I recall everything about the day January 29, 1990.
It was 0845 hours in the emerald jungle of Nagarahole in southwestern India. The ten-meter-tall Randia tree I had carefully selected was 200 meters from the wild tiger resting near its kill. I climbed the rickety bamboo ladder gingerly and found just enough space to stand by squeezing my frame into a V-shaped fork in the tree. I held the loaded gun firmly.
Ten meters away, both to my left and right, teams of five men each were walking behind two riding elephants, goaded forward by mahouts sitting on their necks. Two other men sitting on the elephant’s backs unrolled lengths of meter-wide white cloth steadily to the men following them on foot. The cascading fabric was deftly picked p and strung to bushes by these men. Soon, the two taughtly stretched waist-high cloth curtains diverged deeper into the forest trying to encircle the tiger. if it was still there.
The men worked in pin-drop silence, so that the tiger’s acute ears would pick up only the normal sounds of the topical jungle: two elephants lumbering along, noisily breaking off branches to feed, all the while emitting loud rumbles, squeaks, and growls. The cat would not suspect some trickery was afoot.
The elephants and men were soon out of sight. The “beat” for the tiger would soon begin. For centuries, such beats had been employed to hunt wild tigers to the verge of extinction. Now I was employing them to save the big cats. In the months and years to come, I hoped to track generations of wild tigers—from the time they were born, learned to hunt, roamed freely, dispersed, found one another, mated, raised cubs, and finally died—in the heart of the Indian jungle.
I practiced slowly moving the gun barrel—really just a tube of polished aluminium—in a gentle arc, concentrating on the foresight. I hoped the tiger would come down the jungle trail that cut through the Chromolaena shrubbery ahead.
I carefully tried to anticipate all possible scenarios. My feet, tightly wedged into the cleft, would be barely three meters above the shoulder of any tiger that came by. Even if I fidgeted slightly, the cat’s razor-sharp eyes or ears could detect my presence. If that happened, the big cat would bound away, giving me no chance to shoot at it. Or, in a worst case, it could rear up ferociously and pull be down like a rag doll. The second unpleasant scenario was unlikely, unless the animal was a nervous tigress accompanied by small cubs. Fifteen years earlier, Nepali forester Kirti Tamang had been pulled down and severely mauled by a tigress when he climbed a tree to get a better look at her cubs.
The weapon in my hand was a flimsy compressed-air gun that could only shoot a single plastic syringe and inflict nothing stronger than a pinprick to the tiger. I contrasted my situation with the one faced by the American trophy hunter Jack Denton Scott. In his book Forests of the Night, Scott claimed to be in grave danger while waiting on a high machan (tree platform), out of reach for even the most athletic tiger. Furthermore, in those ebbing days of tiger hunts in India, Scott was armed with a powerful rifle. In the end, the lucky tiger did not turn up at all.
At 0900 hours sharp, the walkie-talkie in my breast pocket crackled briefly.
The tiger “beat” had begun. The teams of beaters, all the men now safely on elephant back, were approaching the tiger cautiously. The two elephants had to maintain the right spacing. They had to get close to the tiger, trying to gently “push” the tiger, without letting the wily cat sneak back past them unseen. Their goal was to quietly persuade the tiger to come my way. I was confident they could, because they were led by my old friend and extraordinary naturalist, Forest Ranger Chinnappa.
In Nagarahole, groups of tribesmen wandering the jungle occasionally shooed away wild dogs, leopards, or even tigers off their kills to steal the meat. A wild tiger’s natural instinct is to quietly sneak away before the foraging men found its kill, hoping to come back and consume it later. I wondered what this particular tiger would do.
At 0902 hours I heard a low growl, quickly followed by the alarmed cackle of a silver-hackled jungle fowl that rocketed off the ground to a safe perch. The tiger was on the move. But was it coming my way?
I waited for what seemed like an eternity, but my watch said it was only five minutes since the beat started. Suddenly, I saw a ghostly shadow move through the dense brush of Randia stems one hundred meters ahead. My heart was pounding, I feared, almost loud enough for the tiger to hear.
Then I saw it: a big male tiger, padding calmly, with its massive head held low, glancing from side to side. He was a picture of power and grace. The shade cast by the Randia foliage painted harlequin patterns, black filigree on sunlit gold. The tiger turned left, changing direction to a trail leading away from me. Then he froze in surprise, his left forepaw lifted off the ground. The curtain of bright white fabric in striking contrast to the greenery, which barred his way, worried him. He turned around and followed another trail, this time heading in my direction.
I swung the gun around slowly, hoping I would not catch his eye. My best chance was a broadside shot, through an opening in the shrubbery seven meters ahead. I clicked off the safety catch, steadied the gun, and looked through the scope. I was now seeing the tiger like floating pieces of an orange-and-black jigsaw puzzle. I kept the barrel moving just ahead of the tiger’s muzzle, and stopped. As his head, shoulder, flank, and, finally, thigh emerged in the crosshairs, I squeezed the trigger ever so gently.
There was a soft pop of compressed air. The silvery syringe with its bright red tailpiece shot out, zipping furiously like a gigantic bee. I saw it sting the tiger’s massive thigh. He jerked, cursed the dart with a loud growl, hopped a couple of steps, and stopped. I froze too, not even daring to breathe.
Finally deciding nothing was amiss, the tiger continued padding down the trail. I saw the rippling of his thigh muscles eject the syringe, which dropped to the forest floor. The muscle-bound big cat walked away with all the swagger of a bodybuilder. Soon he was out of sight.
I fished out my wireless handset. Choking with excitement, I whispered, “I got the tiger.” The beaters at the other end instantly fell silent. I got down from the tree and examined the empty syringe. The tiger had got his full dose, eight hundred milligrams of the tranquilizer. Good!
Next came the second nerve-wracking part of the hunt: I had to find the sedated tiger quickly. The sooner we found him, the safer he would be from any chance encounter with another tiger or a bull elephant.
(Excerpted with permission from Among Tigers: Fighting to Bring Back Asia’s Big Cats by Ullas Karanth, published by Chicago Review Press; 2022)