I’ve seen tigers in zoos and on TV, but nothing can really prepare you for a close encounter with the worlds largest big cat.
And here I am stroking the fur of a male Bengal tiger.
One hundred and fifty kilos of muscle, stripes and teeth.
A killing-machine evolved to hunt in the forests that once covered Asia.
Thankfully Sahebrao, as he’s been nicknamed, is unconscious, anaesthetised for a operation to help change his life in captivity.
His life in the wild is over; stolen by poachers hunting India’s Bengal tigers for the illegal trade in their body parts.
As youngsters, he and his brother were caught in snare traps.
His brother had already died from his injuries and gangrene had begun to spread from Sahebrao’s crushed and infected paw.
A hasty amputation and weeks of intensive care saved his life, but left him limping.
Over the years, damaged nerve tissue and an unhealed fracture made every step appear painful for the animal.
But a team assembled by an Indian orthopaedic surgeon, including a trauma specialist from the University of Leeds in the UK, devised a plan to help Sahebrao.
In October they operated on his damaged paw.
Removing the damaged nerve tissue and fixing the damaged bones.
It’s resolved the tiger’s pain, but his shortened leg means he still walks with a limping gait.
And that’s the point of this operation.
An attempt to fit the Sahebrao with an artificial paw.
It’s a world first.
Never attempted before in a big cat.
And because he is not domesticated, it makes the challenge even greater.
Most animal prostheses these days rely on a metal attachment implanted directly into the bone.
This is not an option with a tiger as the implants require regular checking for infection and changes of dressings.
The only way to do that with a dangerous big cat would be repeated anaesthetics, which could risk the animal’s life.
A strapped-on prosthesis won’t work either as sharp teeth would make light work of any fastenings.
So Sahebrao’s carers teamed up with Swiss veterinary specialists to design a very basic bolt-on, highly cushioned device which they hoped would be acceptable.
We watched, hopefully as it was fitted.
However within 20 minutes of coming round from the operation, Sahebrao had somehow slipped his paw free.
The team couldn’t hide their disappointment, but they told me they are determined to try again with a redesigned device once Sahebrao has had sufficient time to recover from this latest ordeal.
And despite the set-back they’ve ended the pain the tiger was suffering meaning his life in captivity can be more bearable than it was before.
A symbol of Asia’s tiger conservation challenge
Since the turn of the last century numbers of tigers in the wild in Asia have fallen.
First due to hunting, then growing human populations began to destroy more and more of the tigers’ forest habitat for farming.
That threat continues, so too does illegal poaching for tiger parts used in traditional medicine.
In the last decade however, India has bucked the trend.
It’s tiger population has grown by a third.
There are now thought to be nearly 4,000 wild tigers in the subcontinent.
But that success brings with it new challenges.
Highly territorial animals, young tigers are being forced to strike out from the protected reserves where they are born to find new territories.
However this is bringing them increasingly into contact with humans, often poachers or farmers keen to protect their livestock from attack.
Sahebrao and his young brother are an example of this new generation of tigers.
The fight now is to preserve belts of forest land between tiger reserves, “wildlife corridors”, to allow tigers and their prey, to migrate.
At the same time, say tiger conservationists, people unfamiliar with tigers in their neighbourhood need educating.
Tigers rarely attack humans unless they are surprised.
Allowing people and tigers the space to give each other a wide berth will be the challenge of the coming decades.