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In an exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming collection ‘Impossible Owls,’ the writer Brian Phillips goes on a quest for tigers in India

Getty Images/Ringer illustration


Of the twelve tigers I saw in India, one might have been a ghost; two were in water, eight were on land, and one was sleeping in a tree. One stepped out of high grass, crossed the road in front of me, and disappeared into grass on the other side. One walked along a low ridge on the edge of a different road, oblivious or indifferent to the tourists taking her photograph. One looked out from a cover of branches and red leaves, so perfectly concealed that from thirty feet away he kept stereoscoping in and out of sight. Three were cubs, just four or five months old. Three were juveniles, aged around one year. The rest were fully grown. All were tired, because the days were hot, and because the days were dry they moved and breathed and slept in a film of clay-colored dust.

Every morning we left before dawn, to have the best chance of seeing a tiger. At that hour the lodges didn’t serve breakfast, but at four forty-five or five o’clock or five fifteen they put out tea and ginger cookies, and sometimes porridge or fruits. Shadowed safarigoers in camouflage pants and intricately pocketed wrinkled vests gathered in hushed groups around the piles of their camera gear, sipping Darjeeling from china cups. Later, after we had driven for three or four hours, we would stop and the guides would spread a white tablecloth on the jeep’s hood and on this they would lay out a full breakfast: hard-boiled eggs in metal tins and green apples and basmati rice and triangular sections of cheese sandwich and salt in fluted glass shakers. Tea was steeped in boiling water, from kettles that drew power from the jeep’s battery. If we had stopped at a forest rest area there would be stalls where you could buy hot chai for twenty rupees and Coca-Cola for fifty rupees and also T-shirts, and books of wildlife photography still wrapped in cellophane. Tourists browsed among the tables or threw bits of egg to the stray dogs lying in the dust between the jeeps. I bought a Coke from a boy selling them from a dirty Styrofoam cooler, then looked out at the field of black bushes behind the rest area and wondered how close the tigers came.

As it happened, I never saw a tiger near a rest area. As it happened, the only wild animals I saw near rest areas were langurs, big coal-faced monkeys that congregated in troops along the sides of forest roads, infants clinging to their mothers’ necks and staring out with calmly startled eyes. Families of gray langurs would sometimes go leaping through the bushes, and I liked watching them because I liked the front-sprung, bucking gait with which they ran, tipping from hind limbs to fore. I liked the langurs, too, because their unbothered presence near a rest area seemed to suggest that there was nothing, after all, so strange about the scene, that the act of shopping for baseball caps and art books in the middle of a jungle preserve contained no insurmountable irony, that the Coca-Cola and the banyan trees and the cheese sandwiches and the monkeys were merely pieces in a puzzle whose edges were by necessity somewhat blurred. Eventually, my experience in the jungles of Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh made me mistrust the convenience of this reasoning; it was comforting while it lasted.

I had no trouble imagining a tiger creeping up behind the T-shirt stand, in any case, because in the presence of a tiger what most astonishes is not its size or its power or even its beauty but its capacity to disappear. I’m sure you’ve heard about the stealth of tigers on nature shows. It’s no preparation for the reality. You will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen. Maybe a professional guide can spot one, or one of the forest villagers who live around the reserves; for a regular human with untrained, human senses, there’s no chance. The way a tiger arrives is, there is nothing there. Then a tiger is there. Outside one of the exits from Bandhavgarh, the densely forested jungle reserve in central India, there is a sun-faded sign. It shows a picture of a tiger, and next to the tiger the sign reads: PERHAPS YOU MAY NOT HAVE SEEN ME, BUT PLEASE DON’T BE DISAPPOINTED. I HAVE SEEN YOU.

The arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it, and those changes are easier to detect. Birdcalls darken. Small deer call softly to each other. Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route. A kind of shiver seems to run through everything, a low hum that sounds — literally, in the murmured Hindi conversation of the guides — like tiger, tiger, tiger. This zone of apprehension follows the tiger as it moves. Often, the best way to find a tiger is to switch off your engine and listen. You might then hear, from a distance, the subtle changes in pitch and cadence that indicate a boundary of the zone. But even then, it is impossible to predict where, or if, the tiger will appear.

The first tiger I saw came out into a rocky canyon in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas. We were parked on the rim, looking down. For several minutes before the tiger showed herself, unease warped through the canyon. An unidentifiable impulse made the human occupants of the jeeps on the canyon rim stand on their seats, gripping their binoculars with both hands. Two peacocks that had been dancing on the canyon floor folded their tails and slunk away in silence. And it was very strange: Because the tiger had been, so long as she was invisible, a hazard of pure atmosphere, a permeating energy that filled the whole jungle with dread, when she walked out into the open, she seemed curiously small and specific, no longer a magic aura but a creature bound by a body, with a body’s limitations. Above all she seemed indifferent. She had not come to justify the myth we were writing for her. She was not interested in the mood she created or in the sounds her audience made. She was hot, and here was a muddy pool, so she waded into it; that was as far as her participation went. Somehow her aloofness made her even less conspicuous. When she first appeared, I had to have her pointed out to me. I was scanning the canyon floor only for her, yet she had taken several steps out of the cover of the tree line before my eyes would register her existence.


