Reflections upon Seeing a Tiger in the Wild for the First Time

By Jared Margulies, University of Maryland Baltimore County §

Editor’s note: Jared‘s post is a first in a series from his fieldwork on conservation in India.

Figure 1: Photograph taken after seeing a Bengal tiger in Mudumalai National Park, Tamil Nadu, India. Photo by the Author.

October 1, 2015
Field Notes

On my way to Gudlupet this morning I saw my first wild Bengal tiger. It was maybe 15 meters from the roadside just in front of the ubiquitous lantana thicket across the park. The bus didn’t stop as we drove past. It felt like seeing a ghost. I wasn’t sure if it was real. Luckily, a man sitting behind me began to shout “Puli! Puli!” and in this way I knew it was real and not some early morning haunting of my imagination. Most others on the bus seemed less concerned than the man and I, which surprised me nearly as much as seeing the tiger so early in my fieldwork.

I don’t think I can describe exactly how I felt when I saw it. First I didn’t know if I should believe my eyes, but once I heard the shout of the man crying “Puli!” it made it real for me and I felt an overwhelming sense of exhilaration that hasn’t subsided all day. I took a picture [Figure 1] just after we passed it, not to catch a photo of the tiger (which was long gone), but simply as an attempt to record and remember how I felt in that moment.

I scribbled down these thoughts in a canteen in the town of Gundlupet, Karnataka about 45 minutes after seeing a Bengal tiger while crossing through Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, India. Many people who study tigers, conservation biologists and ecologists among them, go years without seeing this elusive big cat. One of the world’s most preeminent tiger ecologists recently told me he didn’t see a tiger for the first 13 years he conducted research in the forest. The experience of seeing a tiger on my first day of formal “fieldwork” during this extended period of research was both unexpected and full of wonder. The adult tiger stood perfectly still, staring straight ahead at the road, as if it might cross. I didn’t see it long enough to determine if it was male or female, but based on its size, I would suspect it was a male. I may well never see another tiger in the wild again in my lifetime, let alone in the next year.

The way in which I happened to see the tiger is relevant in thinking about the politics of multi-species encounters and the position I inhabit as a researcher both participating in, and observing, such encounters. In the next paragraph, I attempt to reconstruct and relate the sequence of thoughts, images, and ideas I experienced upon witnessing this tiger along the road:

That I just so happened to be reading “How Forests Think” (Kohn 2013) while on the bus, and that the bus just so happened to hit a large pothole in the road causing the bus the lurch forward and back, causing me in turn to lose my place in the book, and that now distracted by losing my place in the book I looked out the window, which caused me to notice some thing standing out amidst the green and tan Lantana camara thicket, and that because I had just been reading about symbols and semiotics I was thinking about the use of animals as icons in how the Forest Department communicates about conserving animals to tourists (Figure 2), so that when I saw the orange and black and white against the green and tan landscape I thought it was a literal sign of a tiger, and that my mind’s ability to recognize this set of colors as a tiger instead of only as a symbol of a tiger was because I was jarred into the present by the man behind me shouting “Tiger! Tiger!” in Tamil, and that I knew the Tamil word for “tiger” and was able to recognize it as “tiger” and therefore came to realize the sign of tiger I saw at the edge of the forest was in fact an actual, living, breathing animate tiger standing completely still facing the road, that all of these things came to pass in less than two seconds and happened to occur at 9 am so that there was sufficient daylight to see anything at all, and so that there were still a few seconds left after I interpreted all of these thoughts and symbols so that I could understand and experience that I was observing a tiger for the first time in the wild before I lost sight of the tiger because the bus did not slow down as we moved through the forest, that all of these things happened in a particular order to enable this (non)interaction between myself and the tiger, however physically distant and separated by the metal and glass of a bus, and finally that all of this came to pass leaving me with an overwhelming sense of elation and gratitude for seeing a tiger that I did not know I would feel, and that all of this occurred and only occurred because of the sequence of thoughts, ideas, and moments that occurred in relation to one another in my mind continues to impress me, and keeps me asking myself about the relation of the self to animals and what such encounters offer us as researchers seeking to inquire about the meaning and production of meanings in these relations.

Figure 2. Conservation communication sign, Bandipur National Park, Karnataka, India. Photo by the author.

As part of my research and life here in southwest India I see and experience interactions with animals large and small on a daily basis, from elephants to dengue infected mosquitos, but they are typically less affective than the experience I narrate above (especially if measured in the amount of text those experiences cause me to generate) and I want to understand why. As a reader of multi-species anthropology, I find the concept of “multi-species” useful for the types of assemblages and relations it asks anthropology to consider, but as someone with training in geography, conservation, and ecology, I am also interested in what the term does not suggest as fully, namely as regards the relations of individuals to populations (which may or may not mean species), and the relations of these populations to particular ecologies, landscapes, and geographies.

In developing my own perspective on “multi-species” research approaches in what one might call a “more-than-human” geography (Whatmore 2006), one for me that is also inherently a political geography, I am aware of the importance of the value of encounter (Haraway 2008) in thinking through new ways of interpreting human-animal relations, especially living in a landscape full of deathly encounters with non-human species such as tigers and elephants. In doing so, I wish to simultaneously take seriously the material power of signs (not just actual signs, like that in Figure 2, but signs understood more broadly) of tigers and other animals across this contested landscape, and how they are capable of producing new spatial relations between animals and humans mediated by state relations with animals and animal symbols (Mitchell 2006).

My non-interactive encounter with the tiger on this day reminds me of the complex undertaking we face in decentering our research agendas away from the strictly human in positioning ourselves in relation to both our human and animal subjects, and also the traces of these subjects embedded within particular landscapes and geographies through signs, symbols, and hauntings. As my narrative suggests, I was at first unable to see the living tiger itself but only the tiger as symbol of itself within a Tiger Reserve, a spatial designation replete with symbolic and powerfully political meanings. I see some potential for such auto-ethnographic encounter narratives to develop as a creative method, or at least informative practice, for interrogating inter-species politics and our position as researchers attempting to study them.

Works Cited

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013.How Forests Think. Toward an Anthropology beyond the human. University of California Press.
 Whatmore, Sarah. 2006. Materialist Returns: Practising Cultural Geography in and for a More-Than-Human World. Cultural Geographies 13.4: 600-609.
Haraway, D.J. 2008. When species meet. University of Minnesota Press.
Mitchell, Timothy. 2006. Society, Economy, and the State Effect.” The Anthropology of the State: A Reader: 169-86.

Jared Margulies is a PhD Candidate in Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He is currently funded through a Fulbright-Nehru Student Research Grant.

 This post is a part of the “Notes from the Field” series.