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Ek tha tiger: How the tiger paparazzi loves it to death

The Jim Corbett National Park has 600 species of birds. It has 700 elephants. It has the critically endangered gharial. It is one of the only places in India where you might spot three species of otters. But the only animal that matters is the tiger. When I came back from Corbett, the first, (and sometimes, the only) question everyone asked is “Did you see a tiger?”

We did not. We did see the pugmarks of a tiger. Fresh, we were told, quite fresh. But no actual tiger.

“I don’t believe it,” my sister said when I showed her the pug pic. “They probably put those marks out there to fool tourists like you.”

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who have seen a tiger in the wild and those who have not. I belong to the second category. And according to the just announced guidelines from the Union environment and forests ministry, I might stay that way. All tourism operations running in core areas of tiger reserves will be phased out in five years.

Tourism versus the tiger is an ongoing battle. Reuters

The latest tiger census estimates there are 1706 tigers left in India today. That’s a small uptick from the last census but hardly anything to get excited about. This week the Supreme Court was notified that most states had not complied with its order on buffer zones around tiger reserves.

Tourism versus the tiger is an ongoing battle. The Indian National Tiger Conservation society complains the animals are being “loved to death” by tourists. “Banning tiger tourism would be a disaster,” rebuts Belinda Wright of the Wildlife Protection Society of India. “Tourism acts as a conservation tool and also provides income to thousands of people, many of them local to the area.” If you get rid of the tourists, it’s even more of an open season for poachers.

Well, that’s debatable. Tourists are not allowed in core areas of Simlipal and the tiger seems to breathing a sigh of relief there. Tourists flood Sariska and Panna. But the tiger has disappeared from there.

My father saw a tiger in the jungles of Panna decades ago. He was not a tourist. He was an engineer building a bridge across the river. Coming home one evening in his jeep he suddenly ran across a tiger. The driver cut the lights and stopped the jeep. The tiger strolled across the road and disappeared into the darkness. My father told us that story in a matter-of-fact way. There was a certain politeness about his recounting of the encounter as if they were two neighbours who had chanced upon each other during an evening walk.

Now as the tiger has become rarer, its shadow looms even larger in our imagination. It’s as if we know that time is running out for the tiger in the wild and more than saving it, we want to click it. In his essay for Open Magazine, Akshay Sawai describes the pressure of the tiger darshan.

A safari costs money and time (Rs 3,500 for a private tour, Rs 1,000 per head if you go in a group, and each safari means almost four hours in heat and dust). So the guide feels pressured to deliver. If a tiger is spotted, both he and the guest go back home happy.

Let’s face it, for all our talk about eco-tourism and conservation, we have become the tiger paparazzi. A colleague who spent a few days in Ranthambhore remembers that word went around that two tigers were about to mate. It was as if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were putting on a live sex show. The reserve went into war footing. Jeeps screeched down the dirt track. All the tourists whipped out their cameras. The happy ending never happened. The cats decided it was a mood kill. Do you blame them?

The tiger cannot do anything in peace. It cannot even drink water from a watering hole without a dozen cameras clicking into action. The forest rangers are always in touch with each other via radio, so that they can converge on a drinking, sleeping, yawning, mating tiger at the flick of its tail. At some reserves they use the pincer maneuver with elephants approaching a tiger from all sides so it literally has nowhere to hide. It’s a tiger gherao so we can get that tiger pic for our Facebook page. Or enter the NDTV Save Our Tigers Initiative photo contest where Amitabh Bachhan will judge our best candid camera tiger shot.

As Sawai recounts when you do see the tiger finally you immediately want some more. After all you have that expensive video camera. What good is it if the tiger just wants to snooze? That is not going to be enough to impress the Big B.

(A)ll it wants to do is lie down in the shade on the bank. It does, on its right flank. So now we see its hind legs, bum and tail. Once in a while, it raises its big head, looks in our direction and puts its head down again. The sight of 20 cars full of stupid humans, one of them in a blue Chelsea shirt, is not worth sacrificing its snooze for… The thrill of watching a tiger from a distance is comparable to witnessing astronomical phenomena. What is happening is happening far away, but you know it’s special. It’d be more special, however, if the tiger gave us a bit of a show.

But the tiger has been giving us a show for many many years. Even when it kills a human being, we turn it into a tourist trap writes Prerna Singh Bindra, member of the National Board of Wildlife.

One particularly insensitive resort extolled the fact that it was right “on the bank of Kosi river close to the spot where a tiger attacked and killed a women” (sic), perhaps trying glamourise the “man-eater”, and encash on it.

The tiger richly deserves its me time. And if that means tourists like me won’t get to see it in the wild, so be it. It’s his house and I am the uninvited guest.

Just for the record, we saw a herd of elephants at Corbett, including a calf, noisily ripping off branches and having breakfast. A peacock unfurled its tail at a watering hole. We saw langurs hanging out on trees. We spotted the tiny shy barking deer. We saw the flamboyantly iridescent jungle fowl preening before his drab prim spouse.

But we didn’t see the tiger. And you know what, that is OK.