At Bandhavgarh, I shared a jeep with Jerry and Verbena, an English couple on holiday from Wiltshire. They were in late middle age and very tall, and they lived near Stonehenge, in a house they described as full of dogs and guns and old furniture. Verbena had been to India before, in her youth, which from her brief anecdotes I imagined as a time of freedom and acoustic guitars and truth seeking, flowers in her dark hair, wild horses, trains to Goa. Her voice was clear and deep, her pronunciation received, her posture immaculate. Would you mind, Brian, she said, if on the way back we stop at that lovely little shop that sells crafts made by the local women? I would quite like to have a look around. In Agra we went, didn’t we, Jerry, to a studio where we saw the most beautiful marble tabletop. The marble was inlaid with stones in what really were the loveliest patterns. I was so tempted to buy it, but of course it wouldn’t fit our lifestyle, with the dogs. And then, too, in Agra, the prices are always exorbitant.

Jerry was making his first trip to India. His accent was West Country (“China” rhymed with “joiner”) and though his manner was mild, even gentle, there was something about him, a stooped ruggedness, that suggested a military past. His blue eyes, watery now, seemed acquainted with long-ago deserts. He kept bees. He knew about the rifles hunters used in the nineteenth century. Had made trips to see famous examples. It had more to do with artistry then, he’d say, gunsmithing. He and Verbena had met late in life, there were grown children from previous relationships, but in Wiltshire they went tramping together through wet woods and hills and built big fires in the hearth and looked up birds in bird books, and at Bandhavgarh they wore matching white neckerchiefs and loose camouflage shirts and tactical sunglasses, and they passed water back and forth and reminded each other to put on sunscreen.

Every morning and every afternoon we drove from our lodge to a checkpoint outside Bandhavgarh, where we joined the line of jeeps waiting to enter the forest. Guards in khaki uniforms moved down the line checking passports. They made ticks on their clipboards. Our guide filled out entrance forms.

They do love a bit of paperwork, Jerry said affectionately, don’t they, the Indians.

Until recently, our guide told us, it had been easier to gain access to the reserve. Then, in 2014, it was found that the amount of jeep traffic was harmful for the tigers. Tigers were mobbed by jeeps. Jeeps bristling with tourists and photographers surrounded tigers at road crossings and watering holes. The government announced new rules. Fewer jeeps would be allowed in. Guides would no longer be allowed to share a tiger’s location by radio. Core areas were declared off-limits.

The new rules had the intended effect of thinning out the crowds and reducing stress for the tigers. They also produced unforeseen consequences. Fewer jeeps in the parks meant fewer visitors, which hurt tourism. The eco-lodges, which were licensed to operate jeep tours in the reserves, often hired local people, and those jobs were coveted, because they paid well and offered the chance of advancement. Now lodges were closing; people were being put out of work. Fewer tourists in the park also made it easier for poachers to operate, so more tigers were shot, and this problem was exacerbated by the fact that villagers were less motivated to help the cause of tiger conservation when their share in the tourist economy was reduced. Deprived of jobs at the lodges, they might turn a blind eye to poaching, or assist in poaching, or even become poachers themselves.

The guard waved us through. We drove into the jungle. Already, just after sunrise, it was 90 degrees; afternoon would hit 115. Sunscreen stung the corners of my eyes where sweat blurred into them.

Jerry and Verbena had seen a documentary about tiger poaching and they knew how much it cost to have a tiger killed. It cost three hundred American dollars. Our guide confirmed this: For $300, you can hire a local soldier to shoot a tiger. Then, if you have the right contacts, you can smuggle the dead tiger into China. It will follow an overland route, across Tibet, through the mountains. At each checkpoint and border crossing, the tiger will be passed to someone else and a fee will be paid, a fee that doubles with each handoff as the dead tiger draws closer to its destination. It will be necessary to preserve the tiger, and perhaps also to butcher it, along the way. A tiger’s pattern of stripes is unique to it — if you shave a tiger, you find the same pattern on its skin — and some wildlife reserves keep records of their tigers’ markings, so skinning the tiger will help to hide your tracks. In Lhasa, Tibet, you can sell the skin for $10,000. When the rest of the tiger reaches Beijing, it will be sold to a black-market shop for $100,000 or more. Chinese traditional medicine creates the world’s largest market for poachers of endangered species, and this is particularly true where tigers are concerned: Tiger bone wine, a rice wine in which the bones of tigers have been steeped, is credited with far-reaching health benefits, and when the bones come from wild tigers, which are valued over tigers raised in captivity, wealthy Chinese will pay astonishing prices. Other parts of the tiger are equally lucrative. Tiger penises, for instance, are prized for their power to enhance male potency. The word “Viagra” is taken from vyaghra, the Sanskrit word for tiger.

