To see a tiger requires infinite patience and perseverance, but the sight of your first tiger is one of life’s great moments. They are the essence of power and beauty portrayed in an unhurried, silent walk or a charge towards a herd of chital.
In recent times the tiger has become a symbol of India’s wilderness, a striped ambassador that, sadly, is in serious decline. At the turn of the 19th century, there were thought to be over 40,000 tigers in India alone; by 1972, they numbered just 1,800. According to the latest tiger census report released on February 12, 2008 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the current tiger population of India has fallen further (as a result of poaching) and is now within the range of 1,165 to 1,657 individuals. Nevertheless India continues to support more than half of the world’s tiger numbers.
Larger and more powerful than lions, tigers are solitary hunters and rely on their exquisite camouflage to approach prey closely before pouncing. Each tiger has a unique paw print, set of stripes, and facial markings, allowing them to disappear from view in the forest or on the plains, like a phantom. They are hunters of immense and awesome power with the speed and agility to catch a peacock in mid-flight and the strength to bring down a mature gaur (bison). A 330-pound tigress was once seen dragging a one-ton gaur over 50 yards into cover. On average, they kill three times a week.
Fossil evidence suggests that the tiger originated in Siberia and then spread southward. In present times they are equally at home in Himalayan high altitude, cold coniferous forests, and the steaming mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans Delta. Unlike most cats, tigers enjoy water and are good swimmers. Some tigers hunt mostly in the water and feed on fish, sea turtles, and water monitors.
The tigress produces a large litter of up to six blind, helpless kittens, but only two will normally survive. The gestation period is just 110 days and the youngsters can stay with their mother until they are two-and-a-half years of age.
India is to be applauded for its bold initiative in tiger conservation, which began in 1972 with the launch of Project Tiger. Only time will tell if this magnificent predator will once again thrive or sadly, go extinct.