Setting out before sunrise into tiger forest is like nothing else. The hush, the chill, the mist. Tigers are the forest’s hidden meaning, connected to every leaf and sound—but will you catch a glimpse? Ranthambhore in Rajasthan is tiger-spotting country. There are long vistas over grassy meadows and blue lakes; and the trees are unusually open. Especially in winter when the deciduous forest is dry and the trees are bare.
“Wild” means animals living as they always have, in the place where they evolved. The tiger is a universal image of wildness, but they evolved in Asian forest. There are no tigers in Africa. Lions are savannah and social: tigers secrecy and solitude. Their lives depend on not being seen. In forest they keep cubs safe; they hide to catch food. Last winter in Assam, as the New Year’s sun rose over misty Himalaya, I watched from an elephant’s back a tiger using tree cover to stalk deer.
Tigers evolved in the Pleistocene, when deer and cattle families spread into the forests, creating a niche for a large predator. They need three things: a forest, prey and water. Each tiger tries to maintain a territory with enough of all three. In Ranthambhore, the best territories are those with lake frontage, so tigers can drink, swim and cool off in summer; tigers love water.
They became what they are now, morphological studies suggest, in south-east China when China was still forested. They followed the deer north into Korea, Siberia, Mongolia and west to the Caspian Sea; south, to South-East Asia, Sumatra, Java, Bali, and west to the subtropical and montane forests of Bhutan and Nepal (up to 4,000 metres), and the wet mangrove forests of Bangladesh; and farther south to India’s tip.
Tigers are crepuscular, most active at dawn and dusk. They have adapted to different prey as well as different forests. In Siberia deer are hard to find, they live in twos or threes, so a tiger’s territory may be 500km². The same goes for mountain Bhutan, where tigers travel miles to find a solitary goat-antelope. But in the grasslands and dappled forests of Madhya Pradesh, deer herds are plentiful: 20km² will do. The size and value of a territory depends on what it holds.
You can find them in some of the hottest and coldest spots on Earth. In winter, in the Russian east, tigers survive bitter snow. In summer Rajasthan, burning rock scorches their pads. At the top of the Bay of Bengal, they swim between the islands of the Sundarbans. In Karnataka, South India, they range from lush Nagarahole (where I once followed a tigress along a track watching her tail swing between bony hindquarters) to the Western Ghats: a gigantic version of the Lake District’s grassy hills, except that the hanging valleys are evergreen rainforest, filled with lianas, leeches, an eerie green-brown light, tree-ferns and king cobras.
Ten years ago I visited ten Asian countries: India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Russia, Korea, China, Laos, Thailand and Indonesia, to explore tiger forests by foot, jeep and elephant. Then 5,000 tigers were believed to live wild. It is 3,000 now. They are poached for their skins, for bones in Chinese medicine, they lose their home to logging and agriculture, starve when men poach deer, are poisoned if they eat cattle.
Yet the tiger is Asia’s soul. “Let the tiger guard the forest, the forest protect its tigers,” said the Mahabharata in 400BC. When you do encounter this solitary forest guardian—maybe you hear one cough in Sumatran rainforest on the path you just left, or watch one swim a lake—you feel you have glimpsed the meaning not just of a forest but of life.