“The peace is shattered by an incredible din: heavy carcasses violently thrashing about and the bellowed shrieks of mortally wounded bovines. A tiger has smashed down a door into a stock hut and proceeds to throttle to death all three cows within.”
It was not your typical Kiwi travel journal entry, but another day in the journey of Sid Marsh.
The wildlife ranger, painter and writer had been going to Italy for World War II research but decided to stop in India. Years earlier he’d read about Jim Corbett, who tracked down man-eating tigers during the British Raj and is honoured in India as a conservation hero.
“I thought, ‘Bugger it, India’s on the way, and I’ll just do a stopover for a week just to have a look at Jim Corbett’s stomping ground,” Marsh tells the Herald. “‘I’ve always been keen on tigers - I’ll go over and see if I can get a feel for what Jim Corbett wrote about’.”
The adventure Marsh writes about and illustrates in his new book Butterflies in Tiger Country began in Delhi in April 2010.
Marsh, who has worked with kiwi and other native fauna of a sometimes feisty but generally less ferocious or lethal posture than tigers, read Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon about 13 years earlier. He got the book from “friend and fellow bookworm” Claude August, a Ngāti Whare conservation colleague in the central North Island’s Whirinaki Forest.
“I jacked up accommodation and organised some safaris, Jeep and elephant safaris. I just went in cold. I didn’t have any contacts. I do like first impressions, just getting the ’wow’ factor... I went there in the hope of seeing tigers. Most foreigners would probably only stay two or three days in the park.
“Blow me down, about three days into it, I saw a great big bruiser. That animal was much more powerful - and had really good muscle - than I imagined. I could see a cloud of mosquitoes following it.”
He says Indian safari culture is quirky and fun, with passionate and professional guides and a conservation heritage outsiders might not always associate with the densely populated country.
“India is big enough to have a rigorous enough park service to keep the wilderness areas intact and keep the population problem at bay.”
And even when no tigers are seen, bird species and butterflies abound.
“About [three days] into it, I thought, ‘I’m coming back to India’.”
He soon encountered the saga of a man-eating tiger - or more accurately, the Lady-Killer of Sundarkhal.
Women foraging in the local forest were ripped to shreds and devoured. The locals demanded action, and Marsh was there when a furious crowd descended on an office of the Indian Forest Service.
The quest to find and terminate the Lady-Killer of Sundarkhal is explored from multiple perspectives, as Marsh relays the ethical dilemmas forest rangers and marksmen tussle with and the poor villagers demand justice and an end to the elusive 250kg feline’s reign of terror. Thankfully for humans and big cats, the man-eaters are a rarity, almost always reduced to consuming humans after suffering injuries or ailments which hamper their hunting prowess and leave better prey off the menu.
Women out collecting firewood can be targeted. Drunks or people performing ablutions off the beaten track can be fatally mauled if intruding on tiger territory. Fresh corpses can be consumed too - a desperate tiger is not above scavenging on carrion.
Marsh also runs through the details and observations in between the tiger treks - the oddball characters, the eye-popping journeys. The cultures of India are very different from New Zealand, so there’s plenty of scope for misunderstanding, he says.
“There’s at least one major f***-up per day, but you just have to go with it.”
Stoicism teaches people not to worry about things they can’t control, and Marsh indicates many locals have that philosophy in abundance.
“A foreigner will either love India or hate it. Organise your accommodation for the first week. Thereafter, just wing it.”
If you hate it, he has simple advice: “Get the hell out of dodge.”
Marsh says he lives on a shoestring budget and tries to get by in New Zealand for about $300 a week, but you can live cheaper than that in India once you get your bearings. For his missions abroad, there are no grants, no subsidies, no substitutes for hard work and saving money.
“Asia’s pretty cheap to travel in. I don’t know about you... I run on empty. Basically, I’m in budget, half-star hotels.”
He’ll also stay in family guesthouses or even homestays, where he says the hosts are extremely friendly and he sometimes gets adopted into the family. His longer trips can last three months, and in India he still gets a lot of attention from people intrigued at the sight of a foreigner.