It turned out that I was bad at spotting tigers. This wasn’t for lack of trying. Jerry and Verbena were enchanted by the little birds that swung in clothesline arcs beneath the canopy or perched on fallen branches by the road. They tracked each bird with their binoculars. They craned forward to read the passages the guide showed them in his books. They agreed that the little gentleman really did have the most extraordinary plumage, he must be on his way to a party dressed like that, in his special ruby cravat. I ignored the birds and spent this time scanning our surroundings for tiger shapes. Nevertheless, when a tiger did detach from the ambient background plane of branches and shadows and dead leaves, I was almost always slow to see it, slower even than my companions in the jeep who were focused on something else.

We were stopped twenty yards from a watering hole. Two little tiger cubs, around four months old, were alternately dozing and playing by the side of the pool. The air was full of the feeling of a tiger’s presence. A jungle fowl was crowing. I was scanning the trees with binoculars, and Verbena said, Do you know, we had a cock that sounded just like that when I was growing up, his name was Mr. Mustard, and Jerry said, Why Mr. Mustard, love, and Verbena said, Because he was really quite vicious, he had a tyrannical personality, and then the naturalist in the front seat turned with his binoculars and said There, and Verbena and Jerry turned and said Oh my yes oh hello gorgeous, and I saw nothing at all. Only by following the line of their binoculars did I finally spot the gigantic male who had come out of the trees and lain down in the shade near the water. His big flank inflated and collapsed. His muscular tail switched at the air like a cow’s.

No doubting what kind he is, Jerry said with a chuckle. My God, Verbena said, look at his great balls.

We drove under a canopy where soft black tumors that were beehives hung upside down from branches where sun streamed through. Black bees mulled below the hives. I believe I shall have a swim when we get back to the lodge, Verbena said. And then perhaps I will use that coupon that they gave us for the spa. A cool dip and a bit of a massage really would be the loveliest thing right now. Ah! I wish we never had to leave this place.

They were leaving for Delhi the next afternoon, she said. They were taking the train, because it was cheaper than hiring a driver or buying a plane ticket from Jabalpur. Verbena felt that they had perhaps miscalculated in purchasing a second-class fare, because they had ridden second class from Agra, and on that trip they had been forced to share their carriage with a rather large Indian army officer. This had been all right during the day, but it became a serious problem at night, because the officer snored loudly, indeed snored so violently that you could feel the vibration of it throughout the carriage, like the cup of water in Jurassic Park, Jerry said. Verbena had asked the desk manager at the lodge to see about upgrading them to a private first-class compartment for the trip to Delhi, but there was no guarantee that one would be available, and Verbena was anxious about this, as well as sad about saying farewell to the tigers, which she had grown to love.

The jeep stopped at a village and our guide got out. Jerry took off his neckerchief and poured a bit of water into it from one of the reusable aluminum water bottles the ecolodge had given us. He wiped the sweat from his forehead. The village was clustered around a grassy clearing with a wide tree. There were piles of bricks around the tree and a giant tire, which looked as though it belonged to a piece of construction machinery. A small boy wearing a shirt and no pants was squatting in the tree’s shade. Two young women in brilliant saris walked down the side of the road, carrying baskets. The jeep began to drive and Verbena leaned forward. Are we leaving without the guide, she asked the driver, and when he said we were, she turned to Jerry and said, I haven’t tipped him, I thought he was coming back.

Uh-oh, Jerry whistled.

The driver asked if he should turn around.

I don’t know, she said. Will we see him again? Will we see him tomorrow?

The driver shrugged.

Did you give him something, Brian, she said. How much — I wonder if we ought to turn back.

I had given him five hundred rupees as he got out of the jeep. She looked back, but the village was no longer visible in the haze of dust behind us.

All right, she said. I suppose that will be — unless we do see him tomorrow — we can say that is all right.

When we got back to the eco-lodge waiters in collarless shirts and black trousers brought out tightly wrapped cool washcloths for our faces and glasses of cucumber water for us to drink. We sat in the shade of the long portico outside the dining room and drank cold sweet water and cleaned the dust from our faces and hands. Through the glass wall of the dining room, we could see waiters setting out white napkins beside each china plate. The napkins were folded like fantails. The desk manager peeked out at us from his small office room. Vish, Verbena called, Vish, did you have any luck with the train? Vish had not had any luck with the train. Oh too bad, Vish, Verbena said, that really is too bad, but it’s all right, Vish, thank you for trying.

We’ll get stuck with some loudmouth, then, Jerry said, not unhappily.

Verbena was looking at BBC News headlines on her phone, and somehow this led, with the sense of a boundary being approached, to their asking what I thought of the new American president.

I said I thought America had lost its mind.

I don’t like him, Jerry said carefully, but I do understand the people who voted for him. I do understand that grievance. The way working people have been left behind. He’s a poor messenger, in my opinion, but his supporters, they have a point.

He seems, himself, quite unstable, Verbena said. But if you could imagine a better person with the same message, a smarter person, there is something really quite appealing about that. I don’t like Trump, I find him frightening. But there is a feeling that the same ways of doing things will no longer work. It isn’t only in America. I was surprised when Brexit passed in the U.K. But I do have to admit I was also pleased, because I do, she said, her voice growing colder now, yes I do believe Europe has failed.


