There were tigers, once, that ranged wild from Siberia to India, up to 100,000 of them. But not now: the world has gone from 100,000 to 5,000. And a recent, surprising discovery suggests that time is running out for the tigers that survive.
No one understands the decline of the tiger better than Belinda Wright, an Indian woman of English descent, who's famous for shooting tigers – photographing them. Her daring encounters made her one of the great shooters, in fact, the first woman photographer at National Geographic. Correspondent Scott Pelley wanted to find out what's driving wild tigers to extinction so 60 Minutes asked Wright to take our team into the jungle.
Belinda Wright calls tigers her religion. For her, shooting pictures for National Geographic in the 1980's was like a form of worship.
The word "tiger" comes from Greek, meaning "arrow." Here's why: tigers hit 35 miles an hour. They're among the most powerful hunters on land or in water. Wright photographed one taking a 250 lb. deer, defying hungry crocodiles, and swimming the beast back to shore.
"I think the most extraordinary thing about tigers is they're solitary. So a sick tiger, a weak tiger, a physically disabled tiger, is a dead tiger. So every tiger you see has to be absolute perfection," Wright explains.
Belinda Wright grew up in India, in "tigerland," so for her our trip was a homecoming. The 60 Minutes crew started out in the capital, New Delhi.
Asked to describe where the crew would be heading, Wright explains, "If you put a pin into the middle of India, that's where we're going. It's right in the heart, in the center of India and in many ways it's the most magical part of India, too."
The team rolled to a tiger reserve called Kanha in the state of Madhya Pradesh, 18 hours from Delhi, southwest of the Ganges, riding on rails that reach back as long and as straight as the arrow of time.
At the end of the track, the team ran into Hindu tradition, called Rama Navami, a holiday to celebrate renewal and drive out evil.
For Hindus, the tiger is a supernatural force. One God rides a tiger to show that she dominates the most powerful thing on earth. It's their power that makes tigers the ultimate trophy for God and man.
60 Minutes found the Kanha Reserve at the end of the road. It seemed to the team like the Garden of Eden. It's one of India's 28 official tiger reserves, and it's the jewel in the crown. It's one of the few reserves where tigers are still safe and there's still plenty of prey for them to hunt. This is the jungle of Kipling's "Jungle Book," the tale of a boy who slays a tiger.
When Kipling was writing about this jungle, it was a little over 100 years ago. It was the era of the great tiger hunt. One Indian maharaja is said to have killed 1,200 tigers himself. These tiger hunts would go on for weeks and as many as 100 tigers would be taken in a single hunt. These days, in the Kanha Reserve, there only about 100 tigers left.
Before 60 Minutes could search for those last tigers, Belinda Wright insisted on washing her "SUV." It's a 1967 model, with an ample trunk. She calls her "Tara" and in reality, the SUV is an elephant.
In India there's no better vehicle for crashing through the jungle on a tiger hunt; the elephants will go through anything, tearing out brush with their trunks.