January 20

The Best Way to See a Tiger Up Close in the Wild


January 20, 2016

In the torpid stillness of the midday heat, the elephant lumbers through the jungle. The only sound we hear in the otherwise resting jungle is the heavy crunch of the elephant’s feet stomping on the dead, brown leaves. It is the dry season and mottled sunlight pierces through the upper foliage of the impressive trees that tower above us. On top of the world’s best off-road transport, we sway exaggeratedly from side to side, skimming past trees and ducking under branches. We’re riding on the back of this captivating animal in the Indian jungle for one specific reason: we’re searching for tigers.

The elephant driver, or mahout, sits on the shoulders of the elephant with his short legs dangling on either side of the pachyderm’s powerful, thick-skinned neck. The mahout guides the elephant by tapping its ears with his feet and through a series of short clicks and grunts. This communication generally works well but it doesn’t stop the elephant from ignoring the odd command and veering off-course to taste a succulent leaf or casually snap off a branch with its powerful trunk.

The elephant gives us access to an area we would not have otherwise been able to penetrate. The jungle is too thick to see through and vehicles are not allowed to go off-road. By sitting atop an elephant, we’re able to approach the tigers easily as they are habituated to the elephants and aren’t able to discern the humans riding on them. It is a similar situation with African wildlife and Land Cruisers.

We steadily make our way through the jungle, optimistically scanning for any signs of tigers, ignoring the fact they are notoriously difficult to spot. Luckily for us, our mahout has a very clear idea of where we can find a tiger and within a short time we do just that.

Up close with a tiger in IndiaA tiger snarls at visitors in India

He is resting under a tree and panting quietly to help him cool down in this dull, gnawing heat. We approach carefully and stop less than ten metres away. It is now eerily quiet with only the quick panting of the tiger marking the otherwise silent jungle.

We sit atop the elephant and admire the tiger. We stay like this for a few minutes, us bewildered and in awe, and the tiger nonplussed. Then it is up and moving. It slips off behind a bush and we start to follow it. The tiger stops in its tracks, turns and growls at us loudly and ferociously.

We follow it for half an hour. Every few minutes the tiger stops to stare back at us or growl deeply. We keep our distance and totter after it once it has its eyes off of us. At one point, the tiger crosses the road ahead of us and a bunch of vehicles spot it and rush over to it. The tiger continues on its path and the vehicles get only a glimpse. The vehicles are restricted to the roads whereas the elephant has free rein to go where it chooses. We continue our pursuit crossing the road and leaving the vehicle’s passengers to stare jealously after us.

If you would like to find out more about Elephant-backed safaris in India please contact one of our expert consultants who will be able to plan your dream Indian trip.

*As told by our multimedia team members, Ryan Rapaport and Naude Heunis.



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About the author 

Matthew Sterne

Matt discovered a passion for writing in the six years he spent travelling abroad. He worked for a turtle sanctuary in Nicaragua, in an ice cream factory in Norway and on a camel safari in India. He was a door-to-door lightbulb-exchanger in Australia, a pub crawl guide in Amsterdam and a journalist in Colombia. Now, he writes and travels with us.

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