The Tiger

Born Free

Print edition : September 16, 2016

Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan: Playing “peekaboo” with the photographer. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Machali, Ranthambore's oldest tiger, with her cubs. She died on August 18 at the age of 19. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Ranthambore: Machali (the marking on her face resembles a fish) lived to be almost 20 (1997-2016) and ruled as the "Queen of Ranthambore" for a decade until one of her own cubs, Satra, took over her territory. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

A young adult at Ranthambore making it known that it is not too pleased about the photographer's approach. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

After a satisfying meal, relaxing and giving itself a back rub, at Ranthambore. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Bandhavgarh National Park, Madhya Pradesh: This tiger is getting across to surprise the deer grazing in the field. Besides being good swimmers, tigers are very swift and stealthy. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

For a surprise attack, hiding below ground level and deciding which deer to target. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Stalking its prey before launching an attack, at Bandhavgarh. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Bandhavgarh: When I was photographing this young male, I tried to change the lens in my camera, but he suddenly leaped across and before I could track him he had made his kill and was climbing the stone wall. Tigers have strong neck muscles and can lift a big sambar deer or even the bigger nilgai effortlessly. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Ranthambore: At one of the several ruins which give the inhabitants of this 392 sq km national park a unique sense of space. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

After a good swim, shaking off the water, at Bandhavgarh. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Ranthambore: The mother was away all night from the cubs to make a kill. In the morning, she came by where the cubs were to take them to the kill. The cubs were starving as well. When the mother was relaxing after a dip in the water, the cubs came to her one by one as they usually do for a ritual rubbing of faces. Here, the cub has got a whiff of the kill from the mother’s breath and is trying to hurry her to take them to the kill. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

A young adult at Bandhavgarh. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

A full grown cub grooms itself after a meal, at Ranthambore. The flies are around the face because of the blood. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

In the morning sun, relaxing with a drink in the "pool" at Ranthambore. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Tigers mating, at Ranthambore. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Bandhavgarh: In summer, tigers sometimes stay in caves since it is cool inside during the day. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

A cub watching a bird atop a tree, at Ranthambore. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Bandhavgarh. The cub was on top of a hilly area. My guide, Pappu, spotted the lizard approaching the cub fearlessly. I used an extender to my 600mm focal length lens to make it 840mm and barely got an image before the lizard slipped and fell to the ground. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

Siblings spar playfully in Ranthambore, but sometimes the game can get rough. Photo: JOHN ISAAC

John Isaac. Photo: Jeannette

But destruction of habitat and poaching continue to be the scourge of tiger populations in India. Text & photographs

When I retired from the United Nations in 1998, I decided to turn my attention to the tigers in India. It was an easy enough decision to make. After 20 years of travelling around the world covering wars and famine, I wanted a complete change. When I saw my first tiger while on vacation in India in the 1980s, helping to spread the word about the big cat’s plight as an endangered species became my passion.

At the turn of the century, an estimated 40,000 tigers roamed the jungles of India. In a census taken in 2011, the number of tigers in India was listed as 1,706. But in the latest census, taken in 2014, the numbers for the worldwide tiger population increased to almost 4,000, with 2,226 in India alone. Many attribute the rise to better methods of counting the tiger rather than to any real increase in tiger numbers.

The fact is that enormous problems still remain. Destruction of habitat and poaching continue to be the two main reasons why tiger populations in India are still in danger. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, more tigers have been killed so far in 2016 than in all of 2015. The demand for tiger parts in China for use in traditional medicine means that poaching will not cease until law enforcement operations are increased not only in India but in other countries that are involved in the illegal trade of tiger parts.

The Bengal tiger is still on the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) endangered species list, and as long as I can I will continue to travel to India to photograph the tiger in the wild. By saving the tiger, we are not only saving a beautiful animal but we are also saving the ecosystem, which will otherwise collapse without it. As Henry David Thoreau once said: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

For a photographer there is no better sight than that of a tiger in the wild. What a pity it will be if in the future the only place where tigers can be seen is in a zoo.

John Isaac, 73, joined the United Nations in 1969 and after a distinguished career as a photographer in the Department of Public Information retired as the chief of the photography unit in 1998. He has travelled to more than 100 countries and covered the war in Lebanon, the invasion of Afghanistan, the famine in Ethiopia, the genocide in Rwanda and the war in Bosnia. He also provided coverage for The United Nations Children’s Fund, and among the books he has authored is a series called “Children in Crisis”, which is a first-hand account of the life of children and their families in troubled regions around the world.

He is the recipient of many awards, among them the Photokina International Photo Contest, the Picture of the Year from the Missouri School of Journalism, Best Photograph of the Year from Graphis Magazine , Professional Photographer of the Year from the Photoimaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association (PMDA), Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Photographic Council and 13 Nikon International Photo contest awards. Since leaving the U.N. John has focussed attention on documenting the tiger in its natural setting in the national parks of India.

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