Caught by the River

The Tiger

Mat Bingham | 11th March 2019

Wildlife photographer Mat Bingham heads to India’s Ranthambhore tiger reserve during breeding season

Tiger Tiger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

I am no poet, I am no poetry expert, but I have always liked this verse. I think children grow up with a burning desire to see certain animals. For some, that desire fades as they get older, for others it only grows stronger. I always wanted to see a triceratops and a tiger. The former I suspect I will never see other than in popcorn movies, but I have seen a wild tiger.

Ranthambhore is India’s most famous tiger reserve and arguably the most beautiful. Prior to India’s independence, Ranthambhore was the hunting ground of the Maharajahs of Jaipur. The tiger reserve covers 392 km2 and was established as a game sanctuary in 1955. In 1973, Ranthambhore became one of the Project Tiger reserves and it was declared a National Park in 1984. The reserve is divided into ten zones – zones one to five are the original Project Tiger reserve. Zones six to ten were a more recent acquisition. Originally two wildlife sanctuaries, they became part of the tiger reserve in 1991.

In November 2018 I spent five days in Ranthambhore. November is the tiger breeding season and is when tigers are reported to look their most magnificent.

After three days of safaris all I had seen of a tiger were pugmarks on dusty tracks.

I tried to keep my excitement under control – I might not see a tiger and even if I did, it would likely be the briefest of glimpses.

On the fourth and final day of our safari I took a Nepalese coin I had found in the foothills of the Himalayas with me for luck (the subject of a future CBTR post). Our driver for the morning picked us up and I asked him which zone we would be visiting. “Good one”, he said, “Zone 4!”

We drove at break-neck speed along a dusty track in the Gypsy (a type of Indian Jeep). I was sat behind the driver and wedged my feet under the front seat to stop me being bounced out onto the road. Despite my best efforts to cover my face the Ranthambhore red sandstone dust got up my nose, in my ears and in my mouth. We briefly stopped to pick up the guide from his house and then headed towards Zone 4. The guide introduced himself as Vic. I was pretty sure I had seen him in a BBC Wildlife documentary about tigers some years ago. Vic turned around as we drove off and asked if we had seen any tigers so far. I said no, he smiled and said, “Zone 4 is a good zone, we have a good chance.”

We passed through the entrance gates to the park and were immediately immersed in Rudyard Kipling’s jungle. The driver slowed down, Sambar deer were feeding whilst we scanned the trees looking for movement and daring to hope.

It’s very difficult to spot an animal that you have never seen before. The tiger’s coat of stripes and spots together with the colouration is perfectly adapted to blend in with the dappled light of its natural habitat.

With no warning Vic turned and hissed “tiger”, pointing to the right of the Gypsy. I frantically scanned where he was looking but couldn’t see anything other than light and shade, trees and scrub. Vic directed the driver to slowly move the Gypsy forward into a clearing. “Wait” Vic said, “you’ll see”, and then there she was. Like a ghost she suddenly emerged from the jungle into the clearing where we had stopped.

I couldn’t believe such a large animal could conceal itself so well. Her orange and brown coat seemed to continually shift as the muscles underneath rippled with movement. It gave an otherworldly feel to the encounter, like she was there, but not completely. She paused, crouched low and drank briefly from a puddle. We were maybe six metres from her. Then, she walked up a hill as we followed in the Gypsy at a respectful distance.

The tiger completely ignored us as the day started to warm up. She was looking for somewhere to rest whilst I was transfixed by her beauty.

Individual tigers can be identified by their facial markings and Vic new her to be a young female called “Arrowhead”. She is the granddaughter of a famous tigress call Machli, who I was familiar with from watching tiger documentaries during my childhood, the VHS tape stretched thin and worn from all the watching and re-watching. I remember trying to control my breathing and trembling as I took photographs. We stayed with her for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes before she disappeared back into the jungle, and that was it, she was gone. She was and is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.