I liked watching the forest guide go about his work of tracking tigers. He was small and wore a neat mustache and a dark green uniform and he coiled a loose bright houndstooth scarf around his neck and went barefoot. When the jeep was moving fast, he covered his mouth with the scarf to keep out dust. When the jeep stopped to listen for alarm calls, he pulled himself up out of the passenger seat and sat on the side railing with one knee tucked up and a bare foot resting on the door. Occasionally he murmured in Hindi to the driver. The forest was loud with the alien-sonar sounds of jungle birdcalls. The guide listened intently but without urgency. For the tourists packed into the jeeps — the Europeans and Americans in their new safari clothes, the Delhiites in soccer jerseys and Spider-Man T-shirts — seeing a tiger now, this afternoon, might be the difference between a successful vacation and the waste of a small fortune. For the guide, though, the jungle was a crossword he attempted to solve every day. When he spoke in English about tigers, it was always in the singular: the tiger, this tiger, he. He knew that he would find this tiger sometimes, and that much of the time, even if he did everything right, this tiger would not appear.

Now he raised his arm and waved the driver forward with two fingers. We came to a place where a few thin men in long button-down shirts were burning dead leaves on the side of the road. Villagers, the guide said. Forest department have them to do this. The leaves burned in long low piles. The warm air smelled of smoke. The guide slouched on the side rail of the jeep with his chin buried in his scarf and quizzed the villagers about tigers. The villagers held out their arms and chopped the air to indicate direction. The tiger was not here. They had heard alarm calls. The tiger was there.

We saw the jeeps before we saw the tiger. Tourists were standing on their seats craning forward with their phones aimed at something in the trees. Photographers crouched over cameras whose huge lenses, wrapped in camouflage or dusty green covers, were propped on the vehicles’ crossbars. The jeeps’ drivers kept switching on their engines to jockey for position and when this happened there was a great deal of gesturing and shouting among the guides. Clouds of dust came up when the jeeps moved. Finally I saw the tiger. It was a male, a small one, resting in a pile of fallen leaves under a tree.

The tiger got up and walked toward the dirt road. He came very close to the jeeps. The tourists were excited and began to take pictures faster.

I looked at the guides. None of them seemed alarmed. Tigers in the parks did sometimes kill people, I knew, forest policy and habitat destruction having created a scenario in which conservation itself might inadvertently produce man-eaters. The jungle corridors linking the reserves had been destroyed; many parks had become islands where highly concentrated tiger populations competed for limited territory and prey. When tigers did attack humans, however, it was not tourists in jeeps who were at risk but the villagers whose lives overlapped the boundaries of the reserves. Only a few weeks earlier, in the north, a tiger designated T-28 had dragged a village woman into the forest near Jim Corbett National Park, devoured her, and then killed her father-in-law when he tried to come to her aid. In early 2014, I had read, a tiger at the same park, Corbett, had killed and eaten nine or ten people over several weeks (nine certainly; the tenth might have been killed by a different tiger). The killings created such a panic that a group of villagers stormed a national forestry office. Man-eater attacks often served as flash points for conflict between forest dwellers, conservationists, and government officials. Villagers thought conservationists prioritized tigers over human lives. Conservationists opposed killing problem tigers except as a last resort, and their donors, most of whom lived in cities and overseas, often opposed killing tigers under any circumstances. So did tourists. Twitter campaigns had been waged to save man-eaters.

In the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, I had read, around the large tiger reserve on the border between India and Bangladesh, tigers killed forest dwellers at a rate of one per week or more. The attacks had been going on for decades. Probably thousands had died. The jungle in the Sundarbans is waterlogged. Men from the villages paddle small boats into the swamps to gather honey and wood. Women and children collect prawn seeds along the banks. Tigers glide through the water like crocodiles and burst out of it when they attack. For years, villagers in the Sundarbans wore clay masks on the backs of their heads, because it was thought Bengal tigers would strike only from behind. The mask trick worked for some time. Then the tigers figured it out, and the attacks began again.

This tiger crossed the road without looking at us.

On the way back to the checkpoint we met another group of village men. They were stooped under a tree gathering fallen yellow flowers. They piled the flowers into the middle of a blanket. Some of the men bent double at the waist and some of the men squatted. When they saw us, they scooped up handfuls of yellow flowers and brought them to me in the jeep, holding them cupped in both hands. They want for you to be eating this flowers, the guide said. For you, boss, one of the villagers said. I took a few of the flowers. They were fibrous yellow spheres, slightly elongated at the tip. The guide told me their name, mahua, and said that the villagers used them to make wine. He showed me how to rinse them with water from my bottle. He poured a little pool of water into his upturned palm and swirled a flower around in it. He popped the flower into his mouth. I did the same and began chewing. The flower was spongy. It had a musty taste. The villagers smiled and nodded as I chewed. From my raised seat in the jeep, absurdly, mouthing a flower, I smiled down at them.

