger is the one big predator who will really go for tiger cubs. A tigress can see off a leopard or wild dogs, but with a male tiger she will have to stand up and fight.

She spent six months avoiding him. But lying in shade one afternoon, tail and chin laid over one cub, her spine relaxed against the other, she raised her head when three langurs started calling from the trees. Predator, large, close by, went the alarm. The tigress decoded it as easily as the sambur. But unlike sambur, she couldn't melt away. She tracked the approach from the calls, waited a minute, disengaged herself from the cubs and stood up.

Head down, crest arched like an Arab stallion, the male came into sight, picking a path along the stones of a dry river bed. He raised his head, looked at her, at the cubs and left the river bed. She faced him from the grass and growled. The cubs fled up a tree.

Tiger confrontations happen in slow motion, in pure, sad stages. For a moment the two adults looked like one tiger gazing at its double in a mirror, two horizontal flames reflecting each other, bodies still but tails swinging slowly side to side, then quickening like two canoes in a gathering storm. The male looked up at the cubs, opened his mouth and roared. The tigress, lighter and skinnier, snarled and lashed out. From their tree the cubs watched her stand and swipe like a boxer, and the male rear up against her, higher, heavier, and with a longer reach.

Twenty minutes later the tigress was lying on the grass again, this time on her side, flies dark round her nose, round the punctures over her ribs and her crushed front paws. The male reared up the tree, pulled down the lower cub, killed it expertly against the trunk, ate some, and walked off leaving the head staring up at the sky: a cut-off tiger ruglet.

The tigress staggered into the shade. Two days later, she died. The lone cub, only a year old, came down from his tree and, against the odds, survived. He moved west again, away from the territory of the other male. He missed company, but shunned it. He taught himself to vanish into bushes, not to break cover too soon. He lived off peacocks, monkeys feasting on the ground, rodents, wild boar piglets, until he graduated to chital. At two, he killed his first sambur.

The forest he lives in now is surrounded, although he doesn't know it, by people whose treasured trade is tiger whiskers and whose favourite life-charm for hundreds of years has been a tiger's clavicle bone. Tiger body retailers, operating from small towns, come through the district occasionally with free plastic litre bottles of agricultural pesticide, so that villagers can poison any kills they find. The big money in tiger parts is made in the cities. Villagers get a few rupees in return for the stinking, lolling bodies, although they may grab a lucky whisker before they hand them over.

In the four years since he lost his mother, this tiger has killed nearly 400 deer and evolved his own style. He is still there on the river bank, working out the angle, watching the sambur through the vertical knitting of the grass. Hunting is a game of deadly billiards, a question of refraction and recoil. Which animal is in the best position for the follow-up? Which line of approach will take him closest, unseen? Where the cover fails, the tiger will have to use top speed, and the less of that the better.

With a victim in sight, a tiger going for a sambur is like a cat after a robin. Same crouch, same just-not-wobbling stillness, but it seems odder-that immaculate bulk and glowing head. Compared to this, a cat on the lawn simply seems toy theatre. Though not, of course, to the robin.

He begins his painstaking approach low-slung between the whispering grass-heads. As with cooking, the art is in the patient preparation. That showy spectacular charge is just the final flourish, the icing, the parsley garnish. The last seconds have an air of superstitious checking and double checking. He weaves his head in fractional advances and retreats, topaz eyes confirming his assessment of distance.

Suddenly he breaks cover and bursts out, a steeplechaser on fire, rocketing towards the drinking sambur. A tiger will normally attack from the side or from behind, or at some angle between the two. This one prefers an oblique angle, more from behind than from the side. He must try to knock down large prey like this in the pell-mell of his weight at speed. When he springs, he must try to get a hold with his teeth on the shoulder or neck, and find a killing grip at once. If he fails, a strong animal can get away.

He has two options. A nape grip kills by crushing or displacing the vertebrae, and severing or compressing the spinal cord. The smaller the animal, the easier this is. With a big animal the tiger has to work by leverage and turn the beast's weight against itself.

The second option, the throttle grip, is the best bet with a large quarry; it closes the windpipe and keeps you clear of backwards-threshing antlers, although you can get tangled up with the feet. If a tiger manages that grip at once, throttling can be a protracted but curiously peaceful business: the deer's head thrown back like a worshipper gazing at the sky, black lips parted, grey tongue hanging, a thread of blood running down the coffee-coloured neck. In a successful charge, victims die with scarcely a mark on them except in the throat.

