How do you introduce an animal that is on every wildlife photographer’s wishlist? An animal whose magnificent presence has been the inspiration behind numerous works of art and literature. Whose stealthy moves and low growls have encouraged even novice wildlife explorers to head deep into the forest. The poster child of many conservation initiatives and a stellar example of how the right efforts can aid a species in making its way back from the brink of extinction. How do you introduce the tiger?

India’s fascination for tigers dates back centuries. Did you know that the capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai, was once called ‘Puliyur Kottam’ or tiger town? In the historical text Arthashastra, it is mentioned that forest areas were designated for tigers and lions during the Mauryan Empire. While the Mughals introduced trophy hunting, the Britishers later offered rewards for dead tigers. It looks like we spent several hundred decades expressing this fascination by trying to overpower the big cats. We are now on the other end of the spectrum where we are trying to make amends for the past and save tigers from the many perils that surround them.

Tigers drinking water at the watering hole in Tadoba Tiger Reserve
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Photograph: Gautam Khot | Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra

India is home to about half the world’s tiger population. Once called the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Indian Tiger or Bengal Tiger is today designated as an endangered species. As I write this introduction, I do a quick Google search on news articles related to tigers and find the results see-sawing between a sense of foreboding and hope. Recently, the Government of Jharkhand objected to a railway line cutting through its only tiger reserve in Palamu. Before you can rejoice, you learn that the tiger reserve already has two busy railway lines running through its core and the tiger population there has been diminishing for the past decade. Assam’s Manas Tiger Reserve has gone from zero to 48 tigers in the last two decades. In the backdrop of this achievement is another looming fact – in the first six months of 2021, there has been an alarming increase in the number of tiger and leopard deaths across the country.

July 29 is International Tiger Day, a day to celebrate the striped big cats and their conservation efforts, and India does have a lot to celebrate considering that there is a promising uptick in tiger numbers. By showcasing the above facts and the ones that follow, we don’t mean to dampen the mood, but to emphasise that we are far from hanging our boots when it comes to tiger conservation. We hope that this will help you rekindle conversations on protecting tigers and their habitats and raise necessary awareness.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

Tigers belong to the Panthera family, commonly known as big cats. Along with tigers, the family also consists of lions, jaguars, leopards, Snow Leopards and cheetahs. Among wild cats, tigers are the largest. India is home to the Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), which weighs anywhere between 108 to 227kg on average. The Siberian Tiger, on the other hand, can weigh up to 300kg, making it the world’s largest tiger. The lifespan of a Bengal Tiger is about 18-25 years. Morphological features and behavioural attributes aid in distinguishing between male and female tigers. While male tigers measure 2.7 to 3.1 meters in length, females measure 2.4 to 2.6 meters in length on average. Male tigers are also heavier than females.

Portrait of a Bengal Tiger from Jim Corbett National Park
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Photograph: Sounak Dutta | Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand

In the forests of the night,

Although Bengal Tigers are primarily found in India, they also reside in the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. The Bengal Tiger is, in fact, the national animal of India and Bangladesh and can survive in a range of habitats such as grasslands, tropical and subtropical rainforests and mangroves. In India, they are found in the states of Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Rajasthan, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. Some of India’s notable national parks and tiger reserves like Jim Corbett, Nagarahole, Bandipur, Kanha, Sariska and Ranthambhore are also places that people often visit to see tigers. The Sunderbans is the only mangrove forest region in the world where tigers are found. The tigers that reside here are uniquely adapted to the ecosystem and can swim in saline waters.

Tiger on the prowl in Nagarahole National Park in Karnataka
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Photograph: Shashank Prabhakar | Nagarahole National Park, Karnataka

And what shoulder, & what art,

A striking feature of the tiger is its stripes. Ranging from black to brown in colour, the vertical stripes aid the animal in camouflaging against its background. Being solitary creatures, camouflage plays an important role in their ability to hide themselves and hunt. The stripes of a tiger are also unique to each individual, allowing researchers to understand the tiger population of a region. Although tigers are largely golden-brown in colour with white patches on their face and neck, instances of leucism have been reported among them. In the case of leucistic tigers, the dark colours or the stripes are suppressed. For example, the Golden Tiger or Golden Tabby Tiger has a distinct pale golden colour which is the result of a recessive trait that suppresses the black colour of the stripes. A pale-coloured tiger with dark stripes was also reported from the Nilgiris region.

Golden Tiger or Golden Tabby Tiger from Kaziranga National Park
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Photograph: Mayuresh Hendre | Kaziranga National Park, Assam

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Tigers are highly territorial. Territory areas depend on the sex, and male tigers have larger territories compared to females. Tigers use various methods to mark their territory, such as spraying urine, clawing, rubbing cheeks against trees and using anal gland secretions. Females are also known to use scent-marking to attract a mate to their territory just before they enter the oestrus phase. Prey density is an important factor that determines the territory of a tiger. They also use different parts of their territory depending on the season. Tigers are well versed with their territories and know exactly where they can find a waterhole and where they can hide when threatened. Apart from territories, corridors also play an important role for tigers. Corridors are stretches of land that enable tiger movement between habitats, aiding in genetic diversity and improving local populations of the species.

