As a biologist/explorer, I travel the world's most challenging terrain: from Honduran jungles, where I've been conducting my doctoral studies on Baird's Tapir, to a 63 day crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a rowboat, to traversing arctic wastelands. I recently had the opportunity of a lifetime to work on an amazing television series called Biggest and Baddest, produced by Gryphon/Wild Planet Productions, now airing on Animal Planet UK. This Monday evening, you can get a chance to see the premiere showing of the "TIGERS" episode. Over the course of a year shooting the series, I came face to face with some of the planet's most formidable animals that are also some of most threatened.
How can you compare anything else to being charged by a tiger? We shot this part of the series in Bardia National Park, in the western Terai region of Nepal- home to some of the most amazing remaining mega-fauna in all of Asia: Giant One Horned Asian Rhino, massive "Bardia" elephants - twice the size of normal looking Asian elephants and a few remaining tigers, now threatened by poaching. We were out on elephant back, every day for a month, searching for giant Bardia elephants and tigers, at least one of which had been attacking local farm animals. This is how many tigers progress into becoming man-eaters - one of the phenomena I came to investigate.
One afternoon, I got back to camp and Bhim our guide, came rushing up saying, "Niall, a tiger has been seen by one of the government elephant patrols!" (who are here keeping an eye out for poachers). We quickly jumped in the jeep, whizzed off and met my domestic elephant part way there. Jumping on her back alongside the guide and mahout, we charged into the forest and came across the other domestic elephant and mahout. Normally we would move into the tiger's territory with three elephants (tigers tend to take you more seriously this way), but we just had the two. Walking into tiger territory the elephants smelled the big cat and were starting to get nervous. You could hear them squeaking and rumbling to each other and then I heard, this most earth shattering sound in the world: the sound of a tiger roaring. Obviously nervous, my elephant let out this low rumble I could feel through my whole body. I was certain this trained elephant, used to tracking tigers in the park, would stand its ground. Then, down in the bushes I could make out this massive ribcage glistening with blood. It was a swamp deer, which the tiger must have killed in the last couple of days. We continued on through the tall grass and then heard the tiger charge again with an incredible roar as we crashed through the bush, moving in closer. We arrived at a clearing, but no sign of the tiger, only slowly waving grass.
I'm amazed that an animal as big as a tiger, weighing 225 kg, standing 1.3 meters at the shoulder, can stay so invisible in grass which simply wasn't that dense. All I could see were the tips of grass flicking one by one as the tiger sprinted by. Then cue the amazing moment, the Oscar moment, it stopped, looking for a way out, and turned to stare straight into my eyes. Then came the incredible roar, snarling teeth and the tiger set off heading directly for me.
The acceleration over the 10 meters that the tiger ran was just incredible and before you could blink it was suddenly on us, teeth snarling, dust kicking up behind; just the most awe-inspiring image I have ever beheld and then at the last second the tiger decided "Alright, I'll let you off this time". It passed right in front of my elephant's legs, changed direction and disappeared into the bush.
The experience left me in awe of what I had just seen. I came to investigate legendary stories of man-eaters, but left with much more. Tigers are the animals I have most wanted to see my entire life and now to have an encounter of that magnitude I was left essentially speechless and just so proud to have been there, so privileged to have seen that. Tigers are so incredibly endangered. They've been hunted almost to the point of extinction and yet here they are still thriving, in small protected areas. I was very pleased the way the episode turned out and if you'd like to share the experience of what it's like to have a very close encounter with one of the world's top land predators- catch it on Animal Planet UK- this Monday, March 25, 2013 @9:00pm.
Animal Planet UK website: http://www.discoveryuk.com/web/biggestandbaddest/