This story appears in the December 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Ranthambore National Park, India
Dawn, and mist holds the forest. Only a short stretch of red dirt track can be seen. Suddenly—emerging from the red-gold haze of dust and misted light—a tigress ambles into view. First she stops to rub her right-side whiskers against a roadside tree. Then she crosses the road and rubs her left-side whiskers. Then she turns to regard us with a look of infinite and bored indifference.
And then, as if relenting, she reaches up the tree to claw the bark, turning her profile to us, and with it the full impact of her tigerness—the improbable, the gorgeous, the iconographic and visibly powerful flanks.
The tiger. Panthera tigris, largest of all the big cats, to which even biological terminology defers with awed expressions like "apex predator," "charismatic megafauna," "umbrella species." One of the most formidable carnivores on the planet, and yet, amber-coated and patterned with black flames, one of the most beautiful of creatures.
Consider the tiger, how he is formed. With claws up to four inches long and retractable, like a domestic cat's, and carnassial teeth that shatter bone. While able to achieve bursts above 35 miles an hour, the tiger is built for strength, not sustained speed. Short, powerful legs propel his trademark lethal lunge and fabled leaps. Recently, a tiger was captured on video jumping—flying—from flat ground to 13 feet in the air to attack a ranger riding an elephant. The eye of the tiger is backlit by a membrane that reflects light through the retina, the secret of his famous night vision and glowing night eyes. The roar of the tiger—Aaaaauuuunnnn!—can carry more than a mile.
For weeks I had been traveling through some of the best tiger habitat in Asia, from remote forests to tropical woodlands and, on a previous trip, to mangrove swamps—but never before had I seen a tiger. Partly this was because of the animal's legendarily secretive nature. The tiger is powerful enough to kill and drag prey five times its weight, yet it can move through high grass, forest, and even water in unnerving silence. The common refrain of those who have witnessed—or survived—an attack is that the tiger "came from nowhere."
But the other reason for the dearth of sightings is that the ideal tiger landscapes have very few tigers. The tiger has been a threatened species for most of my lifetime, and its rareness has come to be regarded matter-of-factly, as an intrinsic, defining attribute, like its dramatic coloring. The complacent view that the tiger will continue to be "rare" or "threatened" into the foreseeable future is no longer tenable. In the early 21st century, tigers in the wild face the black abyss of annihilation. "This is about making decisions as if we're in an emergency room," says Tom Kaplan, co-founder of Panthera, an organization dedicated to big cats. "This is it."
The tiger's enemies are well-known: Loss of habitat exacerbated by exploding human populations, poverty—which induces poaching of prey animals—and looming over all, the dark threat of the brutal Chinese black market for tiger parts. Less acknowledged are botched conservation strategies that for decades have failed the tiger. The tiger population, dispersed among Asia's 13 tiger countries, is estimated at fewer than 4,000 animals, though many conservationists believe there are hundreds less than that. To put this number in perspective: Global alarm for the species was first sounded in 1969, and early in the '80s it was estimated that some 8,000 tigers remained in the wild. So decades of vociferously expressed concern for tigers—not to mention millions of dollars donated by well-meaning individuals—has achieved the demise of perhaps half of the already imperiled population.
My determination to see a wild tiger in my lifetime brought me to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, one of 40 in India. My first tiger was spotted within ten minutes, and in a four-day excursion I gloried in nine sightings, including a repeat appearance of that first tiger, a three-year-old female. In high grass she stalked with such patient, focused, deliberateness—each paw raised in slow motion and placed so very gently down—that it was possible to see her stealth.
It didn't matter that in most cases my experience was shared with a queue of other vehicles. Seeing tigers in the wild is now mostly a tourist experience—the Bengal tiger is not only India's national animal but also one of the country's largest draws. Elsewhere, my tiger-seeking travels had been made on rough roads, by river, forest trails, and even elephant, but in Ranthambore I departed at dawn in a jeep that awaited me outside the Oberoi lodge. In the jeep were a ranger, a guide, and most necessary in a place where tiger viewing is a blood sport, an expert driver, who barged ruthlessly to the head of the queue, ensuring me of that first, mystical tiger sighting.
India is home to some 50 percent of the world's wild tigers. The 2010 census reported a maximum estimate of 1,909 in the country—up 20 percent from the previous estimate. While welcome news, most authorities regard the new figure as reflecting better census methods rather than growth of the tiger population: Tiger counts, in India or elsewhere, are still at best only estimates.