“People are endlessly asking you for selfies with them. They’re always very polite. I just go with it. I enjoy it ... Just the fact I’m travelling means I’m rich beyond imagination to them.”
He also takes an offline tool, a trusty book of road maps which doesn’t rely on batteries and frequently astounds locals when he takes it out, he says.
Marsh says New Zealanders who visit India will have some unpleasant experiences, but also some of the most exhilarating experiences on the planet.
“I was charged down once in 2012, and it was a tigress. We were the only Jeep there. We’d been following its footprints in the sand and we stopped.”
There was heavy divaricating shrubbery - tight, interlocking, difficult to see through, mostly lantana.
“I was using my binoculars to try and see through it. Then the guide said: ‘I can see it’.
“All of a sudden I saw an eye. It was about 20m away. Then I got the other eye. It roared, and the roar sounded like a red-lining Ferrari. Next thing, the tiger was coming straight for us. We were in an open Jeep.”
He recalls shouting “go fast” to a driver called Danny.
“The tigress came bounding out straight for us as we lurched forward. it jumped across the road. We took off. The tiger broke off 5m away from us.”
Marsh says two types of tiger charges exist.
“The one we experienced was the mock charge. It was just warning us to back off. The other type of charge is where the tiger will focus on one individual in the Jeep. It will be stalking... it will jump and actually try and get into the Jeep and take that person out.”
He says in his work as a ranger protecting native birds, he’s seen similar focus in stoats - the single-minded pursuit when a predator concentrates its forces.
But even the leaping, lunging tigers he describes are no man-eaters.
“If you spook it ... you’re just looking to have a slash or something. Its instinctive reaction is to charge and swipe. And the swipe will kill. They’re not evil, it’s just a reflex.”
Marsh has his own hobbies, clearly, with his tiger fascination a self-funded obsession defying easy labels. But he’s no evangelist. If you want to try some of what he’s done, go for it - and he’s the kind of guy who will offer useful advice. But he doesn’t care for preaching.
“I’m not into wagging the finger. Everyone knows there’s problems. I just report things I see, feel, smell and experience. I try not to judge. We’ve been bludgeoned over the head with global warming every day.”
In his own travels, he has quietly marvelled at the caste system, the occasional obnoxious foreigner, and the wealthy Indian safari tourists who display long camera lenses like modern-day Pans with sublimated satyriasis.
“They’re incredibly knowledgeable on tigers, and a lot of them are wealthy beyond imagination.”
Some tourists seem preoccupied with the camera gear, he suggests.
“They don’t have the capacity to just study and enjoy the animal.”
Sometimes when the rain falls, the tourists need to protect their lenses and ask to borrow Marsh’s humble set of binoculars.
He also keeps a pocket notebook and a journal, and he transfers his thoughts quickly from notebook to journal - and then, after several years, to the book.
Marsh also chronicles the daily life of the tigers he encountered over multiple journeys. He says perhaps no other recent Kiwi author or illustrator has described “three different types of tiger s***”.
Any Cricket World Cup is a great time for an Antipodean to visit. Opportunities for chatting and gentle ribbing abound, and local families will convert garages into mini theatrettes.
He says some taxi drivers will damn near lose their minds if an Aussie or Kiwi gets a ride during the World Cup.
“I’ve had taxi drivers buy me meals ... It’s quite wonderful. It’s kind of a shortcut into their society. If I were a cricket fanatic - oh, man, you’d make friends for life there.”
Cricket talk can even demolish the gruff exterior of officious paramilitaries.
“Did you watch the game? Yeah, we kicked your butts.”
But Marsh is at pains to point out his gratitude for the Indian Forest Service, and the rangers and trackers who have chronicled wildlife for decades in India where some tiger populations still flourish.
The rangers have to keep going even while battling poachers, political intrigue and the occasional riot from furious locals after a fatal run-in with tigers.
“In my book, I write about the professional guides and the safari drivers nobody writes about. They’re poor, but man, they’re knowledgeable, they’re passionate, they’re really good people.”
Butterflies in Tiger Country, by Sid Marsh. Publisher: CP Books, Nelson (email@example.com).