Encountering a tiger in the wild is a privilege not to be taken lightly, and an experience that is never forgotten. Words cannot do justice to this most magnificent of all creatures, but many have tried to capture the instincts triggered by its terrible beauty, the reality of our inherent human frailty when confronted with nature’s most evolved predator.
Our consciousness is fully awakened by “Tiger tiger, burning bright”. Hairs rise, breath stills, time stops, and the heart skips a beat as the sun striped shadows dissolve into the largest of the world’s cats, the sheer wonder of several hundred kilos of elegant muscle and striped intensity.
First arriving at Tiger Tops in the Chitwan National Park, I was told: “You can live your entire life in the jungle without ever seeing a tiger.” The king of the jungle is essentially nocturnal, solitary, and adept at avoiding people and encounters, its lone survival depending on self-sufficiency.
For our guests, Chuck McDougal and his naturalists shortened the odds by reading the signals, identifying tracks, and interpreting alarm calls – barking deer, grunting monkeys, and coughing chital. Jungle excursions and elephant safaris took place early morning and late afternoon to maximize the probability.
In the bad old days, a young male buffalo was tethered in the same spot every night, watched over by a shikari who ran back on swept paths to summon us from the lodge bar or dinner table. Barefoot, breathlessly silent, and peering through the small windows of the grass machan, a tiger could be discerned crouched over its kill, bones crunching, illuminated by a rudimentary searchlight powered by an old car battery.
Despite such contrivances, tiger sightings in the wild are never certain. Even after we stopped baiting and depended on our naturalists’ skill, every year only one-quarter of all Tiger Tops guests were fortunate enough to catch a precious glimpse of the planet’s largest cat. And for me, every time was a moment of magic and quiet respect that such splendor coexists on this earth.
Originally protected as a sanctuary for Nepal’s Greater One-horned Rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis), the fame of Chitwan was soon usurped by the tiger’s elusive glamour, the undisputed star of the show. Even the Latin name resonates with awe and mystery: Panthera tigris.
Chitwan’s rich habitat, watered by the Rapti and Narayani rivers with alluvial grasslands, mixed riverine forest, and the sal-covered Chure Hills, had long been set aside by ruling Ranas as prime hunting country, reserved as a refuge to impress a favored few royals, viceroys and maharajahs. The Shah kings were required to prove their bravery with bagged tigers and perform obscure religious rites that included climbing inside the carcass of a slaughtered rhino.
During Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1961, for which Meghauli airstrip was carved out of the jungle, Boris Lisanevitch catered an elaborate royal camp and 327 elephants were rallied for the game drive. Prince Philip famously refused to shoot. Yesterday’s hunters were evolving into today’s conservationists, and cameras were replacing guns.
Throughout its range, Asia’s apex predator had become critically endangered due to a combination of loss of habitat, depletion of prey species, human conflict, poaching, and hunting. South Asian tigers drastically dwindled to less than 2,000 from an estimated population of 40,000 at the turn of the century, plummeting to less than 3,500 from 100,000 worldwide.
In response, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1973 launched Project Tiger throughout India, and the same year Chitwan’s 360 square miles of undisturbed biodiversity were gazetted as Nepal’s first national park. Designated a natural World Heritage Site in 1984, and linked with adjacent reserves into the huge tiger conservation landscape of Chitwan-Parsa-Valmiki in 1998, Royal Chitwan National Park rapidly became renowned as one of the best wildlife viewing experiences in Asia, especially for the increasingly rare Royal Bengal tiger.
At Tiger Tops, a treetop lodge deep in tiger country since 1964, we were inevitably entwined and engrossed with its protection. An ideal base for wildlife research and filming, Chuck pioneered camera trapping and helped the Smithsonian Institute’s radio tracking and long-term tiger monitoring.
The government often asked for help with logistics, and Jim Edwards’s former hunting skills came in handy when Hemanta Mishra and the warden requested assistance with tranquilizing a man-eater – after three attacks an aberrant tiger, usually old or injured, would be sentenced to life in Kathmandu Zoo. As the elephants fanned out through the hot dry grass, mahouts shouted to drive the aging tigress towards the waiting dart gun and I clung nervously to the ropes of my elephant’s gaddi behind a tense driver – we knew she had terrorized villagers from across the river straying into the jungle to collect grass and firewood.
Nepal can be proud of its well-protected parks and successful conservation record, the envy of other tiger range countries with the recovery of Nepal’s tigers well ahead of target. Nepali scientists have trained neighbors in scientific counting methods, we contributed sustainable tourism recommendations agreed by all tiger range countries (in Thimphu 2011), and naturalist guides have created conservation awareness with park visitors and celebrities.
Actor Bob Hoskins got too close for comfort during a tiger documentary in Bardia, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s passion for tiger conservation was first ignited at Tiger Tops Karnali, resulting in millions of dollars of WWF support.
