Roving reporter Emilie interviewed conservation biologist Devarat Pawar from the foothills of the Himalayas, Northern India, after a heavy monsoon downpour.
Being in the Himalayas, with so many forests close by, is an absolutely perfect location for me. The Himalayas are stunning and make you feel so humble.
I’m involved with the All India Tiger Estimation, the biggest wildlife monitoring exercise in the world. It's a big effort to track and count the number of tigers in the country.
One day, while working in a forest of the Uttarakhand region, our team got the news that a few of our camera traps had washed away in a flash flood. The data from each location is very important for us in our calculations because we don’t want to miss a single tiger.
The missing camera trap location was eight kilometres from the road where we parked our car. This meant a long hike for our team to retrieve the missing data. We started out at 9 am and I told our driver to pick us up by 5pm because there was no phone network. If we weren’t out by then he was to return to look for us with more team members.
Don’t mess with elephants
We followed a single trail leading into the forest. And on that trail were fresh tiger paw-marks. We got really excited. This meant there was a good chance we’d successfully captured this tiger on our cameras. When we checked a tiger had just walked by at 4 am. We downloaded the data and kept on moving.
As we were about to reach the final location of the missing cameras, we came across fresh elephant tracks. Now with elephants we are pretty careful. We are more afraid of elephants in a forest than tigers because you cannot really reason with an elephant. Even if you are 10 or 20 people, an elephant being an elephant is going to trample you left, right, and centre.
Tigers are pretty scared of people, especially if there are 3 or 4 together, and they will try to get away from you. But elephants, man, I mean they're just something you do not want to mess with. My guide whispered, “Hey, there’s an elephant in the vicinity. We mustn’t make any noise. If the elephant is eating something then we’ll be able to hear the branch crackle and avoid that area.”
We went on as quietly as we could to reach our final camera. There was only 200 meters left to go. Our GPS was showing that it was somewhere behind a small hillock. As we approached there was a low bank beside a pool filled with muddy water. We didn’t know how deep the water was because it had just rained the previous night.
Letting our guard down
And on the bank were fresh tiger paw-marks. My team member said, “Seems the tiger may have heard us coming and has just left.” Now in my lifetime I’ve never seen a tiger in the field, whilst being on foot. They're always one step ahead. They’re such an intelligent predator. And it's really hard to see them. So I was pretty sure we wouldn’t see one. We put our guards down and started to drink some water.
As my team members were washing their faces in the pond, I went on ahead, probably just 20 meters from them. I looked to my right to see if anything was there. Nothing. I looked up onto the ridge to see if there was an elephant. Nothing. Then, suddenly, I heard a very low growl.
I was not expecting anything. So it took me a while to grasp the situation. I heard a second low growl. I looked down and there was a tiger. At first, I thought it was a spotted deer, because both of them are pretty orangey in color. He was just sitting there, like a dog or cat sits on its hind legs. And he was looking in the opposite direction.
Finally it dawned on me. “OMG! There’s a tiger right in front of me and it’s huge!”
I had my camera dangling in front of me. Like a fool, I thought maybe I'd be able to get a picture because he’s not looking at me. But soon as I tried to catch hold of my camera, I heard another growl. And I was like, dude, what the heck is happening? I looked at this tiger and then saw there was another one crouching right beside him. The grass would probably have been just two feet high. For such huge animals they were so well camouflaged. And the second one was snarling and looking right at me.
I became frozen, completely frozen
I couldn't speak. I couldn’t do anything. I was waiting for something to happen, for the animals to react because I was incapable of action. I just stood there. Suddenly, my team members caught up with me and one of them shouted, “Tiger! Tiger! Come back.”
Now what they always teach us is that for cat predators specifically, you should never show them your back. Because the moment you do, they think you are the prey. You should always look them in the eyes. Believe me, to control that feeling when you're standing in front of such a terrifying animal, it's very hard. Your first instinct is to run from that place as quickly as possible.
So I won't lie. I ran. I ran because my team members were running and I was like, “I really don’t want to get left behind in a jungle and mauled by a tiger.” So I ran backwards, sideways, looking at the tigers. Neither of them moved, they were just growling.
We came back to the same spot where the pond was. I could still hear the tigers now roaring. Then I heard a loud splash. One of my team members had fallen into the water. It was all happening in seconds, but it felt like hours. “Why is this not ending? Why isn’t it ending?”
I was looking at my team member in the muddy water. I was about to jump. I don't know what I was going to do. I was thinking, “Should I jump into the water? What should I do?”
The nightmare edition
Unexpectedly, I heard a sound of something approaching me. It was breathing heavily. And if you google or youtube a tiger charge, OMG, it’s something of a nightmare edition. I was thinking, “Where’s this sound coming from?”
Just as I was trying to pinpoint the direction I realized a tiger was right in front of me. It was about to jump with its claws out and fangs out, sharp as anything. And with a loud roar. I just closed my eyes, “This is it. This is it!” I didn’t want to get eaten by a tiger. “No, man, I'm too young to die.”
I had a sickle in my hand and started shouting into the air, “Argh!” I don't know what I was shouting because I couldn’t hear my voice. I tried to make some kind of movement, swinging the sickle in the direction of the tiger. And in that whole commotion, by mistake, I sliced my kneecap. I felt a sharp pain. My eyes were closed. I didn’t open them because she was about to jump.
My first thought was, “the tiger’s caught hold of my knee. And now she’ll go for my neck!” Because that’s what tigers generally do. So I put my hand in front of my neck to protect myself. But nothing happened. The animal had not grabbed my neck. I opened my eyes and saw her backside and tail off towards my left. She was heading back towards the other tigers.
My life speaks
Running like hooligans
At the last moment she’d changed her direction. If she had wanted to kill me she could have done it easily. Instead of jumping at me, she jumped towards my left. Basically, she let me go. I don’t know why. I can only guess. I feel she was as scared of me as I was of her. The first two tigers I saw were her cubs. They were pretty big and had probably been separated from her but still in the same territory. The attack was probably about her motherly instinct.
As soon as I saw the back of her, I caught hold of my team member’s hand and we both ran like anything, shouting all the way through the jungle like hooligans, for eight kilometres without stopping. We were as tired as anything. Our clothes were torn off, bleeding because we had fallen down and I’d cut my knee with a sickle. We were like, forget the elephant, forget everything else. We just wanted to get out of there. It was 10 o'clock at night by the time we escaped the forest. Man, what just happened?
My throat was as dry as anything. My legs were shaking. It felt like I was high on some kind of drugs. Only after we left the forest did the fears sink in. It was bad. For two days I had a strong fever, reliving my worst fear. It was nightmare-ish. It was a life-changing experience for me and it was my birthday.
The whole event must have lasted not more than 45 seconds, but it felt like 45 hours. It was a life-changing experience and it happened on my birthday.
Life was interpreted by
Dev Pawar, an adventurous biology conservationist, who loves to hike in the mountains, away from workloads and targets. “When you take your time, pick a special area, and pitch your camp there. That’s where you can become carefree and one with nature.”
Dev says to life
I’m lucky to have survived. I still don’t know how. Whatever power saved me at the last moment, I’m grateful. It was such a humbling experience.
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Dev was invited by conservationist Namrita Anirudh with whom he tracked tigers at 16,000 feet in the upper Himalayas. “To think of Indian tigers living that high up in the snow is just bizarre. But we had received anecdotal information from villagers that there was a striped creature who hadn’t been seen for centuries but we didn’t yet have the photographic evidence. So Nam, myself and our team went to get it.”
Cover photo edited. Original by Dev Pawar.