Tiger showing Flehmen response in Bandipur National Park
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Photograph: Prasanna Venkatesh G | Bandipur National Park, Karnataka

What the anvil? what dread grasp,

Tigers are apex predators and hunt medium to large-sized animals like deer, wild boar and gaur. In areas bordering human habitation, they are also known to hunt cattle. Being ambush predators, tigers stalk their prey for a while before launching an attack. Once they overpower their prey, they inflict a powerful bite to the neck, severing the windpipe or damaging an artery, thereby killing the animal. They then move their kill to a secluded location to feed on it in peace. Tigers try to consume as much as they can in one sitting as they may not be able to hunt again for days together.

Tiger hunting Spotted Deer in Kanha Tiger Reserve
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Photograph: Sachin Sharma | Kanha Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh

And when thy heart began to beat,

Tigers can mate at any time of the year, and they pick secluded locations for mating. Apart from marking their territory with urine, females also use vocal cues such as roars and moans after they enter heat to attract a potential mate. When a male tiger picks up on these cues and approaches a female, they engage in pre-courtship rituals. This involves moving around in circles, growling at each other, licking and smelling each other and rubbing their bodies together. Tigers mate frequently (once every 5-7 mins!) when the female is in heat to increase the chance of fertilisation.

A mating pair of tigers in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan
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Photograph: Sandipan Ghosh | Ranthambhore National Park, Rajasthan

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

The gestation period for tigers usually lasts for about 106 days, after which two to four cubs are born. Tiger cubs are born blind and are completely dependent on their mothers for the first few weeks of their lives. Cubs are solely raised by their mothers and for the first month, she spends a lot of time nursing them. The mother is also observed to lick her cubs frequently to increase circulation. They begin hunting lessons at eight weeks and venture out on their own once they are two years old. Tiger cubs are frequently seen engaging in play-flights which help them to learn survival skills. Tigers, in general, are excellent swimmers, and cubs often play in water bodies and spend time in lakes and rivers during the hotter periods of the day.

Tigers play fighting in Tadoba Tiger Reserve
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Photograph: Varun Thakkar | Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra

When the stars threw down their spears 

If you want to see a tiger in its natural habitat today, you will have to plan a safari to one of the country’s many tiger reserves or national parks. But there was once a time when tigers roamed freely throughout the Indian subcontinent. Over time their habitats were destroyed, paving the way for developmental activities and agriculture. Tigers need expansive habitats for survival, and fragmentation greatly impacted local populations. Apart from habitat destruction, poaching is also a significant threat to the tigers of the country. Tiger bones are traded illegally for making traditional medicines, and their skin is sold for decorative purposes. Additionally, as tigers began to lose their habitats and their prey base, they turned to livestock as a source of food. This has resulted in an increase in human-tiger conflict situations, especially among communities living close to protected areas and tiger reserves. It is estimated that the number of tigers in India reduced from 40,000 during the beginning of the 20th century to about 4000 by 1964!

Tiger crossing the road in Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary
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Photograph: Tanay Panpalia | Umred-Pauni-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, Maharashtra

And water'd heaven with their tears:

To protect tigers and improve their dwindling populations, the Government of India launched Project Tiger in 1973. Under this project, the number of tiger reserves were increased from nine to 50, thereby expanding suitable tiger habitats from 18, to 72,, approximately 2.21% of the country’s geographical area. Although tiger population assessments have always been tricky, a countrywide assessment was conducted in 2016 which showed that the count in India was 1,411. Since then, assessments have been done every four years and the most recent tiger census showed that India’s tiger population has grown to 2,967. Apart from Project Tiger, IUCN’s Integrated Tiger Habitat Conservation Programme and conservation efforts by WWF are among the many initiatives that are working to restore tiger habitats. India’s scientific community has also contributed to understanding tiger behaviour and developing methods to monitor them.

Tiger cubs playing in the river in Dhikala in Corbett National Park
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Photograph: Trikansh Sharma | Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand

What the hand, dare seize the fire?

Despite the increase in population, tigers across India continue to face threats of habitat destruction. Wind and hydel power projects, as well as linear intrusions, are decimating their habitats. Although significant awareness has been raised against poaching, it was reported that between 2008 and 2018, more than 400 tigers were killed by poachers. Another growing concern is the increase in mining activities within tiger habitats.

Tiger in the mangrove forest in Sunderbans National Park
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Photograph: Prateik Kulkarni | Sunderbans National Park, West Bengal

For the success of the conservation programmes and to reduce the incidents of human-tiger conflicts, it is essential that people are educated on the importance of tigers in the ecosystem. Tigers are umbrella species, which means their presence impacts large expanses of habitats, regulating the herbivore population, in turn regulating the plant species in a region. As we continue to hope that the next tiger census is even better than the last one, let us also work towards providing their growing population with more secure habitats.