Dr. David W. Tonkyn
Vratika's Close Encounter with a Wild Tiger
By Vratika Chaudhary
July 8, 2015
Earlier this year, were heard that Vratika Chaudhry, a M.S. student under Dr. David Tonkyn, the founding Advisor of Clemson T4T, was almost charged by a tiger on foot! Here is her story.
“I conduct my fieldwork in Kanha Tiger Reserve, India for my Master’s research here at Clemson University in South Carolina. For my M.S. research I am looking into disease spillover risk from feral carnivores to wild carnivores in central India. I was in India for my second field season from January to May 2015. During my fieldwork I came across a massive male tiger, too close for comfort. Thankfully, no one got hurt and I will be able to tell the story and share my memories forever.
On February 25th 2015, I finished my work for the day, and decided to go for a walk in the buffer area of the national park. I asked my friend Dimple to come along. Dimple Bhati is the hostess of a Kanha Jungle Lodge, which is one of the oldest resorts in tourist zone of Kanha Tiger Reserve.
We had been planning to go for a walk for a while, but we struggled to find the time due to our busy schedules. Finally when we got a little time on our hands we went for the walk at about 3.30 pm. I had my equipment in the car so I asked my driver/ field assistant to stay back. Dimple suggested bring him along as well and he joined us on our trek.
So we walked about half a mile on the trail and we saw footprints of a male tiger, relatively fresh, maybe from that morning. As we walked down the riverbank we heard a long grumbling noise… I thought it was tiger roar. Dimple thought it was elephant, as an elephant camp was nearby. We were confused because it was a really long and low-pitched sound. However, it shortly stopped and we forgot about it. We walked 1.5 miles further down the trail, and decided to go off the trail, following an animal tract towards the riverbank. I can recall the three of us standing on the riverbank, looking at black ibises, as Dimple was on phone telling her chef, the recipes of beetroot soup. Both of us were a meter apart and the driver was a couple of meters behind us.
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I saw black and orange stripes walking down the bank, about 15 meters away from us on the same side of the bank. It took me couple of seconds to comprehend what it was and take out words from my mouth- Tiger! “Where?!,” said Dimple. As she looked across the riverbank searching for the cat, I pointed at the huge male tiger, 15 meters away, who has just spotted us- TIGER!
The driver creped behind us, peeked a look from behind me, and decided to trace his steps backwards quickly. He kept telling us to trace backwards as well, but we knew it was not an option; one wrong move on our part and tiger would have attacked us in reflex. We could not find my driver for a long time after that.
Conn and Takako at the World Tiger Congress, Dallas 1998
Takako (far left) 1st National T4T Summit in Clemson, April 2013
Tiger seen from the back of an elephant in Bandhavgarh National Park, March 2006
The tiger looked at us, all confused, as he was coming down the bank to drink water out of the river. But he found us…and then he sat down on his hind legs, looking intently at us. Dimple wanted to take a picture but I asked her not to in fear that the tiger would react. Now we regret it :D. I was constantly asking her to step back, one step at a time, as I thought it would be good to increase the distance between the tiger and us. I took one step back with my left foot and the tiger reacted! He moved one step ahead, ears facing front, white of ears visible, face bent, and nose peeking...(attack mode). We froze..
That was the moment when both Dimple and I thought, this is it, we’re going to die! Dimple and I kept talking to each other and looking into tigers eyes.. The tiger stared at us with intensity. All of us (Dimple, the tiger and I) stayed frozen for three minutes, which seem to have lasted forever, until the tiger decided to go back on the trail.
In that moment, we realized that we needed to run. We had two options. Either go back on the trail and take the risk of bumping into the tiger again, as tigers sometimes ambush from a different direction if there prey has spotted them, or run through the river. We chose the second option. I kept making loud noises the entire way. And somehow, we managed to get back, alive and intact!
Even when we thought we would die, I could not stop myself at being awed by that amazing animal, so muscular, so graceful, so fast, and somehow in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t going to harm us, and if it attacked, it would have been due to our stupid reaction.
Thinking about the behavioral science behind the whole event, I had a few questions in my mind. So I thought I would answer them for you.
1. Why did tiger not hear or smell us? (We were quite loud on the trail)
We were on the bank that had a four-foot drop from the trail on the either side that blocked our smell and sound. It was a hot day and we were there in the early evening. I’m going to assume that the tiger just woke up from catnap, as they do sleep up to 16 hours a day!
2. What was he thinking when he saw us?
He was as surprised to see us, as we were to see him! He didn’t expect to see us there. He was just coming down to drink water and he found us instead.
3. Why didn’t he attack us?
He was trying to figure out if we were a threat or prey. He matched his moves to ours. All of his motions were reactions and then when he perceived that we were not prey, he traced back.
4. Could the situation have been worse?
Oh yea! If it was a mother tiger with cubs, and we were in middle of the family, I would not be here to tell the story. If it was an injured tiger or a tiger protecting its kill, again, probably I would not be writing this post and hopefully someone would have published my results…
5. Did we deal with the situation well enough?
Most likely yes! Well, we are still alive ☺ The worst thing we could have done was to run and trigger tiger’s reflexes to charge.
6. So how do you try to avoid a tiger attacking you?
Here is my advice: Go in groups, carry a stick, try to look for signs like spray scents, scats, fresh pugmarks, and if a situation like this arises, never try to run, try to look bigger, shout and beat the stick and hope that the tiger would spare you. ☺
It was once in a lifetime experience, which I am never going to forget.”
Copyright, Vratika Chaudhary 2015