Read Predators I Have Known Online

Authors: Alan Dean Foster

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Novelists; American, #Adventure Travel, #Predatory Animals

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BOOK: Predators I Have Known
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It had been a fine, lazy morning, replete with sightings of creatures as common as the crow and as rare as the jungle cat. Foraging chitals and sambars roam the hills and plains of Kanha. Wild boars snuffle unseen in its capillary network of narrow gullies. Blue-bellied rollers and green barbets flash between trees like strips of metallic foil riding the wind. Gaurs, a kind of wild cattle, loll near small streams or in mud wallows. The distinctive call of the muntjac, or barking deer, crackles through the forest.

Most impressively, Kanha is where the barasinghas have made their last stand. From a single surviving group of sixty-six, the Kanha herd of these striking swamp deer now numbers in the hundreds—a rare success story in a world of declining species and shrinking habitat.

Lulled into a semi-somnamublistic state by the heat and the steady, monotonous plodding of our patient elephant, I didn’t see the tiger until our excited mahout quietly pointed it out, and then I had to look twice. The powerful, muscular two-year-old male was relaxing on his belly to the left of a tree, as inconspicuous and hard to pick out as one of its roots. He was not trying to hide. He didn’t have to try. Nature took care of that for him. Had it not been for the sharp and experienced eyes of the mahout, we would have ambled right past without detecting him.

Now that I knew where to look, however, I could see it clearly. How could I possibly have missed it before? The cat was huge, between 300 and 400 pounds of pure predatory power at rest. Stripes blending into coat. Coat seeping into trees and bush and rocks. I immediately found myself mesmerized by two particular components of this magnificent representative of the order Felidae. It was not so much that I
wanted
to focus on them. They compelled me to do so. I found myself inexorably drawn to them.

They were the eyes and the teeth.

At the moment, the eyes were inclined upward. Tracking the arc of a bird, perhaps, or checking some suggestive rustling in the branches overhead. The deceptively soft mouth was open as the tiger, panting, sought relief from the midday heat. The exposed canines—they were longer than my middle finger—bright and gleaming and perfectly white, as if their owner had just had them cleaned by a local dentist. Reposing in the cooling shade as if fully aware of his own inescapable majesty, thick tongue flopping, massive body heaving slightly, he was just as I might have imagined him: all barely contained brawn and quiet magnificence. Then, almost absently, he lowered his eyes and looked straight at me. We locked. This is what his eyes said, accentuated with mild interest and palpable speculation.

I can kill you if I want.

In that instant, my tiger looked something other than magnificent. A connection had been made as piercingly and effectively as if I had stuck a finger into a wall socket. It was not the first time a glance from a carnivore had made me feel like meat, but it was the first time I had sensed genuine contemplation behind the look: calculation in addition to evaluation.

I can kill you if I want.

That stare shrank the distance between us as effectively as a fold in space-time. Though I had been told that the tiger would consider me as part of the elephant atop which I fortunately was riding, I no longer felt completely at ease. My belly was calm and relaxed, but mentally the relationship between the cat and I had undergone a radical change. I
knew
what that gaze meant. Knew instinctively. Remembered it from thousands of years of my forebears having been torn apart and consumed by long-dead relatives of what had instantly morphed into something far more immediate and visceral than a singular tourist attraction.

Having silently and effortlessly made his point, the tiger casually returned his attention to whatever had drawn his gaze into the tree’s upper branches. We lingered and watched for a while; taking pictures, searing the sight into memory, and then moved on.

That was it,
I thought as I remembered to breathe again. I’d had my tiger sighting. What I had come all this way over thousands of miles and along horrific roads in order to hopefully encounter had, at last, thankfully and admirably, if somewhat unsettlingly, presented itself to my captivated eyes. The elephant moved on, and I counted myself fortunate.

The mahout angled us downward into a steep-sided dry gully barely two elephants wide. Fringed with dense forest on both banks, it offered an easy, unobstructed path back to camp for our patient, bamboo-munching mount. I had put away my video camera and was contemplating imminent relief from the increasing heat and humidity when my Indian friend Negi suddenly cried out, “He’s coming out! The tiger is coming out!”

In the clammy, cloying sweat that coated my face, my body, my head, and trickled unstoppably into my burning eyes, I found myself confused. What did that mean: “He’s coming out!”? My slightly addled, humidity-sodden mind confused contemporary urban concerns with actual immediacies. Was the tiger gay? “Coming out” of what? Out of where?

It finally struck me. The tiger was coming out of the forest. But we were traveling below surface level along the bottom of the desiccated wash. So that must mean . . .

There is not much room to maneuver on the sloping back of an elephant; less so for someone unaccustomed to that ancient but eclectic mode of transport. Seating consists of a pair of simple, open wooden benches slung like saddlebags over the elephant’s back. One person sits on one side, a second on the other, with the mahout straddling the elephant’s neck.

“He’s coming out. He’s coming out!” Negi’s voice was rising with his excitement.

My gear. Where the hell was my gear? I groped for the video camera, then for the battery. Fumbling to put them together was like trying to forcibly mate a pair of reluctant spiders. I could not see what was behind me. If I turned too fast and dropped the camera, it would shatter. (It is a surprisingly long way from the top of an elephant to the ground.) If I dropped the battery, the camera would be useless in my hands. If I was too careless or too hasty in my efforts, I might lose my balance and fall off myself. Then the tiger would no longer see me as part of the elephant, and something Really Bad might happen. In the bumbling confusion and frantic rush to get the camera working, I chanced a complete twist of my upper body in order to snatch a hasty look behind me. The young male had indeed come out of the forest and was once more looking at us.

Down at us.