A modest 41 of these carefully enumerated tigers were living in Ranthambore. Conducting me through the park one morning, conservator Raghuvir Singh Shekhawat pointed out the variety of wildlife that flourishes where the tiger is protected—langur monkeys, spotted deer, wild boars, collared Scops-owls, kingfishers, and parakeets. And he offered a ground-level glimpse of tiger conservation, stopping his jeep beside a canvas tent in a clearing. "Would you like to see the hard life the field officers lead?" he asked, lifting a tent flap to reveal three slender cots. "Here is their kitchen," he said, gesturing to a pile of canned food and bowls. "In 30 years of service, at least five years is under the tent." The rangers put in up to ten miles a day on early morning foot patrol, taking plaster casts of any pugmarks they encounter and making notes of evidence of prey animals.
Ranthambore's history reflects in miniature the history of the tiger in India. Formerly the private hunting estate of the maharajas of Jaipur, its original 109-square-mile core reserve is ringed by a containing wall, within which undulating forest skirts romantic maharaja-era ruins. One evening I met with Fateh Singh Rathore, the assistant field director of Ranthambore after it became one of India's first Project Tiger reserves in 1973. Tiger hunting was legal in India until the early 1970s, and as a young man, in the days when Ranthambore had been a hunting estate, he had worked as a game warden. "To shoot a tiger, maybe a hundred rupees," he recalled—a couple of dollars.
Always fragile, tiger populations have fluctuated in recent years. Between 2002 and 2004, poaching of some 20 tigers in Ranthambore essentially halved its population. This was better than the fate of the nearby 300-square-mile Sariska Tiger Reserve, found to have no tigers at all: Every single one of its tigers had been killed by professional gangs—and in a reserve just 70 miles from India's capital, New Delhi.
Ranthambore is a hub for a contentious new conservation strategy—the relocation of "surplus" tigers to places like Sariska. Only days before, at a wildlife conference in New Delhi, I had heard heated criticism and questions from India's many outspoken watchdog organizations challenging the strategy: What constitutes a surplus tiger? Had the issues in Sariska and elsewhere been solved before importing new tigers? What research had been conducted regarding potential trauma to both the transported tiger and the home population from which it was taken? And what effect might such trauma have on breeding?
So far, relocation has met with uneven success. Three tigers transported to Sariska were found to be siblings—undesirable for breeding. More eloquent than any of the valid scientific concerns was a story unfolding in the national media: The determined trek toward his home 250 miles away by a lone male removed from Pench Tiger Reserve to restock Panna National Park.
The trek of this solitary tiger highlights another crisis. Many reserves exist as islands of fragile habitat in a vast sea of humanity, yet tigers can range over a hundred miles, seeking prey, mates, and territory. An unwelcome revelation of the new census is that nearly a third of India's tigers live outside tiger reserves, a situation that is dangerous for both human and animal. Prey and tigers can only disperse if there are recognized corridors of land between protected areas to allow unmolested passage. No less critical, such passages serve as genetic corridors, essential to the long-term survival of the species.
It is a heady experience to see an idealistic map of Asia's tiger landscapes linked by arteries of these not-yet-existent corridors. A spiderweb of green tendrils weaves tantalizingly among core populations to form a network that encompasses breathtaking extremes of habitat—Himalayan foothills, jungle, swamp, deciduous forest, grasslands—that pay tribute to the tiger's adaptability. Close scrutiny breaks the spell. The places that have actual tigers—here-and-now, flesh-and-blood tigers—as opposed to hypothetical tigers, are represented by a scattering of mustard-colored blobs. The master plan represents a visionary undertaking, but is it feasible? Over the next decade, infrastructure projects—the kind of development that often destroys habitat—are projected to average some $750 billion a year in Asia.
"I've never met a head of state who says, 'Look, we're a poor country, if it comes between tigers and people, you just have to write off tigers,'" said Alan Rabinowitz, a renowned authority on tigers and the CEO of Panthera. "The governments don't want to lose their most majestic animal. They consider it part of what makes their country what it is, part of the cultural heritage. They won't sacrifice a lot to save it, but if they can see a way to save it, they will usually do it."