Yes, boss, the man said, as if humoring my ignorance of the world and all things in it. Yes, boss.


Our rooms were in cottages elevated fifteen or twenty feet above the ground on stilts. Sometimes rhesus macaques, small pink-faced monkeys with shaggy gray fur, would be sitting on the terrace outside the door, and when you came up the stairs they would leap over the railing into the nearest tree. Inside the cottages were large and light. The rooms had been designed to evoke the British Raj. The walls were white and the faded chairs had wicker arms. From the window, if I pulled back the curtain, I could see out across the forest to the hills.

When I came back from safari I showered, then lay on my back on the bed and watched the lizards that clung to the wall in the places near the ceiling. Sometimes one of the lizards would start to run and its feet made a dry scuttle against the wall as it moved a little and stopped, moved a little and stopped. The ceiling fan turned in slow circles. It was useless to think about “nature.” Nature was inconceivable, any vision of it self-negating; how could you have thoughts about the system that enclosed all possible thought? A tiger had no concept of nature. A tiger saw what was. That was why tiger tracks lined the dirt roads all over the forest. The roads made it easier to get from one place to another, and what difference did it make to a tiger who put them there? It was a mistake to think you could imagine nature as something distinct from the part of nature that was human activity, for the same reason it would be bizarre to invent a separate category for all of existence minus squid or silkworms. Yet I realized that in coming here to look at tigers, what I had wanted was to see the wilderness, to be close to the thing itself, and instead I had a strange sense that I was still at home streaming nature videos on YouTube. Except on YouTube the wilderness might have felt more like itself, might have been more recognizably a wilderness, than here in the physical jungle, where you could not help but see everything — the breakfast sandwiches, the access roads, the villages, the confusion — a nature video would have artificially kept out. It had to do with language, perhaps. If nature could only be grasped through approximations, through terms we could use to frame an experience that was otherwise terrifyingly subjective (what we see is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning), then here in the ecolodge our terminology was that of London and Delhi and Los Angeles; we were closer in every important respect to Paris than to the village a few hundred yards away. In Paris, Hermès had dedicated part of the previous year’s collection to the big-cat organization Panthera, founded by the billionaire investor Thomas S. Kaplan, whose foundation’s website credits him with a “strong passion for wildlife conservation.” This was the language we spoke. We, too, felt a strong passion for wildlife conservation. We, too, wished to preserve nature for the next generation. We saw this as a matter of initiatives and campaigns, fund-raisers launched at Sotheby’s, outcomes measured in pure numbers and broadcast through mailers declaring “a rare success story.” We believed in cautious optimism but much work left to do. This way of thinking, it seemed to me, quickly ran the risk of making the object of reference so abstract as to be unobservable even in its presence.

One day I had been shown a newly built wall. It separated, I was told, the reserve from one of the villages. If a tiger killed a cow or an ox outside the reserve, the villagers were entitled to compensation from the government. If it killed one inside the reserve, they were not. Villagers whose cattle were killed in the reserve had been caught dragging the carcass into their own yards in order to claim the payment, and so the government had built the wall, not to stop tigers from attacking the villagers or their cattle, but to stop the villagers from claiming payments they were not owed. Until 2006, it had been illegal for forest dwellers even to own the land they lived on; the law had been changed over furious objections from conservationists. I was beginning to perceive that not everyone living in this scenario might feel a strong passion for wildlife conservation. I was beginning to think that preserving nature for the next generation might seem a less academic notion in New York than on the threshold of the actual jungle — how under certain circumstances it might sound like a mystifying collection of words, and how it might in fact sound more mystifying the closer to “nature” one came.

One night, before dinner, the lodge showed a movie about Jim Corbett. We were at Jim Corbett National Park; the park had been named for him. Corbett was a legendary hunter who became a conservationist and, in the 1930s, helped establish the park as India’s first tiger reserve. The screen was set up beside the pool. Waiters circulated with trays of beer and cocktails. Lights shining from the pool were waveringly blue things on the walls and the trunks of the trees. Jim Corbett was famous for hunting man-eaters. In the early twentieth century, in the villages of the Kumaon hills — not far from where we were now — there had been a shocking wave of tiger and leopard attacks, costing more than a thousand lives. Corbett had shot many of the man-eaters. Big cats that eluded all other hunters, that in some cases thwarted entire army units, he tracked and killed, often alone and on foot. In 1907 he shot the Champawat Tiger, one of the deadliest man-eaters on record, which had consumed more than four hundred people. In his old age, he wrote books about his exploits. The first, Man-Eaters of Kumaon, was a worldwide bestseller in the 1940s.

The film showed a tall, thin man with a shy face and a diffident mustache, captured in grainy black-and-white photos wearing knee socks, shorts, and a pith helmet. He had a little hunting dog, Robin, which he trained to ride in his coat pocket.

