Did you know that India is home to most all of the estimated 2,000 wild Bengal tigers still left on the planet? Only after drastic conservation measures have many tiger species returned from the brink of extinction in the 1940s. Of the nine different tiger species that once roamed the world, six remain. Not long ago, I was lucky enough to see two in the wild — a mother-tiger and her young one, in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in hard-to-reach central India.
Wild animals are the best reminders of why we need to care about the environment. Their mode of living also offers us a lesson: wild animals don’t over-consume. Wild animals don’t need to collect “stuff”. Wild animals don’t need oil to get places or keep warm or clean.
Sadly, the above — our modern human way of living — has affected wild animal habitat so much that simply seeing certain animals is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Tiger reserves, like those the Indian government have set up, are really our only chance to see them these days.
Located in India’s central agricultural basin, Bandhavgarh was once a place for Indian and British royalty to shoot and kill tigers. How times have changed. Today, about 60 Bengal tigers roam over 500 square miles of protected jungle and savannah. For 12 hours each day (dusk to dawn, when they are most active) the tigers are left alone. For the other 12 hours, tourists in open-top jeeps crisscross the park on designated dirt roads hoping to spot them.
Park fees protect the tigers and other animals and the guide fees create much-needed income for local residents in this poor district, where most people live on about $1 per day. Eco-tourism at its best.
Still, it’s not your typical image of eco-tourism. Imagine a mob of paparazzi snapping pictures of movie stars outside the Academy Awards you’ll get a sense of the mayhem as safari jeeps converge on a tiger visiting a watering hole at India’s Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. More than once, I found myself in a crowd of 20 jeeps parked helter-skelter, packed with visitors from faraway places clamoring to see one of the world’s rarest creatures.
After we finally saw these two, drinking at a watering hole, my eyes started to tear up. I then laughed as I watched the young tiger try to jump and capture a wild peacock for dinner. The peacock got away.
It hit me: something really bad has happened in our history for a simple glimpse of a tiger — or in my case, two tigers — to be so precious. Will seeing trees and clean water and breathing unpolluted air be this out-and-out thrilling someday? Will humans eventually live in protected zones? I certainly don’t hope so.
Still, wildlife reserves like Bandhavgarh will never completely undo the damage. My tears for the tiger, when it came down to it, were for all things wild. Every creature is precious, forming an ecosystem that we are only beginning to understand. Humans are an integral part of that ecosystem and an integral part of its ultimate survival. We must change our consumptive ways and strive to keep wild places wild if we want a better future than the tigers. The experience only renewed my drive to reduce my overall use of resources, to support wildlife and wilderness conservation, and to encourage others to do the same.