Therapists say obsessions are unhealthy things that rarely end well for the person with the obsession or sometimes the person or thing that is obsessed. I have racked my brains trying to remember where my borderline obsession with seeing a tiger in the wild came from but without a satisfactory answer. It just seems to have popped into my brain one day and flatly refused to leave until it had been satisfied. They are beautiful of course but they are also one of the most dangerous and unpredictable creatures in nature. They are also masters of stealth and camouflage so with just 3,000 wild tigers left on this earth I knew it would be a challenge to find one.
A couple of years ago I had made some very advanced plans to go on a tiger trek in a remote corner of northern Bangladesh until a general election turned bloody and dozens of people died. There was also a warning that Western nationals might also be targeted for kidnapping in that staunchly Islamic country. The trek was eventually cancelled by the organizers. Still the itch in my head continued until a few weeks ago, when I suddenly saw an opportunity to find a tiger in another part of the world: The large island of Sumatra in Indonesia.
Sumatra is the westernmost Island of the Indonesian archipelago and like many developing countries whose jungles have suffered terribly from illegal logging, what you see while you are there is not what the government wants you to see. Indonesia, whose adverts to attract businesses on the likes of the BBC and CNN would have you believe it is a beautiful, clean and well run western leaning country is undoubtedly one of the most corrupt countries I have ever visited. Bribery and graft are so endemic there was little attempt to hide or deny it among the people I met. One of my drivers, who will remain nameless of course, told me his wife, who qualified top of her class as a teacher could not get a job anywhere in the country unless she was able to pay people in the local Education Ministry a bribe of several thousand dollars, which he told me would then trickle up in various percentages all the way into the pockets of people at the very top in the Education Ministry in Jakarta. I was assured that this was normal practice for most professions and also that hardly a government related transaction can take place anywhere in the country without the wheels being oiled first by a bribe.
Photo care of Earthwatch
So when I read a newspaper interview (in English) of a minister lamenting the decline of the orangutan and how numbers of wild Sumatran tiger had fallen to less than 400 because of the loss of its jungle habitat (mainly replaced with palm oil production) but with a promise to clamp down on the practice I took it with a pinch of salt. I did this not because we have heard it dozens of times before in Brazil across Africa and in many SE Asia countries, but because at the very moment I was reading it our driver was slowly but dangerously making his way along a terrible pot-holed road by overtaking a convoy of at least 50 large lorries carrying nothing but supposedly protected rainforest hardwood.
Photo care of Earthwatch
The other big reason that tigers have been pushed to the brink of extinction is because of poaching to service the lucrative Chinese market. What is it about China and their ridiculous old wives tale beliefs that tiger parts can help in medicine. There is absolutely no scientific basis for any of it and yet it persists. Tiger penises and the horns of another endangered species, the Rhino are regarded as aphrodisiac aids to achieving an erection; this is 2016 – haven’t they heard of Viagra!
Although it was supposed to be the tail end of the wet season the El Niño had ensured that it had ended a few months earlier, even causing draught conditions in some areas. However, in what remains of the rainforest it would be essentially hot and humid every day. I am no novice when it comes to jungles conditions having trekked extensively in South and Central America and Africa so I knew how uncomfortable and dangerous it might get. Therefore I decided to acclimatise by trekking first in some of the fringes of the jungle with my friend P, who had foolishly believed that the jungle was a friendly place. However, after a couple of moderately strenuous warm up treks, where we were lucky enough to encounter wild orangutans, he decided it was not for him. I also suspect that the unavailability of Wifi in the jungle was, for someone who tries to be connected 24/7, a major worry!