Killing must be precise, not frenzied. Those gothic teeth are very sensitive. They find a killing spot by feel, like a burglar snicking a skeleton key into the lock of a safe in the dark.

Victorian hunters said that a tiger's first act was to suck its victim's blood. This was a misreading of the throttle grip. A tiger can no more suck than it can purr; the structure of its lips and jaw does not allow that. Tiger kittens, yes, of course. But a grown-up tiger's mouth is made for dismembering and slicing. Its ancestor was the sabre-tooth.

For geometric reasons, this tiger has gone for the big stag. The other deer break and scatter, zig-zagging through the grass, white tails raised and flickering. White is the jungle's alarm colour; calls ring through the grass, and langurs echo them in the trees. If the tiger misses, he'll find no food for miles.

The stag has splashed through the shallows on to the bank, zig-zagging too. The tiger follows, his face a mask of concentration. Not ferocious; focused, almost tender. The sinews of his long body contract and release as he bounds. The stripes, their ends forking over orange ribs and white belly, part and close and part as muscles bunch and stretch. Then he springs at the stag's throat, going for a throttle grip, but the old stag shifts at the last moment and the tiger's teeth take hold of the skin on the cheek.

The other deer circle a little way off, looking back, feet stamping, ears quivering. They know, once the charge is over, that there is no threat to them. A tiger depends on surprise and gets no second chance. The deer are spectators in a motionless stand-off.

A chital would have been smaller and lighter. One of the does, or a fawn, would be easier to handle. But here is this heavy stag, twice the tiger's size and weight, his back white-scabbed with dried mud and old wounds. He stands, his cheek in the tiger's mouth, his antlers with heavy tines five feet apart. His head is lowered to tiger's-head height. The coarse amber-rusted hair guarding the throat the tiger missed is spiky and ruffled. The tall legs are planted, pulling back, a few inches from the tiger. The tiger 's rump is nearly on the ground, tail out behind, forelegs stubbed in the gold and olive earth like a labrador puppy playing tug-of-war with a child.

Two big animals, silent, absolutely still, every cell in their bodies straining, eyeballs and toes less than a foot apart; a parody of love.

If these were two men, you'd see expressions on their faces. There are none here. The tiger's ears are laid back in hard-edged effort. He is using all his strength to pull the deer back towards him; the stag is using all his to resist. To the side, their shadows join in a long bridge of black. With a sudden, Promethean toss of the head, the sambur tears free of the tiger's teeth, leaving the side of his cheek hanging down below his muzzle. Instantly the tiger leaps again, from a sitting position, and locks on to the back of the stag's neck.

It is all silent. The only sound is the breathy puffs of each animal, and the occasional grunt. The stag's back legs lift off the ground as the tiger's weight presses down on him.

But whether tired from his first charge or weakened by three days of non-stop sex, the tiger's grip is not strong enough. Again the stag breaks free, bleeding from long, dragged claw-rips and tooth-punctures in back and neck as well as face. Wounds the purplish iron-fibre colour of hyacinth bulbs are welling blood over his sides. Through the flaunt and glisten of blood, cobwebs of mucus hang from his bakelite black nose and open mouth. He veers away.

The tiger works his weight under the belly and grabs a hind leg from inside, trying to break it. But he has miscalculated the angle and the stag's other hind leg threshes wildly in the air, then catches in the tiger's chest, scoring a deep gash there; then another in the left inner thigh, cutting nearly to the bone.

For a split second the tiger flinches, and the sambur, amazingly, wrenches free a third time. With a wild bunching of muscle he flounders to the river, staggers in and swims, his bleeding head holding his antlers up, across the shadowy water. He nearly goes under, but makes it to the further bank. He may die there, weeks later, of his wounds. The tiger watches from the bank, too tired to give chase.

Solitude is both the tiger's great strength and greatest weakness. He must be solitary, because of the country he has chosen-forest, ravines, thick bushes. In Africa, on the open plain, his cousins the lions hunt together and feed together. If a lion is hurt, he can still eat while the injury heals, so long as he can keep up with the others. Except for a tigress hunting with grown-up cubs, tigers do not have that option. When this one licks his chest and back leg, antiseptic saliva will minimise infection, stop flies pouring in to breed maggots in his flesh. But to heal he needs to stay strong. This tiger hasn't eaten for three days. He had other things on his mind.

