In the Eye of the Tiger

by Jennifer Haddow | March 20, 2017

I sat silently in the darkness of the jungle, waiting for a tiger.

Doubts flashed through my mind as I questioned the sanity of this situation. Here I was, deep in the forest of Satpura Tiger Reserve in central India, sitting in an open air safari jeep in the middle of the night, hoping for a tiger to appear amongst the teak trees.

Perhaps this wasn’t the finest expression of survival instinct, I mused. Wasn’t I supposed to avoid large carnivores, or at least be on the secure side of a cage in a zoo?

I had seen a tiger in a zoo, once. It paced the small enclosure as crowds of cotton candy plucking, balloon clenching children gawked and giggled from behind the safety of the steel fence. I felt sheepish, at the sight of such a majestic creature being trapped for our viewing pleasure. I vowed to never again enter a zoo, to play any part in perpetuating this travesty against the natural order of wildlife.

And so I found myself on a tiger safari adventure in the jungles of central India, on a quest to meet a tiger in the wild. My mother’s worries for my safety echoed in my mind as I wrapped the fleece blanket around my shivering shoulders. Why would I want to put myself in the middle of tiger territory?

The jungle seemed to answer. The deep dark quiet was suddenly penetrated by the undulating cries as forest creatures announced the arrival of the predator. The alarm calls of birds and monkeys shattered the silence, as they warned of danger approaching.

The tiger was moving.

I felt an irresistible curiosity, as if the scene was playing out on a stage and this wasn’t my reality. The only thing to do was to wait in anticipation. Our guide shone a light into the bushes and suddenly the dream became real.

A tigress sat 15 feet in front of me, with nothing between us but our breath.

I inhaled sharply with a kind of surprise. She was so close; I could see the shape of her eyes under the illumination of our flashlight. My instinct reminded me to not look a wild animal directly in the eyes, so I intuitively let my gaze slip to the side, watching her with fascination from the corner of my eye.

She was quite still, sitting on her haunches in the bushes, watching us with an almost aloofness. There was nothing threatening about her, I realized, and my body relaxed in this awareness. The tiger was curious, and so was I. I knew that she had been aware of our presence in the forest long before she approached us. So she had deliberately come to us, choosing to reveal herself from behind the curtain of forest in the cover of darkness.

Don’t look her in the eye, don’t look her in the eye, my mind chanted. She exuded such grace, in complete harmony with her surroundings. She belonged there, the queen of the jungle. I was an alien species, visiting to make some kind of contact for purposes that still felt like a mystery, to both of us.

Then, she moved again, turning herself back towards the forest and gracefully sliding back into the darkness. I had survived the encounter, but my fear had been vanquished by the graceful gift of that tiger.

For fear lives in the darkness, in the unknown, in the disconnection. Fear thrives when we forget our wildness, ignore our instincts.

The truth is that when the tiger appeared, I felt awe and reverence. She was so beautiful, so strong in the rightness of her life. She knew exactly what she was doing. I felt blessed and honoured that she bothered to greet us at all. I’m sure she had better things to do with her time, yet wouldn’t I come out to see an alien space ship if it landed in my backyard?

When the tiger left, I felt the withdraw of the connection we had shared. I had dared not look her in directly the eye, but her image was burned into my mind’s eye, of those moments when I shared the cool night air with a wild tiger, breathing in as she exhaled the scents of the jungle.

When we shone the light into the bushes where the tiger sat, I felt we were announcing, however clumsily, that we were here in peace, to make contact and offer our respect. My heart bowed to the majestic tigress. I knew that this safari was helping to reinforce the protection of this park that she made her home, to do what we could to preserve this jungle so that she could live freely in the wild.

We drove out of the jungle, back to our camp and I slept peacefully, dreaming of being in the eye of the tiger…

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