“It’s a sign saying, ‘I am here! I am here!’ ” says Ullas Karanth as he flails his arms and jumps up and down in a mock attention-grabbing wave.
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He is referring to a scrape, a patch of jungle floor recently cleared by a tiger’s hind paws. It’s huge, the size of a cafeteria tray. Based on the freshness of the uprooted grass along the edges, Karanth figures a tiger passed here sometime last night. I kneel down and am hit by an overwhelming stench—the musky spray of a quarter-ton cat that has just marked its territory.
Signs of tigers are everywhere inside Nagarhole National Park in southwestern India. From our forest service lodge we hear the telltale alarm calls of deer in the middle of the night. On early morning drives Karanth, one of the world’s leading tiger biologists, points out paw prints the size of dinner plates. We pass trees with trunks that the cats have raked bare, signposts for rivals and potential mates.
Karanth has deep piercing eyes that can spot a deer a quarter of a mile away from inside a moving vehicle. He prefers, however, to drive with his head sticking out the window so he can read the tracks of every animal that has crossed the path beneath our wheels. Gleefully calling out each animal by name, he seems oblivious as the vehicle swerves alarmingly from side to side.
After days of searching through forests that harbor some of the highest concentrations of tigers in the world, we have yet to see one. Karanth tells me he spent 15 years looking before he saw his first wild tiger. Even when the cats are all around, he says, the odds of seeing one are slim.
A few days later, driving down a dirt lane in neighboring Bandipur National Park, we come across a jeep operated by a local tour company. Bandipur has fewer tigers than Nagarhole, but its dry, open forests make for easier wildlife viewing. The jeep has stopped and its passengers are staring intently. As Karanth pulls up behind them I see stripes of orange, black and white. “Tiger!” I yelp.
One of nature’s most perfect killing machines dozes in the afternoon heat. We watch the cat sleep as other jeeps crowd around us like a pack of dholes, the wild dogs that hunt inside the park. People gasp and point, then click their cameras from the safety of their vehicles. Slowly, the tiger opens one eye, and with a casual glance in our direction, locks me in a gaze so powerful that all else disappears. After licking its paws and stretching its back, the cat rises to its feet. Then the tiger turns its head and walks deeper into the forest until it disappears.
From the boreal forests of the Russian Far East to the jungles of Sumatra, tiger populations are in free-fall. In the past century, their numbers have plunged from an estimated 100,000 to fewer than 3,500.
This small pocket of southwestern India is one of the few places where the tiger popula- tion has reversed the trend and is now strong. Biologists and government officials from all over the world are visiting Nagarhole to learn from Karanth; he gives them hope that they can save their own tigers and other big cats.
Karanth, 63, grew up less than 100 miles from here and first visited Nagarhole (also known as Rajiv Gandhi National Park) in 1967 as a teenager. Hunting and logging were rampant in the park at the time. Seeing even a chital, the small spotted deer now found in droves throughout the park, was rare. “I was pretty sure I would never see a tiger by the time I grew up,” he says.