Cloaked in sleek night and windy stripes,

Slinking, barely rustling, an arrow taut in the string of a bow,

A heady scent on the breeze, old blood and rotting flesh,

Cheetal bark, tails flashing, legs leaping,

Fangs flash silver, hunting knives,

Rounded pugmarks pressed into the moist earth, a promise.

Whiplash! A snake-like tail flashes bright, claws slip out of sheathes.

The air is tangy with blood, splattered on crushed grass,

sides heaving, breath ghosting on the wind, ears swiveling,

The dead doe a limp sack, trailing crimson, clinging to that taste of life,

dragged through whispering reeds, dissolving like a blood-soaked nightmare.

A kingfisher plinks hesitantly, the jungle fowl ruffles its feathers.

A flash of blue-green as the peacock peers down from a branch.

Eyes appear in the brush, golden, green, gleaming watchfully.

The queen has settled on her throne once again,

her subjects can now come out and play.

Even if I do not see a tiger, it is enough to know that the tiger still prowls in the jungles of my country. It is enough to see pugmarks, a promise of presence. To see the flattened blades of grass as I crouch by a camera trap, and to soak in the pattern of jagged stripes on a camera reel. To smell the sour, rotting odour of carnivore breath, to feel the hairs stand erect on the back of my neck as India’s queen cat watches me, barely a breath away from where I wait with baited breath.

The tiger is more than a keystone species in India’s jungles; it is a symbol of the power, beauty, and vulnerability of nature. I am fortunate to have spotted my fair share of these striped cats, in the scorching heat of Ranthambhore, in the cool forests of the Himalayan foothills, in the petrichor-soaked air of the Sahyadris, in the temple towns of the blue Nilgiris. The tiger is a whisper, a promise, a reminder of the might of Mother Nature and the rich natural bounty of India. The pugmarks left in the soil are a whisper of the weight of our responsibility towards our shrinking wilderness. We are taking far more than we can afford to carry, focusing on the wrong steps towards a brighter future. Will the burden of losing our national animal, beloved in mythology, religion, song, dance, and stories, be heaped upon our children’s slender shoulders? Or will we pause, reflect, and try to change the flow of the tide?

The death knell rings for India’s wilderness, yet India’s heart beats firm as the roar of the tiger echoes over the mountains. To save the tiger means saving its forests, its prey, its secret life that we have no part in. We cannot save the tiger by putting this magnificent animal behind bars in a zoo, forcing it to breed in captivity, watching census numbers rise on a spreadsheet and calling that a victory. We must restore dignity to the wild. Allow our forests and rivers to retain their freedom, their secrets, their untouched identity. Our human handprints are smeared over every atom on Earth, but still, the tiger may remain unsullied if we act now.

To spot a tiger in the wild is a great privilege. Something to cherish, to preserve, to carry with you in that secret part of your heart. For, as Ruskin Bond wrote so elegantly, “the tiger is the very soul of India, and when the last tiger has gone, so will the soul of the country.”

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