Corbett’s ancestry was Irish, but he had been born in India in 1875. When he spoke, which he did softly and sparingly, his accent and diction sounded “chi-chi,” half-Indian and half-British. His background left him in a peculiar position, not quite one thing or the other. He had grown up among the Kumaoni villagers and felt close to them, but with them he was inescapably a white man, a sahib, separated by complex codes of privilege and obligation. Among native Britons, by contrast, he was looked down upon for not being British enough. He was “country bottled,” as the saying went. Colonial societies produce these baffling hierarchies. Were you born in London? Then you aren’t one of us. Nevertheless he was devoted to the British Empire. In his old age, after India became independent, he moved to Kenya; easier to leave his lifelong home than to live in a country that was no longer a British possession. By that point he was famous. He dined with Princess Elizabeth, at the Treetops Hotel near Nyeri, on the night her father died and she became Queen Elizabeth II. He wrote in the guest book,

For the first time in the history of the world a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess, and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree the next day a Queen.

It had been Corbett’s devout loyalty to the empire that spurred him to go into the jungle after the man-eaters. It was his duty, he believed. Colonizers were supposed to improve the lives of the people they colonized; that was the justification for the whole imperial system. Of course it’s clear now that the justification was fraudulent, and it was clear to many people in the early twentieth century, but it wasn’t clear to Corbett. The irony in this case was that the empire had almost certainly been responsible for creating the man-eaters in the first place; deforestation at lower altitudes had driven tigers into the hills, where game was scarce enough that weaker animals turned to hunting humans to survive. Corbett’s heroism spiraled helplessly into the logic of the crisis it was trying to avert: To uphold the empire meant hunting man-eaters, but upholding the empire also meant there would be more man-eaters to hunt. Critics of twenty-first-century conservation movements have a term, “conservation colonialism,” to describe the way in which the overwhelmingly urban and international conservation paradigm, however well-meaning, unwittingly replicates the processes of colonial degradation. I had read Corbett’s books, and I found the parallels unnerving. If Corbett, whose bravery and sacrifice were genuine, had ultimately been a servant of the vicious system into which he was born, which of us could be sure of doing good?


Have I told you about the tiger who fell from the tree? Mr. Sharma asked. Ah, yes; well. It was a rather droll occurrence, which happened to be witnessed by a friend of mine, on a drive very much like this one. In fact, if you’ll look just to the side of the jeep — yes, indeed. It happened in that tree, that one there.

Mr. Sharma indicated a wide, bushy tree of medium height, made up of many spindly branches. I don’t know, he said, if the tiger was hungry or merely bored, but he saw a monkey in this tree, and he decided to climb up and try to make a breakfast of it. People are fond of saying that tigers do not climb trees. To that rule, we here encounter a rather notable exception. In fact, I believe I may have a video — yes, here it is — of this interesting incident on my smartphone.

He handed me his phone, whose screen held a miniature double of the tree I had just been looking at. In the branches of this second, smaller tree, a gray langur was staring with mild disbelief at a tiger that had somehow climbed to within a few feet of her. The tiger looked much more startled than the langur did. The langur had a baby around her neck, but she seemed in no hurry to escape. She seemed not so much afraid as offended. The tiger climbed above her and glared down at her. He had maneuvered himself into pouncing position only to discover that there was nothing to stop him from falling headfirst to the ground. Finally the langur took two easy swings out of the tiger’s striking range. The tiger flinched and lost his balance. He flipped over onto his back and tumbled down the tree. For one pitiful moment, he clung to a cluster of low branches, hind legs dangling. Then he dropped ten feet to the ground.

Under the tree, the tiger scowled and yawned. Look, I said. He’s annoyed there’s a camera running.

Indeed, Mr. Sharma said. I have never seen a tiger more desperately conscious of his dignity.

Mr. Sharma and I were being driven through one of the inner zones of Jim Corbett National Park. Mr. Sharma was the eco-lodge’s head naturalist. He wore rimless glasses and a lodge-branded khaki ball cap and his round cheeks were roughened by salt-and-pepper stubble. Of course when I meet anyone from your country I cannot help but wonder what they think of this character, President Donald Trump, he had said, and when I told him, he said, Ah! Then it appears we can be friends.

The jungle here was darker and seemed older than any I had visited. Mr. Sharma regarded the hushed forest, the towering trees, the masses of knuckled roots with an air of elegant possession, as though we were touring a particularly fine wing of his art collection.

It turned out that I was not merely bad at spotting tigers. In the jungle’s half-light, I often saw things that weren’t there at all. A peacock was really a bush. A leopard became a dapple of shade on a stone. As we drove among the tree trunks, Mr. Sharma drew my attention to the calling of a fish owl, one of the large nocturnal birds that hunt the forest streams. The owl’s call sounded nothing like the who, who of the owls I was familiar with. It was a low moan, mmmm, faint but insistent, the sound of a person stunned with pain. Very hard to spot in this light, Mr. Sharma said, but the owl is somewhere near.

