Magazine article The Spectator

Chasing the Tiger

Magazine article The Spectator

Chasing the Tiger

Article excerpt

FORGET lions, elephants, crocodiles or even rhino. Any fool with a khaki hat and a camera can find those. Just jump in a game-- park bus with the rest of the tourist herd. For the true safari challenge, for the Everest of wildlife spectacles, nothing beats the tiger. And hurry, while stocks last.

My quest for a tiger has taken me across India and into Nepal. It has cost me thousands of pounds and several weeks. And what makes it so special is that I have still not had a proper glimpse. I have seen tigers - and even stroked them - in zoos. I have seen them in documentaries. I have heard them in the wild, smelt them in the wild and come within a few feet of one. But I have still not had the exhilaration of seeing the greatest cat of them all in its natural habitat. I have not given up.

My search for a tiger began in 1996 after a conversation with an old friend. Caroline Lees, then Delhi correspondent of the Sunday Times, had been investigating the illegal trade in tiger parts between India and China, a grim racket which is decimating India's tiger population. Much of the poaching and smuggling was happening on India's border with Nepal, and Caroline was heading up there to investigate. I had a couple of weeks of holiday looming and decided to tag along.

We headed for Dudhwa National Park, home, allegedly, to some 100 tigers and also to Billy Arjan Singh, one of India's greatest tiger authorities. A great-grandson of the Maharaja of Kapurthala, Billy comes from a family which once hunted big cats for sport. He has dedicated his life to saving them.

He had invited us stay with him for a few days at his home, Tiger Haven, a beautiful riverside spot where lush forest and marshland give way to the fields of Uttar Pradesh. Millions will have seen the place in David Niven's moving documentary, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots, which chronicles Billy's efforts to raise a leopard cub called Harriet.

After a 12-hour drive from Delhi we finally reached the track leading up to Tiger Haven, but there was a problem. Our driver announced that he would not take his car, a much-pampered old Contessa, through the potholes and mud which lay ahead. We would have to walk. A passing local said that it was about a mile to Billy's house. It was also dusk and all around us was the thick, tall grass from which tigers pounce on their prey ... at dusk.

I tried to convince the driver that his car was up to it. Stumbling blindly around somewhere called Tiger Haven at feeding time seemed as sensible as swimming around somewhere called Shark Haven with a nosebleed. Caroline was made of sterner stuff and said that the walk would do us good. Off we set with our luggage, flinching at every rustle in the undergrowth. Caroline developed a bizarre theory that clapping would frighten off any predators. Funny all those munched-up Indians never thought of that.

The farmhouse lights were a godsend and Billy welcomed us in to a huge dinner and a mild reprimand for having walked. A decade earlier, tigers would regularly pick off his workers along that very path. In the last few years, he added wistfully, no one had been attacked. Sadly, Tiger Haven was not the haven it once was. But, even so, one should not take silly risks.

Although, at 78, Billy was no longer the energetic action man from the documentary we had seen, he had lost none of his passion for the creature which Mrs Gandhi adopted as India's national animal at Billy's behest. But his huge files of correspondence with a woefully sluggish Indian officialdom showed that he was fighting a losing battle. …

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