The tiger was standing on the edge of the gully’s right bank. Framed by trees and sky, he presented as glorious an image as one could possibly imagine. Edgar Rice Burroughs could not have positioned him better. Now out of the shade and standing in full sunlight, he gleamed beneath the baking Indian sun like living, breathing sculpture: pure untrammeled ferocity held barely in check. It was as if he had decided, in the course of his casual inspection of the strange multiheaded creature ambling along just ahead of and below him, to strike a deliberately dominating pose.

Camera—battery—clumsy human digits uncoordinated. As I tried to work faster, it occurred to me.

The tiger was looking
down
at me. That meant he was higher than the back of an elephant. Higher, and very, very near. He would not even have to exert himself. Half a pounce and he would be on top of the elephant. On top of . . . me. As this realization struck home, an odd heaviness passed through my gut, as if I had ingested a chunk of cold iron.

The moment passed. Deciding he had better things to do, the tiger turned and sauntered nonchalantly back into the shadowy dry forest, his swaying backside essaying a tango, his tail switching back and forth like the taunting lure at the end of a fishing pole. Ready at last, I aimed the camera—and proceeded to acquire some excellent video of disturbed twigs and rustling leaves.

Sometimes, in the dark of night, when I lie in bed at home with the television off and my wife calm and asleep beside me, I close my eyes just a little, and I can experience once again that moment of predator-and-prey eye contact as precise and clear as when it occurred in the baking forest of Kanha. So beautiful. So unique. And not a little soul-shivering.

I can kill you if I want.

II
THINGS YOU NEVER FORGET

South Australia, January 1991

THERE ARE SOME THINGS IN
life that never escape your memory no matter how much your other reminiscences fade. Your first date. Your first love. If you are an artist or musician or writer, your first sale. Your first home of your own.

Your first great white shark.

Tellers of tall tales have been inventing inimical creatures since before Frankenstein. Rocs and griffins. Dragons and centaurs. In the course of forty years of writing, I’ve concocted one or two myself. While researching the impossible for your fiction, you inevitably come across the most extreme examples of what our own planet has actually produced. In today’s increasingly civilized, urbanized, Internet-connected world, there are not many creatures that we fear might actually eat us—the fear of being eaten alive being among humankind’s oldest terrors. Among these more ominous representatives of the animal kingdom,
Carcharodon carcharias
occupies a place very close to the ultimate.

Carcharodon
is not the largest predator in the sea. That honor belongs to the sperm whale,
Physeter macrocephalus
. Next in size comes the orca, or killer whale. But save for rutting bulls, sperm whales are easygoing leviathans whose principal interest lies in consuming large, soft squid rather than tiny, bony humans. Meanwhile, show business has Shamu-ed the orca into a cuddly giant squeaky toy not dissimilar from an oversize black-and-white seagoing puppy.

Furthermore, there are no confirmed records of a sperm whale or an orca deliberately attacking and killing a human being in order to eat it, whereas
Carcharodon
has been known, however mistakenly, to make a meal out of the occasional human swimmer, surfer, or spearfisher. The great white generates an atavistic fear in humans no dozen whales come close to matching. The fact that it is also a stealth hunter only adds to the terror it engenders. It is the oceanic equivalent of the clutching hand in a horror movie reaching out from the dark to grab the unsuspecting victim from behind.

As a writer hoping to invent terrifying aliens and ravening otherworldly monsters, I reasoned, it would behoove me to take stock of the nearest actual equivalent the earth has to offer. While it’s easy enough to go to the zoo and observe land-based carnivores, the distancing that results, the presence of moats and heavy bars separating observer from the observed, strongly mitigates against the intensity of the experience. Not to mention the fact that most of the time the imprisoned lions and tigers and bears—oh my—seem utterly disinterested in their eager human visitors. In contrast, I had read that the great white shark tends not to be disinterested in those humans who dare to immerse themselves in its element. Quite the contrary. In January 1991, I set off for the wild coast of South Australia to find out.

At the hotel in Sydney, my fellow expedition members had already begun to arrive. I looked forward to meeting them with more than casual interest, since it was not inconceivable that at some point in the immediate future my continued well-being and/or my life might depend on their respective underwater skills and good judgment.

The first to appear was Brent Mills, youthful scion of a famous family-run portrait photography company based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Brent was open, cheerful, and friendly, like an overgrown Boy Scout who had been blessed with an outsized allowance. His home back in Chattanooga looked like a bombed-out Kodak warehouse, overflowing with more photographic bells, whistles, and gewgaws than I imagine could exist in the feverish dreams of any would-be Ansel Adams.

Next to say hello was Dr. Michael Fritsch of Indianapolis. Mike was quiet, charming, and afflicted with the slightly far-off look of one for whom work is never done. He had, in fact, actually brought with him work to do on the second medical book he was preparing. I would have had someone to discuss writing with, if not for the fact that half the contents were probably in Latin and far beyond my layman’s ken. Considering that he was far from pushing forty, I was much impressed with what he had managed to accomplish in such a short period of time.

Carl Roessler appeared. One of the world’s great underwater photographers, he was a peripatetic, athletic fifty-seven-year-old brimming with the energy and enthusiasm of a man doing exactly what he wanted to do in life. He had the demeanor and face of a mischievous imp and the skin tone of a cosseted Irishman. Out on the open water the unforgiving Aussie sun would tend to fry him, and he knew it. Despite the very real risk of skin cancer, he regularly visited equatorial climes in search of new dive sites and better pictures. Such was the dedication of the devoted diver and wizened photographer.

Greg Sindmack was an obstetrician from Riverside, California. If he cared for the newborns he delivered with the same intensity he did his camera gear, then expectant mothers under his supervision had nothing to worry about. He also cussed more than any physician I’d ever met.

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