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January 2012: The Eye of the Tiger

The Eye of the Tiger

The Eye of the Tiger

Wildlife artist Robert Fuller takes a walk in the wild side with a magnificent predator as featured in the Gazette & Herald January 2012.

OVER the Christmas break I've been going through my photographs of tigers as I'm planning a new painting of this magnificent striped predator. There are less than 3,000 tigers left in the wild and yet it is still legal to sell tiger skins in China. Chinese superstition is one of the primary reasons behind the demise in numbers. There is huge demand for tiger skins, genitals, bones, teeth and nails.

I count myself lucky to have seen tigers in the wild. But, if the rampant poaching continues who knows if they'll still be around by the time my daughters grow up. I travelled to India recently and visited the national parks Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Ranthambhore.

During my stay I enjoyed 24 sightings of 16 different tigers so to the tourist's eye, all seemed well. But, as with so much in India, the reality is very different. According to the latest statistics from the Wildlife Institute of India, the tiger population in this country is an estimated maximum of 1,600 and reports only marginal increases year on year within the Parks.

Nothing prepares you for actually seeing the 3 metre length of a tiger glide effortlessly by you. It made quite an impression, as did the deep gorges that its claws had left in a tree used as a scratching post over 3 metres up from the ground. Seeing a tiger felt surreal. But that had more to do with the fact that I was perched on the back of an elephant at the time and the mahout - the man in charge of the elephant - kept asking for a cash advance to see the tiger for a little bit longer, which turned the experience into a bit of a circus.

It was certainly a far cry from peaceful wildlife sightings back home. But it was India after all - where anything can happen. Poverty is everywhere in India and the sheer rawness of it was a real shock.

On top of that the effects of the poverty on the landscape were dramatic. In some places oddly shaped dead tree stumps are all that are left to remind you of the forests that once prospered. These have gone to provide building materials and firewood for a desperate population. Overgrazing by goats have exacerbated the situation turning the scenery to dust.

The national parks meanwhile are lushly forested and flow with clean water. To travel between the two was a bizarre experience. Nowhere was this distinction more apparent than between the dust ball village of Sawai Madhopur and the adjacent Ranthambhore National Park. Locals will proudly tell you it's 'where Bill Clinton came', not that this in itself appears to have done any good.

Ranthambhore has vast lakes, dramatically ruined temples and palaces, densely forested areas and deep gorges. Its original purpose was as hunting grounds for the Hindu Raj. It was here I had one of the most spectacular wildlife-watching moments of my life.

My wife and I had hired a driver to guide us through the park and after bumping along the dusty roads for days in sweltering 45 degree heat, we had had no sightings of tigers. We paused under a tree to think up a new plan for our tiger search. Below us was a lake covered in water lilies and beyond it a distant temple slowly being enveloped by the surrounding forest.

As gazed at the temple I spotted a tiger looking out of one of the arches. I grabbed my binoculars to confirm the sighting. 'Tiger, tiger, tiger' the driver shouted, leaping around the jeep excitedly in a most peculiar fashion so that it was hard to actually watch what was going on.

This tigress was a long way off and protected from the noise by the vast stretch of water between us. She purveyed the scene nonchalantly. Some distance away, a group of samba deer munched waist deep in the lake on tender water lily stems. As the deer moved unwittingly towards the tiger, a flash of mischief flickered across her eyes, and I knew: she was going to hunt.

She leapt down from the temple and started charging through the water towards the samba. The samba scattered, alarm calling, but both the deer and the tiger were encumbered by deep water. It was as if it was all happening in slow motion.The tiger singled out an individual and steered it towards a rocky causeway which separated the lake in half.

She pursued the samba with great gusto for 100 metres or so. But then, just when she was a whisker away from an easy meal, she missed her footing and stumbled. She had let her prey get away, and was clearly disgruntled, flicking her tail angrily at her clumsiness and glancing back to see where she had gone wrong.

Our guide had continued to jump up and down throughout the sighting which had made getting these shots even more challenging. Yet, the strength and power of that tiger was breathtaking to watch.

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