Then I saw it. It was perched on a fallen tree limb a short way ahead. It was the most beautiful bird I had ever seen. Its body was brown, with a white outline, and the feathers of its head were white. It was beautiful because of its marvelous tail, which fanned out behind it, and because of the angle of its head, which somehow implied a gentleness and thoughtfulness quite different from what most owls’ heads express. I stared. Just when I was about to point it out to Mr. Sharma, we drew a little closer, and I saw that the owl was only a broken branch extending from the fallen limb.

A few minutes later, the elephant charged us. We had come around a bend in the road. To our left was a wooded slope thickly covered with dead leaves. To our right a narrow track led into a bamboo grove. Bus, bus, bus, Mr. Sharma murmured to the driver, holding out his hand: Stop, stop, stop. We had seen, throughout the day, trees broken by elephants, branches ripped off and stripped of leaves, trunks splintered and snapped. Now, in the jeep, we looked around. I thought I saw movement in the bamboo grove. I was peering in that direction when Mr. Sharma bellowed and an unmistakable trumpeting came from the other side of the jeep and the jeep lurched, and I turned my head and an elephant was running down the slope toward us.

Uphill, she looked even huger than she was. Her trunk swung from side to side, nearly scraping the ground. The jeep moved away from her, slowly at first, then the engine roared and we went fast. She doubled her speed. She was really charging now. I was in the backseat. She was a few feet behind me. When we swerved onto the track that led into the bamboo grove, she broke off the chase and stared after us, ears flapping.

The jeep stopped. My heart was pounding. We were twenty feet ahead of the elephant. We looked back at her. Dust drifted across the road. Now, Mr. Sharma said, as calmly as if he were in a library, let us wait a moment and we shall see if she settles.

The elephant’s tail swished. The lower part of her mouth, a strange, soft beak, opened and closed. She scooped up a trunkful of dust and hurled it over her shoulder, so that dust billowed down across her back. Mr. Sharma said something to the driver and we drove a few feet in reverse, closer to her. She kept her hard black eye on us. With her trunk, she began stripping leaves off the tree she stood beside and thrusting them angrily into her mouth. She chewed the leaves. We moved a few feet closer.

A smaller elephant, a juvenile male with two little tusks, walked carefully around the corner and joined her at the tree. Then an even smaller elephant walked around. A baby. The baby elephant looked wobbly and happy, the way baby elephants do.

I sensed movement again in the bamboo. Then, all at once, I saw them. Among the thin green reeds, elephants were walking. Elephants of different sizes and at varying distances to one another were visible as if through a screen. The herd was all around us. I stood up to take pictures, then sat down with my hand on my head and stared. Mr. Sharma smiled in contentment.

It was after nightfall when we came to the town of Ramnagar. Ramnagar was not a village but a small city. There were motorcycles and cars and phone-repair shops and fruits laid out on blankets on the side of the road. In fact, Mr. Sharma said, Ramnagar is named not after the Hindu god Rama but after an English administrator, Henry Ramsay, who was the commissioner of Kumaon in the nineteenth century. You see at that time it was quite difficult for the people in the area to engage in trade, because to reach the nearest center they would have to pass through a rather miserable landscape. They had an unfortunate tendency, on such journeys, to contract diseases, or to be eaten by wild animals, or to be waylaid by dacoits, who were a species of highwaymen. Ramsay saw that what was wanted was a trading center for the people of the hills here, which they could reach without being molested or eaten. And so he caused Ramnagar to be built, and for many years, under the English, it was a well-run and orderly place, which prospered according to schedule. And then (he smiled, with the gentlest imaginable sarcasm) the English left, and we messed it up.

Traffic squeezed together in a narrow cobbled road that led uphill toward the town’s limit. An oxcart was trying to pass across the road to an alley. Cars had been forced to stop for the ox, and motorcycles were nosing among the cars. The drivers honked their horns. The ox’s muscles slid a long way when it moved. I call it managed chaos, Mr. Sharma said with a laugh, because for all that each traffic jam seems insoluble, by some miracle they are always quickly resolved. I find it rather a pleasure to see collective human intelligence solving the problems collective human intelligence creates.

People passed along the roadside, young people, old people, men in soccer shirts, women in veils, men in jeans and aviator sunglasses, parents with children, children alone, shirtless children, milling by roadside stalls; the stalls jutted out into the road; there were no sidewalks. Someone started setting off fireworks and a thin, vanquished silver drizzled over the rooftops. Music played from half a dozen radios. I felt relaxed, for the first time in days. That human intelligence could solve the problems human intelligence created was precisely the notion I was growing to disbelieve. For the moment, doubt seemed to press less hard.

The oxcart reached the alley. The traffic jam resolved itself. Streetlights hissed between power lines. Above, on the hill, behind a wall with sawtooth spikes, the jungle was black, a void in the radiant jostle of everything.


The first time Jim Corbett hunted a man-eater, it nearly killed him before he saw it. Corbett had followed the blood trail of the Champawat Man-Eater’s latest victim, a young woman, into the jungle. The trail led to a small pool. Here Corbett found more blood and bone splinters, as well as deep pugmarks — paw prints — so fresh that reddish water from the pool was still seeping into them. From a distance, he had noticed an object near the pool that puzzled him. Now he crouched down to examine it. It was part of a human leg.

