They came like jackals in the night, deadly and silent. Their destination was a peaceful glen about a hundred yards from where they stood. They stopped to watch the trembling leaves of a sal tree, its movement intermittent, as if this one tree had been singled out by a petulant wind. Then the tree shook violently, with leaves and yellow flowers drifting down to the thick grass of the glen.
The tigress held in the punishing grip of a snare had fought to free herself for over an hour, resting every few moments and then battling again with all of her enormous strength. At times, it seemed the tree would come out by its roots, but it had been chosen well, the roots went deep. Her ferocious battle only drew the snare tighter, locking its grip on her powerful thigh. Her cubs, two males and a female, did not leave her. Despite her violent struggles and snarls of pain, she was their safe place. They came to her side when she rested, then moved away, trembling in fear as she fought the snare.
One of the male cubs stood out from his siblings. He was larger and more aggressive than the others, and he always raced ahead of them when the mother made a kill. He regularly received disciplinary swats when he strayed too far from the family. In the midst of the agonized cries of the tigress, the larger cub remembered a place of sanctuary. It was a small, well hidden cave, just large enough for the family of four to take shelter. He ran towards it and hid in the darkest corner, his body shaking. The other two cubs stayed near their mother.
Kneeling in cover, now thirty yards away, one of the poachers focused his binoculars on the tree. Before moving any closer, they had to make certain the tigress was securely trapped. He gave a thumbs-up to the men behind him and moved towards the tigress. She scented the approaching humans and flew into a rage, knowing she could not protect her cubs. She fought desperately against the grip of the steel snare as yellow flowers fell around her.
The poacher raised his rifle and fired a dart. It found its mark, hitting the tigress on the haunch. She raged at the sting and attempted to turn, but her normally graceful movements became awkward as the snare stopped her short. She began a last desperate fight to free herself as the poison began to slow her. Within thirty seconds she lost her balance and fell to her side, chest heaving.
The poachers walked closer, knowing the danger was over. Soon, she was lying silent, having breathed her last. The two confused and panicky cubs huddled close by. They presented no problem for the poachers. They were two years old, and while dangerous when trapped, no match for experienced poachers. These were low-level poachers, with no lucrative contract to capture live tigers for a private owner. This was simply a parts harvest. They had no idea where the parts were going, only that they would receive a generous sum for their labor.
The cubs were quickly found, shot with lethal doses, and then thrown down beside their dead mother. The glen was silent as the men went to work like efficient, methodical butchers in a slaughterhouse. Within an hour, all the internal organs were removed and placed in a large container of ice. The tigers were then skinned, and the insides of the pelts scraped and cleaned and put in another box, which would be kept in a special storage bin in their van. Every bone would be kept and then meticulously cleaned, guaranteeing high prices in the underground pharmaceutical trade, mostly in China.
Enjoying a smoke at the end of their bloody work, one of the men held up four fingers. The man in charge looked around. They knew the other cub wouldn’t have gone far. Despite the carnage, he would not leave his family. They began their search, moving cautiously around the area. Inside his hiding place, the terrified cub smelled the strong odor of blood. He was accustomed to the scent of his mother’s kill, but this was different.
Just outside the cave flowed a shallow stream, where he often played with the other two cubs. Sometimes, while the cubs played, their mother would head upstream and disappear around a slight curve in the stream. As soon as she was out of sight, the cubs would quickly forget their play and run at full speed to find her. The larger male was always first to reach her side. A slight noise startled the cub. It was a sudden rustle of leaves, something he would not have noticed if his family had been with him inside the cave. But now, with every instinct heightened, it sounded loud and threatening.
The young tiger knew he was no longer safe; safety was up around the curve in the stream, where his mother would be waiting. He burst out of the cave running faster than ever before, his feet feeling the chill of the stream. In the early morning light, the poacher saw a flash of orange just as he was about to search elsewhere. He turned back and looked upstream, astonished by the size and speed of the cub. Smiling, he brought up his rifle, not the tranquilizer gun this time, but one loaded with large-caliber bullets. He could not risk missing the shot, and a dart gun had borderline accuracy at this distance. Cursing under his breath at the cub’s speed and angry that its coat might be damaged by a bullet, he fumbled briefly, losing precious time. Holding his breath, the poacher centered the crosshairs on the cub’s spine.