He was orphaned as a cub, but managed to survive. For how much longer?by Ruth Padel / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
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…