Bill Oddie in search of tigers

On a TV shoot in India there was nothing to see or hear, but everything to fear…

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On a TV shoot in India there was nothing to see or hear, but everything to fear…

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No one had seen the tiger, but we knew he was around. There were pug marks along the main track and claw marks on a tree trunk that he had been using as a scratching post, like a domestic cat. Only these marks were 4m high – more than twice my height.

A tiger like that could reach up and sink his claws into an elephant’s back or drag off whoever was riding it. For example, me.

The next morning, a lodge worker noticed a patch of flattened grass close to the road. Hoping, presumably, to earn a bonus for finding the tiger, he got off his bike and walked over, shouting as he went.

He found not a tiger but a kill – and it was recent. Still bony, still bloody. A small deer, half-eaten, but half not. The tiger would be back. And so would we.

Riding high

We returned the following morning to the quietest place I have ever filmed in. The only sounds were a single crow of a jungle fowl – the ancestor of every barnyard rooster – and a neurotic yelp from a peacock, both evoking the grounds of an English stately home.

My elephant led the way, urged forward by his mahout, or driver, who sat between his ears and steered by belting him over the head with a billhook. The blow looked horrendous to me, but to the elephant apparently it was barely a tickle. 

I was perched on a wooden saddle, a metre or so lower than the highest claw scratches on that tree trunk.

Hidden surprises 

One cameraman set up his tripod on the back of our parked jeep. The other rode next to me with his camera on his shoulder – wobbly but realistic – ready to shoot three angles: the animal (whether tiger or not), my point of view, or my reactions: anticipation, excitement or terror.

We moved into the incredibly tall elephant grass. If there was anything else in there with us, we weren’t going to see it unless it jumped up and waved – or something worse.

I could hear only the laboriously rhythmic swishing and muffled ‘flumps’ of our elephant’s footsteps. Now and then the mahout muttered something, presumably in Hindi.

We didn’t understand each other, but he did recognise the word ‘tiger’ when he heard it, which he would repeat with  a small flourish of his hand.

I took this to mean: “There may be a tiger crouching in the grass a few metres away, but we won’t see it because it is so well camouflaged. It could easily leap up and grab you, so let’s hope it came back last night and finished off the deer, in which case it won’t be hungry any more.”

Just what I was thinking! Amazing how much you can convey using sign language.

Waiting around

For over an hour, I was suspended between fear and anticipation. We found the kill and tried to convince ourselves that it had been recently gnawed, but we couldn’t be sure.

We listened for the alarm bark of spotted deer, but all was quiet. “Almost too quiet,” as they say in the movies.

As the day got hotter and the grass began to melt and shimmer in the haze, it was no longer tiger time. We went over to the jeep, where the director was looking at the static cameraman’s footage on a small screen: Bill going on a pleasant ride in a landscape bathed in gentle mist.

At that distance, I didn’t look scared.

“So were you?” asked the director.

What? Scared? Me?

Before I could answer, the soundman handed me his earphones. I put them on.

There was a noise like the gasping of a pair of industrial bellows, accompanied by a thumping drumbeat that would have filled a dance floor.

“That’s you,” he said. “Breathing and heartbeat.”

I had never been so scared in my life. I still haven’t.

Don’t miss Bill’s guest appearance in our October podcast.
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Former Goodie Bill Oddie, OBE has presented natural-history programmes for the BBC for well over 10 years, some of them serious and some of them silly. This column may well be a bit of both.