He backs off behind a fallen tree, and sits down. After a moment he bends his head to work his tongue round the welling red in his chest and leg.

Even while resting, he is working. Hearing is his best information-gathering device. He hears a snuffling rustle, a slight rattle like a hastily-silenced witch's besom, in the bushes behind.

What do tigers like eating best? Whatever is on offer. Deer, of course. Pig, hare, monkey, peacock; even porcupine. But porcupines are high risk. They are slow, dumpy and easy to catch, but hard to kill and eat safely. They have 30,000 tweedy detachable quills and when they feel anxious they raise these, like hair lifting on skin when you are cold. They run backwards, bushy tails leading, and release the outer quills. They have so many they never miss the odd hundred. These quills never dissolve. They eject cleanly from their owner, but short of a scalpel they won't ever come out of you.

Jim Corbett, legendary hunter of man-eaters in the early years of the 20th century, who became the great champion of the Indian tiger, pulled several hundred porcupine quills out of tigers he shot. Many tigers have died of septicaemia caused by quills in their flesh, but the ones Corbett saw had lived for years with quills sometimes more than nine inches long, thick as pencils, embedded in their legs, in hard muscle, or wedged between bones and broken off under the skin. The Mohan Man-Eater lived above the Kosi valley in the Himalayas; he held the Almora District in a reign of terror for many years. Yet he always moaned when he entered the village of Kartkanoula at night. That was how the villagers, listening from inside frail mud houses barricaded with hopeless armfuls of thornbush, knew that he was there, that he had come into their village to hunt. He must have moaned as he walked through jungle too, hunting other animals would have been impossible. When Corbett finally shot him, he found no hair on the inner side of the left foreleg, and 25 punctures oozing yellow fluid. The flesh beneath, from the tiger's chest to the pad of his foot, was soapy and dark yellow, with suppurating sores where he had tried to pull the quills out with his teeth.

In those days, when there were many tigers but fewer people, plenty of jungle and the full range of a tiger's natural prey everywhere, only wounds like this turned tigers into man-eaters. There are no antlers and sharp hooves on a man gathering honey or a woman scything grass. No sense of smell; no running away. For an incapacitated tiger, people become the only prey.

Porcupines are rodents. They chew bark and herbs. That's their life. This one, in a slow fussy bustling nibble, is following a line of sweet thin root just under the surface of the soil. His nose is patched with crumbs of orange earth.

Leopards are just as keen on porcupine as tigers are, but they always catch them by the head. "Why tigers do not employ this safe and obvious method is a mystery to me" said Corbett, who admired tigers deeply and identified with them as a gentleman. He praised the beauty of leopards but looked down on them-he thought they were less moral.

Perhaps tigers attack porcupines from behind and on top because they are so used to other animals giving way. Or because, with small animals, they always go for the nape grip. As the porcupine shuffles into his sights, the tiger, even more slowly than usual because of his gashed back leg, gathers his hindquarters under him and charges.

The porcupine has a second to see what's coming, raise his quills, and run backwards. When the tiger springs, 50 quills shoot into his skin from his chest down to the inside of his right front leg. Twelve strike bone-the humerus, the tiger bone most treasured in Chinese medicine. One quill pierces the pad of his right paw.

He breaks his leap. The porcupine scuttles out from under, rattles into bushes, disappears.

The tiger is alone again. A very different tiger, with very different prospects, from the one he was an hour ago. He is in an unknown zone.

An animal's face is hard to read. Its body is what matters; a tiger's life story is physical. You tell its fortune from the way it walks. This one limps off, wobbly, into the bandaged shadow of the bushes.

He still needs to eat. He walks a little way, lies down carefully. The small round gold-brown eyes don't show the pain which human eyes would show, if we were in his body. They have that concentrated, distant look eyes have when other senses, smell and hearing, are powerfully at work.

He hears no new sound. But among the wide palette of jungle-scents that he has tasted on the air every day of his life, there is a new one. He waits three minutes, then rises, takes two slow, silent limps forward and stares into the grainy dusk.

There is a dead goat in the clearing ahead. n