Gunung Leuser National Park in northern western Sumatra covers 8,000 square kilometres and stretches from the centre of the island up over mountain ranges until it finally hits the sea on the very sparsely populated west coast. For those of you who have never experienced a jungle the first thing to hit you after the sweaty heat is the noise. It is constant and at times almost deafening night and day. Depending on what part of the world you are there are also many different dangers but the four that tend to be everywhere you go are: snakes, thick clouds of mosquitoes, leeches and sometimes waking up with bugs the size of tea-cup saucers either in your trousers or sleeping on your face! So after a few days on the trail with my guide and his assistant, who was essentially a bearer, it came as some relief when we finally came upon fresh tiger tracks just as we were about to make camp for the night. We took turns to keep watch and feed the fire, which is essentially there to deter not just tigers but other things like leopards, wildcats and packs of always hungry feral dogs. I had just climbed into my bivouac when a loud roar rent the night noise briefly silent for a few seconds as every creature listened to see how far away they were from the tiger. It’s second and final roar was slightly closer, which meant none of us got much sleep.
Tigers are at the very top of any list of worlds predators. They are swift and can be deadly with the flick of a single claw. Only the day before we had spoken to some villagers who told us that just two years earlier they had helped rescue a group of five men from a tree, where they had been for four days after taking refuge following an attack by several tigers working together. A sixth man had perished after the branch he was perched on suddenly snapped and he fell into the *Ambush of tigers.
Throughout the next day and early evening we heard no roar although we did find some more tracks and a pile of fresh tiger dung. We had camped quite close to a watering hole and made a rough hide out of what vegetation we could find. Then we waited… and we waited until the dawn arrived and took away any lingering chances of spotting this elusive creature as tigers tend to be nocturnal hunters. By now I was suffering a little from the conditions, a very active bowel situation (enough information!) and a couple of infected leech wounds were as itchy as hell on top of the usual mosquito misery. Add to this the fact that we were a couple of days walk away from civilisation and our truck, which would be need to get me to Medan airport on time for my morning flight in three days, we all accepted that this would be our last night and quite possibly my last chance ever to see what I had come to see.
We took it in turns to sleep or watch and wait until I was roused from my light slumber at about 2am. I thought it was much closer to dawn because the full moon had just put in an appearance. There had been a distant roar although the watering hole was still busy with a couple of small deer a family of what sounded like leaf eating monkeys and a sundry of other smaller animals, which seemed unconcerned that a tiger might be around. Nothing happened for a long time. The animals came and went and I felt myself falling asleep again until I jolted awake, as you do sometimes when you are trying to stay awake, and noticed that the watering hole was deserted. It was also a lot quieter. Out to my right in the forest just beyond the clearing there seemed to be something moving and I became transfixed and aware of every sound until I felt a single jab on my arm, which made me jump a little. It was my guide and he was gesturing for me to keep still and quiet and pointing back towards the watering hole. I saw nothing until suddenly it stepped out from the moon shadows and stood there, the size of a car and looking in our direction from a distance of no more than 10 metres. I have to admit that at this point I was shaking a little and to this day I cannot remember whether it was from fear or excitement. I found it impossible to take my eyes off him, as if mesmerised until somehow I eventually managed to lift my camera and switch on its night function just as he was finishing his drink. The camera needed no flash but in that temporary silence the tiny bleep telling me the camera was ready for the shot was enough to make him turn in our direction as I took what would be the only shot of my long sought after prize. There would be no time for a second shot, a shot of him roaring in our direction as if to say I know you are there and I am not frightened of you, you should be very frightened of me! because by the time I had the wits to lift the camera again, he was gone.
As I said at the beginning: Some obsessions can be dangerous but I am just glad I was eventually able to satisfy mine. Yes it was 6 days of jungle hell in exchange for the few brief seconds of my tiger encounter. But I now feel an extraordinary sense of luck, of being lucky enough to feel the privilege of finally being eye to eye with that beautiful big cat. Perhaps I was always destined to meet him but let’s just hope that his and every other wild tigers destiny is not to be made extinct because of greed, corruption and spectacular human stupidity.
* Believe it or not a group of tigers together is called an Ambush or a Streak.