The Tiger Behind a Winning Story

By Tammy Halstead
Board Member & Vice President, Pawsitive Alliance

Tiger spotted

Editor’s Note: The author leads the spay/neuter programs at Pawsitive Alliance, a small animal welfare non-profit seeking to reduce euthanasia of domestic cats and dogs in Washington State, U.S. She grew up in southeast Idaho in driving distance to Yellowstone National Park, which fostered in her an appreciation for nature and land conservation. She now enjoys catching a glimpse of big cats and other wildlife on safaris in Botswana and India, among other places.  

Earlier this month, Panthera ran a seven-word story competition about big cats for World Wildlife Day. My submission was chosen as a runner-up:

“30 jeeps, cameras clicking. One lone tiger.”

The judges said the entry painted a picture in their minds of safari guests making a fuss over a single tiger in a world with fewer and fewer of the majestic creatures. It was inspired by an actual picture I took on a trip to India’s Tadoba National Park, where my group spotted one young tiger sauntering across the road, not a care in the world, with more than 30 jeeps of people jockeying for position to snap a photo.

This moment fulfilled my longtime dream to see a tiger in the wild. My husband is from India, so we travel there often, and I had been to four tiger reserves without any luck. I was well on my way to being inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records. And, of course, I had been given plenty of advice from friends and family about the best places to see those elusive cats.

But, time after time, my missions came up dry.

In 1997, there was Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala in south India. I will never forget the morning I was having breakfast on the deck of our bungalow and a group of about 30 wild boar decided to join me. But tigers? Nothing, not even a trace.

2001 was Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, which supposedly had the least shy tigers in all of India. I spotted pug marks—a definite step in the right direction. Our driver/guide stopped near a pond and gleefully informed me that this was where U.S. President Bill Clinton saw his tiger in 2000 (there were still signs up welcoming him). I was not particularly gleeful after three days and no tiger, so I quipped to our guide, who didn’t appear to be in a hurry to drive on, “Is there a tiger here now?”


In 2004, we went to Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka, declared part of the Project Tiger a few years earlier, which should have meant there were tigers there. We did see the remnants of a water buffalo our guide informed us a tiger had taken down the previous week. Bones from a tiger kill—there you go.

Then there was Jim Corbett National Park, India’s oldest national park, in 2007. Every website will tell you that Corbett is known for its tigers. What did I see? A jungle cat. To be honest, I think it was really a feral house cat. Toward the end of the second day, just as I was changing my camera battery and my husband was taking off his jacket, the guide yelled, “Tiger!” We both stood up but saw nothing, even with binoculars. So that was recorded as a somewhat dubious sighting.


Now, I don’t want you to think I am one of those nature travelers only interested in the “big five” (rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards, and Cape buffalo) or seeing the big cats. At Ranthambore, we saw sloth bears; at Periyar, we spotted herds of gaurs; and in Nagarhole, we took a raft trip through crocodile-infested waters. From our travels, I have amazing pictures of Indian rollers, tawny eagles, gray langurs, lion-tailed macaques, chital, and barking deer. 

But these are “tiger reserves,” and I wanted to see a tiger.

In 2014, after attending a family wedding in Kochin, we flew to Mumbai and on to Nagpur to visit Tadoba National Park, which is just 625 square kilometers in Maharashtra. As a comparison, Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. is 8,989 square kilometers. Established in 1955, Tadoba has one of the highest concentrations of tigers in India. 

The trip did not start well, with Air India losing our bags. But the managers of our resort, Svasara Jungle Lodge, went into their closets and pulled out coats, scarves, hats, gloves, and blankets for us to use. The first afternoon, we had a safari in the boundary area and spotted a sloth bear and her two cubs, which our guide, Sam — our first-ever female guide — told us was rarer than seeing tigers. Unfortunately, the sloth bear ran into the jungle before I could snap a decent photo.

At 5 a.m. the next day, in our borrowed outerwear and bundled in blankets, we were off. After an hour or so, we stopped at a water hole and got out of the jeep. Sam told us about a tiger resident they often see there. Sam and the driver then both picked up long sticks and started walking through the tall grass. I, too, grabbed a stick. I wasn’t sure if it was going to fend off snakes or tigers, but I felt I should have one. 

But the waterhole was deserted. So, back to the jeep. By mid-morning, we came into a clearing with several parked jeeps and could hear the warning calls from the monkeys and the sambar deer. We waited. I crossed my fingers and tried not to get my hopes up. I heard a gasp and looked where people were pointing — and out of the jungle came the most magnificent creature I have ever seen: a tigress.


The guides called her Maya, and she apparently loves the spotlight. She sat on the road for a good 15 minutes, allowing all of us amateur photographers to capture her beauty. I had to hand my camera to my husband because I couldn’t see through the tears of happiness that wouldn’t stop flowing. After Maya apparently determined she had been photographed enough, she got up.

Our driver moved the jeep and positioned us along her path. She walked so close to our jeep, I could have reached out and touched her. Once she passed and took five steps into the tall grass, she had disappeared. Later that afternoon, we saw her again—farther away this time — and watched her until she disappeared, wanting to linger and enjoy every moment with her.

The next morning, our guide received a call that another tiger had been spotted. We held on for dear life, racing over the bumpy, washboard-y roads to the sighting. Laying hidden in the grass, far from the road—honestly, I don’t know how the guide saw this tiger—was a young male. He stayed there for some time, then got up and slowly made his way to a tree, where he scratched his back. One of my favorite pictures is of that tiger looking at the jeeps full of tourists snapping his photo with their cameras and phones.

Tiger 2

Later that day, we spied three wild dogs playing in the grass and watched them for a good 10 minutes. Jeeps drove by, completely oblivious to the rare animals we were watching, so intent on finding a tiger.

Spotting a tiger in the dense jungles of India is harder than viewing wildlife on the open savannas of the Serengeti. But I finally have my own advice: Be patient, be persistent, and may the jungle gods be with you.

Learn about Panthera's work to protect tigers across their range here.