Chasing Ghosts: searching for the Malayan tiger

“Wake up! And be quiet” hissed our guide. “Tiger!”

I quietly climbed barefoot off the makeshift wooden platform I had been sleeping on and grabbed my torch. Unseen insects hummed and droned as I cast a feeble light over the undergrowth. Nick, our guide, whispered to me that he had seen the eyes of a tiger in the bushes at the edge of our jungle camp. I could feel my heart pounding in my neck as I scanned the forest, waiting for a tiger to explode out of its hiding place; its gaping maw primed to deliver a death blow. There was a soft rustling over to my left and then I saw a pair of green, unblinking eyes reflecting back at me. My legs felt weak and I became aware for the first time that my body was made out of meat. If the tiger decided that it wanted to eat me there was nothing any of us could do.

Nick let out a laugh and the eyes disappeared in a scuttle of dead leaves. “It was just a civet” he said, letting out an audible sigh of relief. And although I too was relieved, I also felt a sharp twang of disappointment that it hadn’t been the Malayan tiger we were searching for. This was to become the first of several encounters that would leave us feeling like we were chasing ghosts.

After a fitful night’s sleep; acutely aware of my surroundings and waking at every snapped twig and rustle the jungle could muster, I woke to the haunting duet of a pair of white handed gibbons. It’s such a beautiful and evocative sound when a pair of gibbons sing together; every morning announcing their relationship to the entire forest and declaring their territory.

After a breakfast of dry toast and coffee flavoured river water we continued our trek through Taman Negara – one of the world’s oldest deciduous rainforests and home to some of the last remaining Malayan tigers. My friend Steve and I had hired Nick to take us into the national park for several nights to search for, amongst other things, Malayan tigers. The number of this critically endangered subspecies has plummeted to just 200 individuals and it faces the very real possibility of extinction in the near future.

Over the course of the morning we trudged and thrashed our way through the forest until we came to a river. The banks were too high and too steep for us to cross safely and even if they weren’t I couldn’t be sure that the murky water wasn’t hiding a crocodile. Although rare in Peninsular Malaysia, saltwater crocodiles are common throughout the entire region and itinerant crocs sometimes crop up in unexpected places. Further upstream one of the forest’s titanic hardwoods had fallen, spanning the river and making a useable, albeit hair raising bridge six metres above the water.

In the afternoon we crawled through limestone caves smothered in a deep blanket of bat guano; above us its creators – ethereal forms silently fluttering in the perpetual gloaming of the cavern. Jungle trekking is incredibly strenuous and the hot, humid climate left me drenched in sweat, which attracted swarms of sweat bees. These small, harmless bees are reluctant to sting and they crawled over me in droves, using their short tongues to lap up my perspiration. Unlike honey bees, sweat bees don’t produce honey – which can only be a good thing as it would surely taste horrendous.

As we approached the area where we were going to make camp we came across the fresh pug marks of a tiger, perfectly formed in the soft mud. The ghost of the forest had been right here only moments before and had silently dissolved back into the jungle, unseen.

We set up camp in a small clearing and that night we would be sleeping in a cave about four metres above the forest floor. A large ledge jutted out from the cave opening, where I sat with my legs dangling over the crackling camp fire below. Even now, the smell of wood smoke always takes me back to Asia; the faint waft of it in the warm tropical air is ubiquitous and strangely comforting.

That night, Nick made an early retreat to the cave whilst Steve and I sat around the camp fire discussing the elusive tiger. We knew that she — it felt more like a she for some reason — was nearby; after all the pug marks were only a few minutes walk away. As we sat there she could have been watching us and we would never have known. Jim Corbett recounts a similar experience in the Man-eaters of Kumaon: “she had come, seen me, stayed some time watching me, and then gone away without my having seen a leaf or a blade of grass move”. In the dancing shadows cast by the flickering fire I imagined I saw hungry tigers slowly advancing on us and when some heavy-footed creature starting moving through the thicket just out of sight, we made a hasty retreat to the cave.

Later that night as we all slept, a ghostly form silently crept into our camp. I was woken by the sound of a soft, muffled thump as something large jumped onto the cave ledge. I lay there paralysed with fear, unable to see anything in the absolute darkness. The night air felt electric and my every sense was in overdrive. I knew that something was in the cave with us; its presence was palpable, but I didn’t dare move. I strained to listen against the nighttime insect chorus and thought that I could hear it breathing, but it could have been Steve or Nick. For what felt like hours I lay there waiting for the inevitable to happen. Waiting for the ghost to drag me off in her jaws. But it never happened. At some point, and I don’t know how, I sensed that whatever had been in the cave with us had left. As sure as I could sense its presence, I could also sense its absence.

In the morning I told Steve about the previous night’s experience and he too had heard something big jump into the cave but was also too afraid to move. Nick however, had slept through the whole thing. We scoured the ground around the camp for any signs of a tiger but the earth was too hard and dry for pug marks. We stood below the ledge and looked up towards the cave – it was certainly within leaping height for a tiger and none of us could think of a similarly large animal that could make it up there. We joked that maybe it was another civet or perhaps its larger cousin, the binturong. Had it been something more innocuous, or had the ghost of the forest really paid us a visit?

As if to mock us, the maniacal laugh of a distant helmeted hornbill drifted through the canopy. This is now an incredibly rare sound in Asia’s forests because poachers hunt this prehistoric looking bird for its casque – a decorative growth on the upper part of the beak made from solid keratin. Dubbed red ivory, it has a street value of £4000 per kilogram which is three times that of elephant ivory. The helmeted hornbill’s call starts with a series of loud, intermittent hoots which increase in speed, culminating in a cackle that resembles laughter. If hearing this was the consolation prize for missing the tiger then I’d gladly take it.

There is a legend in Malaysia about how the helmeted hornbill came about his call: A man married a beautiful girl and moved into her house, with her mother and sisters. He didn’t have a job and he became increasingly lazy; spending his days eating, sleeping and passing wind. When his wife returned from a hard day’s work he would demand sex with her. This saddened and disgusted her mother, who for a time quietly accepted it. But one day she had had enough and she confronted him. Nobody had ever stood up to the man before and it angered him terribly. He rushed outside and grabbed an axe. He began to chop away at the stilts that held up the house, letting out grunts of exertion with every blow “hoo – hoo – hoo.” They became faster and faster and when the house finally collapsed he let out a mad cackling laugh “ah ah ah ah ah ah ah”. And so the helmeted hornbill got its call.

The following day was our last in the forest and despite finding the tracks of a Malayan tapir and having a brief encounter with a lesser chevrotain – the world’s smallest hoofed mammal – we found no further evidence of the tiger. The ghost had made her presence known but had decided not to reveal herself to us this time. As we left the forest, determined to one day return, I thought of a quote by Salman Rushdie: “Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what”.

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