It’s an adrenaline rush you won’t find in any zoo.
In the jungles of Northeast India, ABC News “Nightline” is in hot pursuit of one of the world’s most exotic and mysterious beasts: the great Bengal tiger.
But just as we catch up, we’re joined by a paparazzi of fellow thrill seekers. More than a dozen vehicles, packed with tourists, all stalking the same cat.
It’s a scene critics call “obscene” and traumatizing for the animals.
But now, support for so-called “tiger tourism” is coming from a very unlikely place, the world’s top conservationists. They say it’s the only way to keep the cats from vanishing forever.
India’s tiger is on the brink. In a country with nearly 1,000 people per square mile, there are fewer than 1,700 left in the wild. It's an epic battle for survival. Sometimes the cats fight back when humans move in on their territory. But more often, they end up the trophies of poachers.
We’ve come to the front lines of the war: Ranthambhore National Park.
“This has become one of the best places to see tigers in the wild,” said Balendu Singh, one of India’s top tiger conservationists. “We listen to the sounds of the jungle, this is how we track the animals, the jungle is always talking to you. And we follow the alarm calls and we usually do find a predator at the end of it.”
Few people have spent as much time with tigers in the wild as Singh has, witnessing playful moments between siblings and intense battles over territory.
But not long ago, this safari would have been illegal. Last year, India's Supreme Court banned all tiger tourism. Some felt the tigers’ way of life was being threatened by all the gawkers.
It was a devastating blow to the locals, who rely heavily on the money tiger tourism brings in to their economy. By one estimate, a single tiger in the park generates some $130 million in revenue over its lifespan.
India's high court later lifted the ban, but under strict guidelines. The jeeps and buses have been allowed to return -- but only 40 vehicles at a time -- twice a day for three hours.
But Singh said even that is enough to scare the poachers away: “There is a great demand for this animal and its body parts.
“If tourism was to stop, there would be total mayhem. I don't see any other way we can go forward, to save this magnificent beast.”