Seeing a way has proved difficult amid the plethora of tiger strategies, programs, and initiatives jostling for attention—and funding. The U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Save the Tiger Fund (which has now partnered with Panthera), Global Tiger Patrol, Saving Wild Tigers, All for Tigers!, WWF, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Panthera, International Year of the Tiger Foundation, the National Geographic Society's Big Cats Initiative—the list is impressive. "Five to six million dollars is spent a year for tigers, from all philanthropic organizations," said Mahendra Shrestha, former director of the Save the Tiger Fund, which gave grants totaling more than $17 million between 1995 and 2009. "In many instances the NGOs and tiger-range governments just fight each other."
Long-term conservation must focus on all aspects of a tiger landscape: core breeding populations, inviolate sanctuaries, wildlife corridors, and the surrounding human communities. In an ideal world, all would be funded; as it is, different agencies adopt different strategies for different components. With time running out, tough priorities must be set. "Since the 1990s, there has been what I would sum up as mission drift," said Ullas Karanth of the WCS, who is one of the world's most respected tiger biologists. The drift toward tiger conservation activities like eco-development and social programs, which possibly have greater fund-raising appeal than antipoaching patrols, siphons funds and energy from the single most vital task: safeguarding core breeding populations of tigers. "If these are lost," Karanth said, "you will have tiger landscapes with no tigers."
Decades of experience and failures have yielded a conservation strategy that, according to Rabinowitz, "allows any site or landscape to increase its tigers if followed correctly." Central to this protocol are relentless, systematic, boots-on-the-ground patrolling and monitoring of both tiger and prey in those sites assessed as harboring realistically defensible core tiger populations. Under the protocol, a population of a mere half dozen breeding females can rebound. Such, at least, is the hope for the largest single protected tiger reserve on Earth, a remote valley in northern Myanmar.
Hukawng Valley, Myanmar
My first encounter with the Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary is not heartening. Arriving at the sprawling settlement of Tanaing in northern Myanmar, I scan with bewilderment the large and cheerful market; the bus stops, generators, and telephone posts; the bustling stalls and restaurants—all lodged within the sanctuary borders.
Conspicuous bites have been taken from the generous buffer zone that embraces the 2,500-square-mile original wildlife sanctuary. Land for a 200,000-acre cassava plantation has been razed and burned so quickly that the diminishment of the forest could be charted not over weeks but days. The gold-mining settlement of Shingbwiyang in the west, where the land has been stripped raw and mountain rivers turned to mud, is home to some 50,000 migrants, and permanent concrete structures and power lines have sprung up among the rudimentary huts of thatch and wood. The rebel Kachin Independence Army controls the reserve's eastern edge.
Yet the sheer size of the 6,708-square-mile tiger reserve can accommodate even these intrusions. Cupped between three mountain ranges, the Hukawng Valley is defined by dense, dark, seemingly boundless jungle. As recently as the 1970s Hukawng villagers encountered tigers in the course of ordinary rural life, hearing their roars at night. Rarely did a tiger harm a human, their victims typically being livestock or cattle. Still, the fearsome potential of the world's largest cat inspired sufficient respect to enshrine the tiger in local mythologies. Among the Naga tribespeople in northwestern Hukawng, stories of tiger shamans still abound. Tigers were Rum Hoi Khan—the King of the Forest, with whom man had a thitsar, a natural bond or treaty. "Naga used to call male tigers Grandfather, and female tigers Grandma," an elderly Naga man told me. "They believe they are their ancestors."
Such beliefs are fading with the tigers, recalled now only by the elderly. Myanmar youth know the tiger more from educational conservation stories than from life. The Myanmar Forest Department, for instance, sponsors a mobile education team that tours villages performing a skit about a tiger killed by a wicked poacher. The grief of the tiger "widow" reportedly moves all the women in the audience to tears. There is perhaps no more eloquent testimony to the tiger's imperiled status than this adjustment of its mythology from Rum Hoi Khan to weeping widow.
Two days after arriving in Tanaing, I joined the Myanmar Forest Department's Flying Tiger and guard teams as they headed up the Tawang River to the Forward Guard Post. The sun had burned off the morning mist, and the river flowed glacial blue under the hard blue sky. Close to shore, banana groves cast green shade on the water. Flocks of mergansers skimmed ahead and waited, while an occasional white-bellied heron sailed by. Hukawng Valley has elephants and clouded leopards, gaur (an ox), and sambar (an Asian deer)—favorite tiger prey; and it has a still unsatisfactorily assessed scattering of tigers.
