Cats Cradled

This article appeared in Volume 21: No. 2 of the Orient Express magazine

My passion for tigers dates from my childhood, when I discovered The Jungle Book. Kipling’s Shere Khan was my secret best friend and for his sake I haunted my nearest zoo, imagining a bond with these magnificent beasts. Circuses were my next passion but, despite the thrill, I was saddened by the sight of these animals jumping through hoops.

Memories of my younger days came flooding back some 11 years ago at the launch of the Eastern & Oriental Express train, when two tigers were brought to the station in Singapore. We passengers were suitably impressed and kept our distance as they roamed the platform with their keepers. Then, last year, I continued my feline literary adventures by reading with great pleasure The Life of Pi, the story of an Indian boy cast adrift from a shipwreck with a tiger from his father’s zoo. But my closest encounter with a live tiger was in Las Vegas when I met the famous Siegfried and Roy, magicians extraordinaire, who breed white lions and tigers for their stage act, their personal pleasure and the preservation of the animals. The evening I visited the duo in their own quarters and met two four-month-old white tiger cubs was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. They lay across my lap and I bottle-fed them, their blue eyes fixed on mine. Once the bottle was empty they had no more interest in me, but for those few moments, I caught a glimpse of heaven. Devotees of the duo—of which I am one—will know that Roy Horn is now in hospital having suffered a stroke on stage during an act with one of his tigers. He is currently making progress, and I join the millions of fans who wish him a fast recovery so he can once again be with his beloved big cats.

Tigers were also the highlight of our recent New Year visit to Ranthambhore in India, the former hunting ground of the Rajasthani maharajas. We chose to stay in tented camps established long ago by friends of friends. Arriving in the warmth of the early afternoon our accommodation looked charming, but by evening we discovered that there was no heating and just one layer of canvas between us and the sky—and the tigers! The temperature fell to -4ºC. Despite two hot-water bottles, I have never been so cold in my life.

We were roused at dawn—the only part of my wildlife experiences that I have never enjoyed is that early-morning call. But once outside, it is sheer pleasure to watch the world awakening. From our vantage point high on the jeep we saw impressions in the dew where animals had lain, curled in sleep. The wind was biting but excitement kept us warm. We watched the sunrise and drove around the reserve all morning: we saw playful monkeys, deer, birds but no tigers. Then our guide spotted something far rarer in those parts—a caracal, with long, pointed and tufted ears alert at our approach, but with no sign of alarm. But where were the tigers? Worse still, the other half of our party had seen a magnificent tiger. That afternoon we drove out again, and at the end of the day, we saw him at last—a large male. He moved completely silently and his camouflage was so perfect in the sun and shadows of the trees that at first we did not spot him. His gait was gliding, his footfall imperceptible and his lack of interest wounding. We followed him for about 10 minutes until he melted into the long, yellow-brown grass around the lake. On the drive home we had nothing to say, our minds full of images of that most perfect creature, its massive power so controlled and contained.

The following day we were fortunate to drive down a rarely-used track and there, by the water’s edge, we came upon two tigers, a young male and a female, known to be a mating pair. I put down my camera and just stared in admiration. How, I wondered, could anyone poach these magnificent beasts, or kill them as casually as had the hunters of an earlier age. Seeing tigers in their natural habitat has been one of my life’s greatest safari experiences. I wish it for everyone before tigers and their kin all disappear, as they surely will unless conservationists, such as wildlife artist David Shepherd, can prevent it.

My husband is the Patron of his foundation, which has built both a school and a hospital at Ranthambhore. I have been asked to contribute a drawing of a tiger to a fund-raising picture auction in aid of the David Shepherd Foundation and have produced a rather amateurish effort. I hope it will raise a good sum. We owe it to our children and theirs to save this most magnificent of God’s creatures.