Tigers of Arjuni
“A striped head moved toward us among the shadows and behind it a mottled body glided through the low bushes. Spots of sunlight showed red- orange on patches of hide. There was a heavy muzzle. Ears were erect, listening. The green eyes searched from side to side as the head came closer.
I shifted my rifle just a little. At the movement, the tiger stopped dead, its eyes fixed on mine. A guttural growl rumbled through the grass and leaves.
‘By Siva the Destroyer, shoot sahib, shoot!’ Rao hissed in my ear. His urgent voice trailed off in Hindustani. Could I lift the rifle, aim carefully as I’d done many times before at other dangerous game, and fire? Or had my muscles turned into rubber?
My wife, Brownie and I had come a long way to find such a tiger as this. We’d heard, back home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that central India, especially the province of Madhya Pradesh, is where Asia’s tigers are thickest and biggest. We’d flown from Bombay to Nagpur, where we’d made arrangements with Allwyn Cooper Limited to hunt tigers.
While at Nagpur, we met our Hindu guide, Rao Naidu, known from Ceylon to New Delhi as the Tiger Man. Born and raised in the teak forest of Madhya Pradesh, Rao has hunted tigers all his life. Maharajas and sportsmen come from far to learn about tigers from him. It was he who first told us of Arjuni.
‘You want to shoot a very large tiger,’ Rao said in Oxford Indian English. ‘I know of one in a place of many tigers. It is far from here in the jungles of Arjuni.’”
“Rao bought four water buffaloes to use as bait. His plan, once we located a tiger, was to tie a buffalo near the cat’s watering place. This done, we’d climb into a machan or platform in a nearby tree, wait until evening when the tiger would come back to feast, then polish him off.
About noon a delegation of villagers came to pay us a visit. The head man was wearing a new turban and an old army coat, which indicated this was an official trip. The group bowed low before us, and the head man spoke to Rao in Hindustani.
‘They welcome the sahib and the mem-sahib,’ Rao said, turning to Brownie and me. ‘They are happy you have come to shoot the tigress which has killed seven people, three from their village.’
‘Tigress?’ I repeated. ‘Then it isn’t a big male?’
‘No,’ Rao answered slowly. ‘This happens to be a tigress with some very large kittens. Most man-eating tigers are females.’
Rao sat silently for several minutes, then spoke rapidly to the delegation. The men bowed, turned, and walked away.
‘I told them that you’d come all the way from America to shoot the big male,’ Rao said to me, ‘and also that you have no time for the troubles of Arjuni.’
‘But the idea of a man-eater intrigues me,’ I said. ‘Perhaps…’
‘It will take all of our time and skill to get the male,’ he replied. ‘We will hunt the tigress if the opportunity comes.’”
“India’s teak forests reminded me of Pennsylvania woods in the fall, for the trees look much like our native hickory. The forests are relatively open, but there were just enough low, leafy bushes in this one so that we could see but a few yards off either side of the path.
Rao and I checked our rifles, and I put a shell into the chamber of mine. As we stepped forward the villagers and trackers hung back. Brownie, meanwhile, set up her cameras on the bank of the wash.
Rao and I crossed the nullah and mounted the far side, then turned to the right where one of the trackers pointed from behind. Rao threw the safety off of his ancient 10.75mm rifle. Then a rumbling growl seemed to shake the dry leaves around us. I’d heard the same sound once before, when horse meat was wheeled by a tiger cage in the zoo. But this was no zoo, and the only available meat seemed to be ourselves.
It wasn’t hot, but I was sweating profusely. We took another cautious step forward. As the leaves crunched beneath our feet, the growl cam again. Rao touched me with his elo and pointed with his gun. On the ground before us was the gnawed leg of a boar kill.
‘Tiger likes pig,’ Rao said. ‘They will lie on a pig kill and not leave.’
Apparently the cat was looking at us, for he growled again. But I couldn’t make out even an inch of yellow fur among the brush. We took one more step and met with a menacing snarl. I threw my rifle up to meet the charge, but none came.
Rao motioned with his head. ‘We go back.’”
“Other villagers had joined the drive, and at a given signal some 40 men began shouting and beating against the trees with hatchets. Someone in the middle of the line banged incessantly on a little drum. Rao and I, crouching, on the flimsy platform, were almost concealed by branches and half-dried leaves. But through a gap I could see the bed of the rocky wash and the path the tiger would most likely take. Gripping my rifle firmly, I waited.”
“’Shoot!’ Rao whispered hoarsely.
I was none too steady as I centered the crosshairs between the tiger’s eyes. My confidence was wavering. But at the clap of the shot, the tiger’s head disappeared as though someone had jerked him from below. The great striped body writhed and kicked, then was still.
For a few seconds all was silent – the beaters had stopped shouting, the birds stopped calling. Then a low-throated roar broke the stillness. Rao raised his head in surprise and said, half aloud, ‘Two tigers!’
For a few seconds it seemed as if there were tigers everywhere. In the first flurry of movement, I saw three striped bodies. One large male sailed above the low brush in an arching bound, heading back toward the line of beaters. In another leap, he was among the men, and I saw a turbaned head go down before him.
Rao and I were standing helplessly on the machan, our rifles raised, and the beaters were climbing trees in all directions. I thought the tiger had already killed one man and would kill more in seconds. But then the cat turned back, and for an instant, I saw a yellow shoulder through the brush. I leveled the rifle quickly and fired. The tiger flinched and whirled. I shot again, and he went down among the rocks.”
“Two tigers, sahib, very good,’ Rao said, kissing my hand. He always reverted to the old customs when excited.
As we climbed to the ground, all was confusion. Beaters called to one another cautiously, fearing there might still be more tigers around. Finally they came closer and looked at the first tiger I’d shot. A great shout went up and there was much babbling.
‘It is the tigress, the man-eater,’ Rao translated. ‘The recognize her by her spots. The other is one of her kittens.’ We pressed forward. Rao mentioned, as an afterthought, ‘One beater was knocked down and badly scared, but nobody is killed.’”
“The entire village marched out to meet us as we brought the tigress in. Several women came forward to placate the spirit of the dead animal. Rao whispered to me that they believed the tiger’s spirit, having now left its body, had become implanted in me as the slayer.
A great ceremony followed. The women brought out a large lamp made from an open brass tray, with a wick at one edge burning in a puddle of oil. They put yellow pollen on my forehead and poured oil on my feet. As each passed in turn, she bowed low and kissed my sodden shoes. I felt like a fool.”