Upriver, at the Forward Guard Post, a rattan-and-wood house on stilts in a clearing by the water, the head ranger, Zaw Win Khaing, gave an overview of the teams' survey work for the current season. The tiger team spent a third of each month on patrol, looking for tracks or scat of tigers, along with evidence of prey animals such as sambar, gaur, and wild pig. Rangers looked for evidence of human activities. In the previous month they had disbanded a hunter's camp and dispersed or apprehended 34 people involved in land clearing and cultivation, mostly for opium poppies.
Saw Htoo Tha Po, who bore the attractive title of tiger coordinator and is a seasoned veteran of this tough field, described the patrols. "Sometimes if it is sunny, you can see the sky," he said, conjuring what it was like to operate under triple-canopy forest for up to six weeks. The worst days are when it rains, and the trees spill water from their saucerlike leaves, and dripping mists chill the bone. Then the leeches get bigger and "make more blood." The local strain of malaria is particularly vicious and has killed team members. In all, 74 forest department personnel and wildlife police officers, in rotation, are responsible for patrolling a 700-square-mile strategic area of dense forest.
The head ranger, Zaw Win Khaing, once saw a tiger, in 2002. He had sat down to measure bear tracks in a muddy wallow when he saw something move to his right. As he stood up, the tiger's face appeared from the grass. "It was about as close as that chili plant," the ranger said, pointing to a vegetable plot some 15 feet away. "I do not know how long I looked at the tiger, because I was trembling." Eventually, the tiger turned back toward the forest.
By authoritative estimate, there may be 25 tigers in the Hukawng Valley—the authority in this case being an old Lisu tribesman not long retired from tiger poaching, who from time to time agreeably shares information with the tiger teams. Official, scientific evidence of the tigers' existence is harder to come by. In 2006-07 the only trace was several paw prints of a single tiger, and in the 2007-08 season, DNA tests of collected scat indicated the presence of three tigers.
This season a clean line of pugmarks by the river was cause for both celebration and a SWAT-team-worthy follow-up: News of the discovery was radioed in at 8 a.m., and by 6 p.m. the tiger team had arrived from Tanaing. Measurements and plaster casts of the tracks were made over a five-day period, and three camera traps were placed in the area, which had so far yielded only a picture of a pied hornbill. About the same time, fresh tracks were discovered nine miles upriver, which proved to belong to the same tiger. This, then, was payoff for another hard field season—a line of tiger paw prints in the pale yellow sand.
Later I spoke with Alan Rabinowitz, whose decade-long work with the Myanmar Forest Department lay behind the creation of the Hukawng Sanctuary. Was the expenditure of so much effort justified for so few tigers? As part of his answer, he pointed to a map that showed Hukawng's key position in the northern web of tiger landscapes. "Hukawng's potential is so huge," he countered. And he had witnessed habitats that had been turned around. "Huai Kha Khaeng was in terrible shape when I was there in the 1990s, and now it's one of Asia's best tiger reserves."
Huai Kha Khaeng, Thailand
"I first worked here in 1986, when every night there were gunshot noises, every day dead animals," Alan Rabinowitz told the group of 40 rangers, the team leaders who represented the park's 170 ranger personnel, gathered at the headquarters of the 1,073-square-mile Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in western Thailand. The ravaged landscape Rabinowitz described was one his audience could no longer recognize—Huai Kha Khaeng as it had been a mere two and a half decades ago. "What you have done here," Rabinowitz said, "is you have turned Huai Kha Khaeng from a site whose future was in grave doubt into one of the world's best tiger sites."
Two decades ago, perhaps 20 tigers roamed Huai Kha Khaeng. There are now an estimated 60 in the sanctuary alone and roughly 100 in the rest of the Western Forest Complex, which has six times the area. The improved health of the forest and the rise in prey (50 animals, or 6,600 pounds of living prey a year for each tiger, is a general rule) suggest that the tiger population could continue to accelerate upward.
The feasibility of bringing tigers back from the razor's edge of survival relies not only on human actions in the immediate future but also on the tiger's own remarkably resilient nature. Tigers are not finicky about diet or habitat or, like the panda, dependent on a particular ecosystem. Tiger tracks have been found in Bhutan above 13,000 feet, an altitude overlapping the domain of the snow leopard, while tigers in the saltwater mangrove swamps of the Bangladeshi and Indian Sundarbans are powerful swimmers and have learned to supplement their diets with marine life. And tigers reproduce well if given a chance. An average female can rear some six to eight cubs over her 10- to 12-year lifespan—which helped a population like that at Huai Kha Khaeng triple in 20 years.
