Words and photos by Coalatree Ambassador Ryan Erickson
Recently a friend and I embarked on an adventure we had talked about for years: searching for the wild tigers of India.
We knew that seeing a tiger in the wild was not going to be easy. There are less than 3,000 tigers left and their populations and habitat are shrinking every day. We wanted to see them while we still could, and we hoped that documenting our journey would raise awareness and help their preservation in some small way.
After months of research, we decided to focus on a region called Bandhavgarh that was known to have the highest density of tigers in India. After a lengthy journey to the remote interior, we finally reached Bandhavgarh. With a guide and licensed tiger tracker, we entered the jungle. The terrain was pristine and beautiful as our jeep snaked through the thick jungle. Endless vines crisscrossed over the road. We saw an abundance of wildlife: wild boar, white-spotted deer, water-buffalo and seemingly a million black-faced Langur monkeys swinging from vines overhead. It looked like a scene straight out of The Jungle Book.
After a few hours of exploring, we heard a piercing noise echo through the jungle. It sounded like a siren. Our guide told us it was a warning call made by a deer. This meant a predator was in the area and the deer was warning the other animals. Our tracker was staring at the dirt. Tiger tracks! They were massive; almost the size of a human hand. We were close. We sat for a while listening and studying the terrain. Suddenly from the silence we heard a low, deep sound… and then we heard it again. It was the growling of a large tiger and it wasn’t more than 20 yards from us in the brush. We sat and we waited. Eventually the growling subsided and the returning sounds of the birds and monkeys indicated that the tiger had moved deeper into the forest.
It was an action-packed first safari but we had missed our window. Tigers are nocturnal hunters and are mostly active at night. We decided to return later when we’d have another chance.
That afternoon, we drove several hours to a region that was about as remote as we could access. The sun was already setting through the thick tree tunnels encompassing the dirt road. Once again, a deer belted out a high-pitched alarm that echoed through the forest—warning calls! We stopped, watched, and listened. We were all on-edge. A wild tiger was very close by.
“There!” our guide said. We looked, and 30 yards away through thick brush was a 500-pound striped orange and black cat with a monstrous head staring right at us. It was massive! Suddenly there was movement. The adrenaline was pumping through our veins. A second tiger slowly strolled away from the first. These beasts are so elusive and hard to find that your brain can’t even believe they are real once you finally see one. Their size, grace and astonishing stripes leaves you awestruck. We were stunned.
Suddenly, our guide glanced behind our jeep and did a double take. “Look!” he said. A third tiger casually walked into the dirt road not far from us. This time we were able to see everything in great detail. The large cat stared straight at us with focused, intense eyes. Nobody made a sound. The large male tiger never took his eyes off of us. He then sat down square in our path and continued staring at us. After a few minutes the massive male tiger stood up, stretched, and disappeared back into the thick curtains of the jungle. We were all stunned and grateful.
It was so amazing to see tigers in their natural environment but we realized that the planning and the adventure of looking for a rare animal in a strange land was equally as gratifying as the sighting itself. In a world of instant gratification, to commit to an adventure, which takes months to organize, knowing that you may fail, and to travel to the ends of the earth to see it through, for better or worse, was good for the soul.