A Search for the Elusive Tigers in India Leads to a Novel

Author Katy Yocom went in search of endangered tigers in India. She eventually found them - and so much more.

It is our first day at Ranthambore National Park, a gorgeous expanse of towering cliffs and thousand-year-old fortress ruins in the semi-desert state of Rajasthan, India. Our arrival here has coincided with freezing temperatures that swept down overnight from the Himalayas. It hasn't been this cold here in 70 years, but despite the frigid weather, my traveling companion and I clamber into the back of an open jeep before dawn and roar down the road to the park, icy winds howling past our ears. We spend hours patrolling the forest as dust settles into the folds of our lap rugs.

After noon, the temperatures climb modestly, and we end up having a blue-ribbon day of wildlife sightings: chital deer, langur monkeys, a mongoose, a crocodile. We even get an up-close view of the ultra-rare jungle cat, a muscular feline about the size of a lynx. But we have not yet bagged the prize for which we've traveled halfway around the world: the Bengal tiger.

Tigers are rare these days, heartbreakingly rare. A 2018 census puts the world total at 3,890; at the time of our visit, there were even fewer. A few weeks before we left for India, a scandal broke. At Sariska, a reserve not far from Ranthambore, the combined pressures of human encroachment, genetic isolation and poaching wiped out the entire tiger population. Far from spotlighting the disaster, the authorities covered up the news. For months after the last cat vanished, tourists rode around Sariska in jeeps just like this one, looking for tigers that didn't exist.

So I'm trying not to get my hopes up when our driver parks the vehicle near a stand of tall, tawny grass at the end of Rajbagh Lake. Vipul Jain, our guide, tell us there may be a pair of half-grown cubs hiding there, perfectly camouflaged by the visual field of stems and shadows. Silently we study the grass heads, looking for the telltale sway that would signal an animal moving within.

"TigerTigerTiger!" Vipul whispers. A striped tail periscopes through the rustling grass and disappears. I strain unsuccessfully for another glimpse.

But a few minutes later, we have our first real sighting, and it is spectacular. The slanting late-afternoon sunlight illuminates a tigress's brilliant orange coat as she strides out of the forest and lies down at the far edge of Rajbagh Lake, the water reflecting her image. This is Machli, the Lady of the Lakes, lounging in splendor like the queen she is. Though I don't know it yet, she will play a central role in the novel I'm writing.

Tiger Machli
Machli, the most documented tigress in the world, locks eyes with photographer Archna Singh just as she climbs down the hill to have some water. She is a legend and one of the most powerful tigers of her time. Her gene pool is scattered all over the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan, India. Archna Singh/Getty

My tiger obsession began as a simple ritual of joy. A tigress at the Louisville Zoo gave birth to a litter of cubs, and I began visiting weekly, watching the cubs grow from tottering infants to robust youngsters who wrestled and played in a rowdy blur of stripes. I had no idea my growing fascination with these animals would shape my life for the next dozen years.

But an urgent curiosity awoke in me as I watched those wild creatures grow up in a human-curated environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat. I began researching tigers. The more documentaries and books and photographs I explored, the more I understood the threats tigers faced, the more I burned to see a truly wild tiger while they still existed in the world.

Inherent in this goal were three prerequisites: funding, time, and family support. I sought out and received a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation to cover expenses and permission from my employer to take a few weeks' leave. My family gave me their blessing to follow my inexplicable obsession to a tiger reserve 8,000 miles away. Thus privileged, I booked the trip.

Katy Yocom

Another pre-dawn visit to the park, and we're driving through a forest black with night. As if used to the spotlight, a tigress steps into the white beam of our headlights and saunters down the road in front of us, marking her territory by scratching trees and spraying her scent. The night is so cold that my camera battery malfunctions, giving the resulting photos an impressionistic look, a ghostly blur of movement as if the tiger is vanishing before our eyes.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, to save one tiger you must save 25,000 acres of forest. In doing so, you also protect countless other species of plants and animals, including the tiger's prey. One morning, we come across Machli's half-grown cubs lying not far from their mother at the edge of a golden meadow. One of the young tigers has something under its paw. Vipul takes my binoculars to get a better look. "Chital fawn," he says. "Maximum three or four days old." The fawn lies alert but seemingly at peace beneath the paw of its captor. You could imagine an intimacy in their closeness. They look almost like mother and child.

The truth, of course, is that the cub is learning hunting skills. Having captured the fawn, it must now figure out how to kill and eat it.

The few times I've seen the zoo cubs eat meat, it was served to them in bloodless, bite-sized cubes. But here in the wild, life and death play out in the open. And though I don't want the fawn to die, I do want the tiger to live.

There's no balancing that equation.

Bengal Tiger
At sunrise, a Bengal tiger sits on the dry grasses of the dry deciduous forest of Ranthambore reserve. Aditya Dicky Singh

Between trips to the park, we explore the surrounding district. In the neighboring town of Sawai Madhopur, Vipul takes me on the back of his motorcycle to meet a wildlife veterinarian who lives in a modest but lovely house with his family. His teenaged daughter is wearing a hoodie and jeans, her hair in two long braids that emerge from beneath a stylish red bandanna. She is older than I would have guessed, studying at university, and she understands more about current fashion than I ever will. I'm curious about her life, her friends, her studies, but politeness requires that I focus on my host, who was kind enough to invite me here so I could learn about his veterinary work. He offers me tea and shows me photos from a tiger autopsy he performed.

Another day, we visit a rural village where Vipul knows many of the locals. Women pass by, balancing tin pots on their heads. They are hauling water from a nearby river. Just outside the village, a dam towers over a dry lake, silent testament to the difficulty of scratching out a living in this harsh landscape. I see people burning wood to make charcoal, which fuels the outdoor ovens where women bake chappatis and cook meals. I've read that villagers wreak havoc in the national park, foraging for firewood and fodder grass for their animals. In the abstract, it's easy to condemn these citizens for decimating the tiger's habitat. In person, it's clear they have little choice.

Suddenly I find myself surrounded by children. A girl hands me a newborn goat, its heart bounding against its ribs. Holding it, I search for the Hindi word for goat but come up short, and instead make a joke at my own expense. "Kutta?" I ask: "Dog?" The children throw their heads back with laughter, and I laugh along with them, flushed with pleasure at this moment of connection.

When I sit down with the sarpanch—the village's elected headman—for an interview, men and children crowd around us, but I don't see any girls older than ten or so, and not a single adult woman in the crowd. Their absence makes me curious about the lives of rural women here.

I leave India with vivid memories of tigers and other wild creatures in a beautiful, parched landscape. But the people I've met and experiences I've had outside the park keep working on my imagination as well, and eventually dozens of them end up, transformed, in my book: the ride on the back of Vipul's motorcycle, the wildlife veterinarian's daughter, the women hauling water from the river.

My novel Three Ways to Disappear follows two sisters—one raising her family in the U.S., one working for a tiger conservation agency in India—as they try to redeem a relationship damaged by a long-ago family tragedy. In the end, the themes that emerged during my travels in India imbue every aspect of the story. The universal will to live, the struggle to raise the next generation in a difficult world—these are urgent concerns not only for wild animals but for all of us, whether we live in a rural Indian village or in the leafy neighborhoods of middle America.

Given the divisions of geography and class and even species, it may look like we have nothing in common. But at some fundamental level, those differences are illusory. If you can look past the camouflage, the connections are right there, waiting to be seen.

Katy Yocom's forthcoming novel, Three Ways to Disappear, won the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature. It will be released in July on Ashland Creek Press.