There is nothing like the thrill of walking through the jungle looking for a tiger and knowing they could be watching you already, Ashlan Cousteau once said.
That watchful gaze — ever aware, always alert — may not be enough to save it, though. Jungles and tigers both are in trouble, in this hot mess of a world.
And the tigress Raj Bhera in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has it particularly hard in Tiger, this weekend’s Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C). She has newborn cubs, and everything from Indian sloth bears to other tigers seems to want them out of the way.
Never mind that Bandhavgarh, as indefatigable narrator David Attenborough takes pains to point out in his voice-over, early in the program, is a tiny — and shrinking — green island surrounded by a very human problem: over-population. The small, 105 sq. km. park in Shahdol District has a tiger population of roughly 45 tigers, which means that each cat has a territory of less than five square kilometres. The better-known Kanha National Park, by contrast, is home to some 60 tigers over an area of 950 sq. km, more than twice as much territory for each tiger than in Bandhavgarh.
It wouldn’t matter so much, except that — as Attenborough stresses in Tiger — these cats, the biggest of the big cats, are notoriously particular about their territory, which they go out of their way to mark. Trespassing on another tiger’s territory can lead to fights, even death. And it doesn’t help if one of the tigers, like Raj Bhera, has a litter of newborn cubs to protect.
Watching Dynasties, not just Tiger but all the episodes, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers, who followed each of their subjects over a four-year period, have gone out of their way to edit each hour to end on a positive note — if not a happy ending exactly, at least not on a nihilistic note. Animals, predator and prey alike, lead a hard life in the wild, wherever they are. And one of the things that makes Dynasties so compelling, if hard to watch at times, is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the tension, or the threats to its subjects’ existence — even if those endings do seem shaped in some way. (Last week’s episode Chimpanzee, for example, left out the bit where an expedition team returned Senegal’s Sahel region several months after filming ended, only to learn that the researchers’ primary study animal, and the episode’s lead character, clan leader David had been killed after all, beaten to death, most likely by his quarrelsome challengers Jumkin and Luthor, and Jumkin was now clan leader and facing an insurrection of his own.)
As with the other episodes, Tiger’s making demanded meticulous attention to detail and no small amount of time, sweat and dedication from the production team. Episode director Theo Webb, an eight-year veteran of BBC’s Natural History Unit (1997’s Land of the Tiger, which aired on BBC Two, is among his many credits — gave viewers a hint of the day-to-day jungle routine, writing on BBC’s website late last year, when Tiger made its debut in the UK (this weekend marks Tiger’s US premiere).
“Each morning at sunrise, we’d drive into the park and head straight to the territory of our tigress, Raj Bhera. Tigers are very site-specific and we knew the rough boundaries of her territory. She wasn’t radio collared and so to find her, we’d look for tracks in the dusty roads that criss cross through the park. It’s not only the tourists and us that used these dust roads. A lot of the animals also use them, because it’s much nicer to walk on soft sand rather than twigs and thorns.
“This was incredibly useful to us because you can see what’s happened during the previous night — for example, whether the tigers moving in that area were an adult male, female or cubs.
“If the tiger is moving through the jungle you can actually hear the alarm calls (of other animals) moving, as it passes through. . . .
“Tigers are very unpredictable, so you never know what’s going to happen, or when. Sometimes a deer would walk right past, and they’d continue sleeping in the middle of the day. Other times they’d get up and start stalking right in the middle of the day.
“We’d often sit and wait for an entire day with nothing happening. But you could never zone out. One day there was only a tiny window through a piece of vegetation where I could see the tiger’s tail occasionally flick. I had to have my binoculars on my eyes for hours because I knew that if she left, she’d move off silently and we’d lose her, and we’d be left waiting by an empty piece of grass.”
A tiger’s life in Bandhavgarh is beset by the ever-present threat of poaching and the inevitable human-wildlife conflict that breaks out when a small and shrinking wilderness area is hemmed in by ever-expanding agricultural plots and growing villages.
Alpha predators like tigers are the reason you don’t see old animals in the wild, biologists say. You don’t see sick animals in the wild. You don’t see lame animals in the wild. The predator — the tiger, the lion, the leopard, the wolf — sees to that. That’s why, as more than one field biologist has pointed out, a healthy predator population is invariably a sign of a healthy ecoystsem. It’s not just that the fittest survive. Those survivors procreate and pass on their genes.
Tigers are special, yet they’re vanishing, slowly but surely. It would be a terrible shame if the world loses them.
The Malays only speak of them in whispers, the 19th century explorer, writer and naturalist Isabella Bird, the first woman elected a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, wrote in 1883, in Sketches in the Malay Peninsular.
Malays only speak of them in whispers because they believe the souls of certain human beings who have departed this life have reincarnated themselves through these beasts, Bird noted, “and in some places, for this reason, they will not kill a tiger unless he commits some specially bad aggression.”
Over the centuries, the definition of what “specially bad aggression” really means has proved to be malleable, shifting, morphing and shape-shifting with the times. The tiger has been able to adapt for the most part — until now. How much longer will the immortal hand or eye frame its fearful symmetry?