It was 1907. Corbett was thirty-one years old; this was his first time tracking a man-eater. For a moment, the carnage overwhelmed him. “In all the subsequent years I have hunted man-eaters,” he wrote, “I have not seen anything as pitiful as that young comely leg … out of which the warm blood was trickling.” He felt an awesome isolation. The Kumaoni forest is a place of green shadows under dark canopies, towering banyans whose roots spill toward the ground like ropes of melting wax. The tiger was somewhere nearby. A chill crossed the back of his neck. He looked up; a bit of dirt was sliding down the face of the fifteen-foot bank in front of him. In his narrative he remembers the plopping sound the dirt made as it dropped into the pool. From fifteen feet, the tiger had been looking down on him, about to pounce.

He climbed the bank and followed her, stepping carefully through blackberry vines. The ferns ahead of him shook, then went still. Then ferns farther along would begin to shake. When he came to those places, he found streaks of blood. The tiger was dragging the girl’s corpse with her, pausing to feed while Corbett made his way over the rough terrain.

Then, from some way ahead, the tiger started growling. A tiger’s growl sounds like a Harley engine idling; you feel it in the wall of your skull. “I cannot expect you who read by your fireside,” Corbett writes, “to appreciate my feelings at the time.” It was beginning to get dark.

He shot the tiger the next day. The end was dramatic, as it usually turned out to be. He’d arranged for men from the village to drive the tiger toward him, banging pots and pans and firing guns in the air. He hit the tiger twice, but not fatally. He was out of bullets. He seized a shotgun from the village tahsildar and pursued the wounded tiger onto a large, flat rock. From twenty feet away, he fired. She fell forward with her head slumped over the rock.

What’s more striking than the killing is what Corbett did the night before, as darkness was falling. He went back to the pool to bury the girl’s leg. Her family would need some part of her body for the Hindu cremation ceremony, and he wanted to make sure the tiger wouldn’t find it before they could.

In 2014, a group of amateur Corbett researchers traveled to the north of India and made their way to a village called Phungar. They were trying to figure out precisely where Corbett had started from on the day he killed the tigress. (Corbett is almost clinically detailed in his description of landscapes, but he often omits place-names, which can make it hard to follow his movements.) For years, the group had thought Corbett set out from a different village, Gaudi, because of a claim they had read in a book. But though Gaudi was near the area where the tiger must have been shot, when you actually went there you found that it couldn’t have been the right village — the geography didn’t make sense.

In the nearby village of Phungar, however, they met an old man who said he had information about Corbett’s hunt. The old man’s name was Dev Singh Bohra. As he spoke to the researchers, he alternated long drags on the German cigarettes they gave him with bites of chapati. His father, he said, had witnessed the hunt for the tiger. His father had been born at the end of the nineteenth century and was a young boy during the time of the man-eater. His father was perhaps ten years old when Corbett came to Phungar. His father’s older sister, he said, had been killed by the tiger while gathering oak leaves near the village. The tiger had carried her into the forest on the day before the final hunt. Corbett had found her leg beside a jungle pool. Her name was Premka Devi. She was fourteen years old when the tiger killed her. Corbett hid her leg so the family would have it for the funeral.

Dev Singh Bohra gave the researchers directions to the spot his father showed him, the hill with the flat rock where Corbett shot the tiger. Starting from where he told them to begin, the group — one of whose members, Preetum Gheerawo, wrote about the search in a book called Behind Jim Corbett’s Stories — was able to follow the account in Man-Eaters of Kumaon to a site that corresponded exactly to the large, flat rock Corbett described in his book. Dev Singh Bohra told them how his grandmother had made her way through the crowd when the tiger was brought to the village. She had beaten its corpse with her fists. Phungar, then, was the village from which Corbett had hunted the tiger — the village whose men, at great risk to their own lives, had driven the tiger toward him. The nephew of the Champawat Man-Eater’s last victim was still living there in the year the Indian space program launched its first probe into orbit around Mars.

We were in the van, driving to the airport. We drove over broken pavement, past hulks of construction equipment, past fields lined with bell-shaped mounds of straw and dung. We passed crumbling stone farmhouses, turquoise tour buses, tall trees freckled with bats. We passed women making bricks at an outdoor kiln. The women’s saris were every bright color you could name.

I was thinking again about man-eaters, though I didn’t say so out loud. Nor did I mention the last tiger I saw at Bandhavgarh, the twelfth I saw in India. I was the first to see it, before Jerry and Verbena, before the driver and the guide, even. In fact my glimpse of it was so fleeting that I never had time to point it out; no one else saw it at all. We were driving past a shadowed glade with a wide, dark pool on which dead leaves were floating. Beside the pool, on a raised ridge littered with more leaves, I saw a large animal. It was walking away from me. In the shadows it looked brown, almost monochrome, different from how I thought a tiger should look. Yet it moved almost like a tiger. It was almost the size of a tiger. I think it was a tiger. I think it was real. I am not sure that it was.

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