In the 2010 St Petersburg Declaration, 13 countries endorsed the Global Tiger Recovery Plan to double the number of tigers worldwide by 2022, the Chinese Year of the Tiger. Nepal committed to expand its tiger population from 121 to about 250. By 2013 we had already achieved 63% of this goal with 198 tigers resident mainly in Chitwan, but also Bardia, Shuklaphanta, Parsa, and Banke protected areas. On Global Tiger Day 2022 this week, the Government of Nepal announced that Nepal had not only doubled but almost trebled its population to 355 tigers.
No one should live in a world without wild tigers and Nepal’s tigers remain a powerful tourism icon and a potent symbol of Nepal’s conservation success.
Remembering Chuck McDougal, the Tigerman on Global Tiger Day
It sounded more like a cough to me, but the rasping gasp from the depths of the forest was a tiger’s mating call. In the dawn stillness, the jungle seemed to hold its breath in awe.
Chuck paused on the trail, listening intently. “Bangi Pothi,” he muttered softly, before hurrying on silently through the trees in his rubber thonged sandals, canvas bag slung across his shoulder.
The tigress with a crooked pointed toe was one of the resident females around Tiger Tops lodge whose habits Chuck knew well. Bird song broke the spell, and a distant langur monkey signaled a grunt of alarm at the tigers’ presence.
With trackers Krishna, Sukram, Baburam, and eager binoculared trainees in noiseless pursuit, the party was keen to find pugmarks to identify the courting male. Every morning Chuck McDougal and his team checked on the previous night’s tiger activity, and on their newly invented system of pressure-plated camera trap photography where every tiger can be recognized by its individual pattern of stripes and facial markings. A male tiger took the very first picture of himself on the ridge above Tiger Tops in 1974.
These morning walks were not only part of Chuck’s tiger studies, but also a chance to impart firsthand jungle lore to Tiger Tops’ cadre of young naturalists and nature guides. Hard science and no bullshit, was his creed. Recruited from throughout Nepal and India, this elite task force was entrusted with introducing visiting tourists to the intricacies of Tarai wildlife, and keeping it safe in tiger terrain.
With Jim Edwards, Chuck had taken over Tiger Tops in 1972 and together their brand of business acumen mixed with purist wildlife expertise melded commerce with conservation, putting Nepal on the map as an eco-tourism pioneer before the term was invented.
Ever sparing with words, Chuck was a gifted mentor, generously sharing knowledge and offering encouragement to acolytes in his reticent drawl. I did not often accompany these jungle excursions, being busy with more mundane tasks, but the names of my naturalist colleagues echo down the decades: Ashish, Bhim, Bir Bahadur, Balaram, Devi, Dhan, Dinesh, Gun Bahadur, Hashim, Kalu Ram, Karan, KK, Mash, Pun, Pradeep, Rahul, Raju, Wangdi, Yam, and others. Although widely scattered, many are still committed to the tourism and conservation mantra that we preached with a zealous passion.
When he was not roaming the jungle and training naturalists, Chuck was writing up his notes on tiger behavior, attended by his wife Margie. Published in 1977, his book “The Face of the Tiger” was the result of thousands of hours of observation and tracking, establishing this quiet anthropologist from Colorado as a leading expert on tigers.
Living deep within Chitwan, Chuck was able to record the lifetime reproduction of 35 females and followed many more tigers throughout their entire lives, applying his anthropological training in plotting their kinship systems.
The high rate of camera trap success depended on his intimate understanding of tigers and their travel ways. When challenged, he and Sukram proved their mastery by correctly identifying 51 out of 52 different sets of tiger tracks — the one miss was a sub-adult they thought was a new tiger.
Chuck’s tiger monitoring reports are bound in the Smithsonian Institute library, and his work continues to inform authorities concerned with protecting these nocturnal cats as the apex predator -– in essence, the preservation of habitat with plentiful prey species and minimal disturbance.
Nepal’s subsequent conservation initiatives are considered a major success. That elusive brown-striped shadow can still thrill the soul of those lucky enough to catch a glimpse through the tangled grasslands forest’s green mosaic, as the most majestic of beasts conducts its secretive circuits.
Recent government reports tell the story: the number of adult tigers has grown, protected areas cover almost one-quarter of the country, and 10,000 sq km are potential tiger territory. Nepal is better placed than other tiger-range countries to reach the pledged target of doubling its wild tiger population. Regular tiger monitoring continues, and counts are still made by the tracking and camera trapping techniques perfected in Chitwan.
As announced this week, Nepal has officially pulled off the astonishing feat to bring tigers back from the brink of extinction by increasing its population in the past 12 years from 121 to 355 tigers, way ahead of all other tiger-range counties. Chuck McDougal died several years ago, but his legacy lives on.
Featured photo of Tiger at Bardia National Park by Sushila Chhetri