Published: The Scalpel, Volume 29, #4, October 2013
Published: Veterinary Practice, October 2013, page 48, Wildlife
Published: Focus, January / February 2014
Incredible India! A country like no other that I have visited thus far. I was warmly welcomed to this country while taking a twelve-day tour, where a group of vegetarian travelers from all over the world were introduced to new friends, food, customs, villages, and historic sites that the country had to offer. We began our tour in Delhi the same week as the 2010 Commonwealth games. A city bustling with honking rickshaws, roaming livestock, beautiful saris, colourful markets, and the smell of street food one could never forget. I came to India for a once in a lifetime experience. In my last week I traveled alone to Varanasi and then Madhya Pradesh, where I yearned to see a tiger in the wild at Bandhavgarh National Park.
Bandhavgarh National Park has the highest density of Bengal tigers in the world. My guide book then at the time estimated there were 568 tigers in the park. I envisioned seeing tigers hiding in the grass and climbing trees. After a twelve-hour train ride to Umaria, I met another traveler named Luciano and together we were determined to see tigers! The park only allowed visitors to enter via a hired safari jeep two times per day. Each safari ride lasted approximately 1.5 hours. Visitors were not permitted out of the vehicles. The village adjacent to the park had one restaurant, a few general stores, and there was nothing else to do but talk tiger! After three days and six safaris, we were very disappointed when no tigers could be found. Other travelers had seen tigers and were glowing with excitement as they journeyed back to the train station. But Luciano and I decided to stay one more day, take one more safari, and try one more time! In the evening we met a couple from Sweden and shared their safari jeep to save money. It was almost six o’clock, and the park closed at dusk, and our driver acknowledged we were leaving. Disappointed by our bad luck, and feeling sad that an area of 437 km2 with the highest density of Bengal tigers in the world left us only to find monkeys, wild boars, and deer, the safari jeep approached the gate. I sat down and sighed at Luciano with a look of despair, and just then an adult tigress walked right in front of us across the path and continued beyond slowly. She was strong, curious, and confident; she was beautiful!
Tigers are the largest members of the cat family and are renowned for their power and strength. The Bengal Tiger, or Panthera tigris tigris, is the national animal of Bangladesh and India. It is the most numerous tiger subspecies, and over many centuries they have become an important part of Indian culture and tradition. Since 2010, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified it an endangered species. The total population is estimated under 2,000 individuals, and sadly these numbers are decreasing. The required land space to support a Bengal tiger’s range is nearly impossible to fulfill within any of the Tiger Conservation Landscapes.
The Bengal tiger has a yellow-orange coat, dark brown-black stripes, and a white underside with a ringed striped tail. Males are larger than females weighing up to 500 lbs, which is almost double their female counterparts. Tigers use their markings as camouflage and no two have exactly the same stripes. The white tiger is rarely still found; it is a recessive mutant of the Bengal tiger and not to be confused with albinism. Tigers live alone and scent-mark territories in order to keep competition away. They are powerful nocturnal hunters that travel far to find buffalo, deer, wild pigs, and other mammals. They sneak up close enough to attack their victims with a fast fatal pounce, and a hungry tiger may eat as much as 27 kilograms in one night! Females deliver litters of two to six cubs, which they raise with little help from the male, and care for the cubs for two to three years until they disperse to find their own territory.
There were once eight tiger subspecies, but three became extinct in the 20th century. In the last century, hunting and logging for urbanization have reduced tiger populations from hundreds of thousands of animals to perhaps less than 2,000. Illegal poaching of wild tigers still occurs, and body parts may be sold in traditional Chinese medicines prescribed for rheumatism and body pain. Of the five remaining tiger subspecies, all are endangered.
Many programs are in place in an attempt to save the tiger. India has its own protection through the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which enables governmental agencies to take measures supporting tiger conservation. Project Tiger was launched in 1972 to protect tiger populations and preserve land of biological importance as natural heritages for people in India. They raise awareness on tiger threats, and provide protected breeding grounds that closely represent the diverse ecosystems that tigers live in. Another project advocating tiger protection lies in the Himalayan foothills of northern India and southern Nepal, where eleven protected areas home tigers in a 49,000 km2 landscape. This project introduced awareness on tiger conservation into politics and has been successful in reducing poaching and restoring habitats. A global campaign called Save Tigers Now was created when the World Wildlife Foundation partnered with Leonardo DiCaprio with hopes of building the political, financial, and public support that would double the wild tiger population by 2022.
Everyone in the world, whether Indian or not, can help save tigers by educating the public, making financial donations to conversation, and boycotting the purchase of illegal products from poaching. The tiger is a national symbol in India, an image on banknotes in Bangladesh, and an election symbol in Pakistan. The plight of the Bengal tiger must be taken seriously, or soon there will be a day where these images are only memories of what was a gorgeous wild cat!