Saving the world while you wait

Let the sleeping tiger lie – on meeting the big cat on foot

Tiger looking at camera

What happens you wake up a sleeping tiger? We found out a few months ago when we were in one of South India’s protected areas.

We were there to be a part of a camera trapping exercise. As we walked through the shrub forest in the hot, late morning sun, we found plenty of tiger activity (scrapes, scat etc.). After walking for about 30 minutes we reached the site of the traps and proceeded to download the photos and change the batteries as required.

Once this was done, we rested for a while near the stream. When the time came to start our way  back, I opined that we should take the longer route hugging the stream as there would be sufficient tree cover to protect us from the harsh afternoon heat. Since everybody was in agreement we proceeded at a rather slow pace, trying as much as possible not to crush dry leaves that carpeted the forest floor. Our friend Shanmugam, along with an NGO member, walked ahead while Ananth, Karthik and I, along with the second NGO member, brought up the rear. However careful we were, we still managed to scare off a fish eagle that was perched on a low branch. We had no clue of its presence until it swooshed out of the tree into the open sky over the stream. The same happened with a Brown Fish owl, a monitor lizard and a snake — all of which spotted us first and made good their escape.

Grey-Headed Fish Eagle

Frustrated at being spotted first and not being able to get a good look or photograph, we kept moving ahead. Suddenly one of the two members of the NGO, who was walking along with the three of us, told us to stop urgently in a very low tone. As I almost bumped into him, he whispered, “Tiger! Tiger!”

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I scanned the opposite bank of the stream for the cat. I saw the two people ahead of us take cover behind a forked tree and peep ahead. When I couldn’t find the striped form anywhere on the opposite bank, I asked him where the tiger was, to which he replied “Here, on this side!” I froze as his words entered my ears and made sense. Lying on a rock about 20-25 feet straight ahead of me, on our side of the stream, was a large striped body!

The sleeping tiger lay about 20-25 feet from us
The tiger lay about 20-25 feet from us, napping among the rocks

I felt a cold tingle run down my spine from the neck all the way to the feet. For a second I couldn’t move and then, to make sure I wouldn’t make a sound, I slipped my feet out of my sandals and placed them carefully on the sandy soil of the bank.  Luckily for us, the sleeping tiger was lying horizontal to us, its head facing the other way. However, if it turned its head, we would be in full view as we did not have any cover unlike the two people hiding behind the forked tree. We had nothing to do but stay petrified and keep our eyes on the tiger.

The sleeping tiger on the river bed
The sleepy tiger

After a full minute or two, I decided to move slowly, barefoot, over to the root of a tree and crouch down. From here I had a clear view of the sleeping tiger as I raised my camera to take a couple of shots. Looking through the viewfinder I was about to take my second shot when the tiger lifted its head. The only reason I didn’t wet my pants was because I was already dehydrated from the walk in the hot sun. Luckily, the dazed tiger went back to sleep again. Now that I realized that the tiger was indeed very sleepy, my stupid trophy-crazy self took control. I got up and started slowly and stealthily making my way towards the forked tree from where I could take a better shot. During this time, Karthik took my spot on the root and was taking a couple of shots when the tiger suddenly whipped its ahead around to find us. As Karthik froze, the tiger’s expression changed from sleepy to one of surprise or shock. Time stood still as everybody braced for the uncertain next second. Luckily for us, the next second saw the tiger leap off the rock and bound over the embankment into the shrub forest.

The sleeping tiger woke up and looked surprised (Photo copyright: Ananth Raj)
The surprised Tiger (Photo copyright: Ananth Raj)

After a few speechless moments trying to digest the last few minutes and with wide grins on our faces, we started talking about what had just happened. As we were talking we heard an alarm call by a deer quite a distance away – the spooked tiger seemed to be moving further away towards a hillock. We then moved to inspect the spot where the sleeping tiger had lain. We found the pug marks that it had made in the soft mud as it bounded away. Moving ahead and within 20-30 feet of where the tiger was sleeping, we found the fetid carcass of a partially eaten gaur. The tiger had feasted on its kill earlier and was resting under the trees when we chanced upon it.

Gaur Carcass

On our way back, we began debating whether the sleeping tiger had heard one of us move or not. I am of the opinion that the tiger smelled us as we were upwind to it.  Whatever be the case, those few minutes from when we spotted the sleeping tiger to us being spotted by it, were some of the most exhilarating moments of my life!


Text & Photos – Arun Menon

Lead image: Ananth Raj

  • Anu

    Good write up. Loved how you helped the readers draw the picture

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  • Baccha Patriot

    The tiger, and almost all cats, have a very weak sense of smell. Its impossible for it to have smelled you. It must have heard you or its sixth sense/instinct had warned it