When most people think of India the first wild animal that comes to mind is the Bengal tiger. This legendary species, largest member of the cat family, truly epitomizes wildlife in India.As a result, India works diligently to embrace and protect this imposing and powerful animal. Males can reach 10 feet in length and weigh up to 500 pounds; as expected, females are somewhat smaller. The coat of a tiger is short and distinctively striped with patterns as individual as a fingerprint. Geographic differences also affect color and stripe pattern as well as fur density.
During a total of eight wildlife safaris in Kahna and Bandhavgahr National Parks, both located in central India, Larry and I had many sightings of Bengal tigers. We saw males and females, even a mother tiger playing with her four cubs. In the parks, tigers can often be seen resting or walking on dirt paths, which is easier on their soft feet than branches and rocks in the forest.Although the tigers used to range over a great part of the country, today they are primarily restricted to forested areas of northern and central India. Their habitat can range from 10,000 feet high in the humid jungles of the Himalayas to the swamps of the Sundarbans where they spend much time in water.
Reclaiming tigersIn 1940 there were an estimated 40,000 tigers in India. Thirty years later the count was less than 2,000. Loss of habitat and excessive unmanaged hunting caused the number of tigers to decline significantly. Game shooting of tigers has been legal only since 1971, but illegal poaching continued for decades after that.
In 1973 Project Tiger was inaugurated by the Indian government in conjunction with World Wildlife Fund. Fifteen areas of reserve were set aside throughout India for protecting tigers and the ecosystems that benefit them. Additionally, as a result of Wildlife Institute of India being established in 1976 India now has the best record of any nation for protection of wildlife.Within 52 national parks and 223 wildlife reserves, none of which have fences although some have villages within the reserve’s boundaries, tigers are free to roam. Our guide in India previously worked for Wildlife Institute of India and offered insight into programs currently in place to track tigers as they move through established corridors to different regions.
Tigers prey mostly on large hoofed animals such as deer, preferring to hunt at night or on cloudy days. Although they have been known to attack young elephants and cattle, they rarely kill people. That would usually be the result of human encroachment on their territory. Tigers are not social animals; they hunt alone by stalking prey, then rush to attack and kill by choking or breaking the prey’s neck. During the day they rest in sheltered areas like caves or thick brush.Tigers have become a big draw for tourism in India. Indeed, that was one of our primary reasons for to traveling to this huge country. We were not disappointed. Seeing them in their natural habitat is an amazing experience.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier