We have spent the last two days driving and walking tiger territory here in Chitwan National Park. This morning, whilst others sleep on and before the sun is fully up, I join our guiding ornithologist through misty savanna on the banks of the Narayani. A nine foot marsh muggar crocodile is half submerged with a fleshy limb clamped in its jaws. We push slowly through tall grasses (the tallest in the world are here in the Terai-Duar lowlands) quietly searching for rare cisticolas and grassbirds. A little ahead of us is a local guide and his protective bamboo rod.
In the sand, he kneels to examine. Pug marks. Tiger. He lays a pen beside the indentations to indicate the size of the creature’s print. “Last night,” he says, pointing back along the path. “It came through.” Two evenings before, riding out high and safe on elephants’ backs, we’d come across a crisp and mealy carcass, almost a week old beneath a putrid haze of flies and nearly black from sun. Another lay half covered in high grass nearby, fresher, the stench carrying to some way off.
Chitwan, an internationally important park in the Inner Terai, has the largest Royal Bengal Tiger population anywhere in Nepal – 125 of just 2,500 or so in the subcontinent, but no easier to see for that. The most elusive of creatures, fiendishly difficult to locate, they can be right there, camouflaged perfectly in dense undergrowth or the slightest stand of grass, and you’ll never see them. They will see you.
Yesterday we took a day-long, dusty journey through the reserve, driving narrow tracks through subtropical, riverine forests. The leaf litter is ankle-deep here, dry and tiger-orange, beneath big-leaved sal and rhino trees, saj, rosewood, the sailing buttress roots of kopak. Thick strangler vines coil like pythons round trunks, slowly suffocating their hosts. Way up, langurs, old man-grey and quizzical, swing easily from branch to branch. We spot a predator’s prey well enough, deer herds keeping mostly to the shadowy spaces among and between the understory. There are four species here: the small and numerous hog deer; muntjacs; the elegant spotted deer (or chital), akin to the European fallow; and the biggest, a tiger’s favourite, the dusky, skittish sambars.
In late afternoon, the cicadas are lulled, light shifts and the air is pungent with jasmine. We happened upon a small flock of great hornbills – 10 perhaps – planing one after the other through the canopy into the tree tops. They picked and fed delicately on finicky fruit with their preposterous turmeric bills, which look double the size for those huge casques (the bizarre appendage on the upper mandible used for aerial jousting) so that the whole thing looks like some ludicrous high-society hat.
We never expected to see tigers. And we did not. Why should we? To see the tiger would be exhilaration, a marvel, but to not see it somehow seemed as it should be too. It is never our right. This beast deserves our committed protection – we are, after all, largely responsible for its grievous demise – but also deserves its isolation, its right to be and to be unseen. I will make do with enigmatic traces that signal its absent presence; sandy depressions of movement just last night, the remains of attack and kill, uneasy yelps and alarms from deeper into the forest. It is here.