Dedicated, by-the-book monitoring at Huai Kha Khaeng gave tigers a fighting chance, and the animals responded. At the ranger meeting I watched each of the 20 patrol leaders step up and make a ten-minute report of his team's work. Multimedia presentations showed maps of the patrol area, specific paths followed, man-days spent in each, and locations of trouble spots. No less revealing were images that showed interest beyond the call of duty—photographs rangers had taken of flowers in the forest loam, footage of a lone ant dragging the body of a lizard spread-eagled like a fallen warrior. Rare footage of a mother Asian tapir leading her cub across a river drew murmurs of appreciation from the audience. Burning interest and personal investment, professional pride, motivation, high morale—all were manifest in this room. In so many tiger landscapes, rangers make do with threadbare clothes and third-generation equipment, but the rangers of Huai Kha Khaeng were dressed in smart camouflage uniforms that flagged their status as members of a respected profession.
"Thailand's biggest asset is a national guarantee of salaries, the commitment of the national government," one conservationist told me. The operating budget for Huai Kha Khaeng's 2008-09 season amounted to $670,000, two-thirds paid by the Thai government, and the remaining third coming from WCS, the U.S. government, and various international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This covered office management, species monitoring, training, wildlife-trade monitoring, camera traps, and most important, 30,600 man-days of patrols.
Following the meeting I joined Anak Pattanavibool, director of WCS's Thailand Program; Rabinowitz; and a tracker named Kwanchai Waitanyakan for a walk in the forest. Far below the canopy, we threaded through towering bamboo. Twice we stopped to listen to the low, husky call of an elephant. After a few miles, we broke out onto the clear-flowing Huai Tab Salao stream. On the opposite bank we found a long line of tiger tracks, four inches wide, striding confidently amid the bird scratches and lily-pad prints left by elephants.
"Lean all your weight on your hands," Rabinowitz instructed. Then he measured the depth of the impression my hand made in the sand. "One and a half centimeters," he announced—just over half an inch. The tiger's pugmark was an inch and a half deep. This, Pattanavibool estimated, was a male weighing more than 400 pounds.
In tiger landscapes outside India, most rangers have seen poachers but not tigers, and the hard days and nights they sweat in malarial forest or under canvas are for something they may never see. Even in Huai Kha Khaeng, tigers are less likely to be seen by foot patrols than captured by the roughly 180 camera traps that hold selected areas of the forest under eerie surveillance. Displayed at the sanctuary's wildlife research station were images of tigers caught in all their secret ways—eyes glaring blue and luminescent in the dark, tigers lounging majestically on a bed of leaves under shafts of sunlight, a full-whiskered stare into the lens, or just the tip of a tail.
The goal in Huai Kha Khaeng is to increase the population by 50 percent, to 90 tigers, and eventually to 720 in the entire Western Forest Complex. This prompts more heady speculation: If the tiger population of one well-managed park could be increased threefold in 20 years …
"There is 1.1 million square kilometers of tiger habitat remaining," said Eric Dinerstein, chief scientist and vice president of conservation science of the WWF. "Assuming two tigers for every 100 square kilometers, that's a potential 22,000 tigers."
For now the unnegotiable task is to save the few tigers that actually exist. And the story of the tiger's fate is relentlessly swift-moving. The Year of the Tiger, the celebration of which, in 2010, was the number one objective of a lauded tiger workshop in Kathmandu, has come and gone with no discernible benefit to the world's wild tigers. In November 2010 the 13 tiger countries attending the St. Petersburg Global Tiger Summit in Russia pledged to "strive to double the number of wild tigers across their range by 2022." In March 2010 a mother and two cubs were poisoned in Huai Kha Khaeng, the first poaching casualties in four years. The deaths prompted the Thai government to offer a $3,000 bounty for capture of the poachers. In the same month two young tigers were poisoned in Ranthambore, apparently by villagers who had lost goats to tiger attacks, while two new cubs were later born. And in Hukawng a new male tiger was caught by camera trap, a lone reminder of what this great wilderness could hold.
Most authorities agree that the fight to save the tiger can be won—but that it must be waged with unremitting professional focus that adheres to a proven strategy. It will require the human species to display not merely resolve but outright zealotry.
"I want it in my will," Fateh Singh Rathore had told me in Ranthambore, his eyes burning bright behind his spectacles. "When I die, you spread my ashes on these grounds so the tiger can walk upon my ashes."