The tiger makes no secret of its danger, prowling around in a yellow and black stripy catsuit, a trend it shares with other perilous beasts from wasps to snakes. And it occurs to me, while I am stealthily stalking one on foot, that this is not the cleverest thing to be doing.
The wooden stick my local Nepali guide, Siteram, is carrying does little to reassure me as we follow the enormous prints through the dry forest of Bardia National Park in the far-western lowlands of Nepal, home to the country's largest remaining population of Bengal tigers. Nobody knows how many tigers there are in the park because years of insurgency in Nepal have made it difficult to carry out surveys. However, with tiger parts attracting a high price on the Asian health potions market, poaching remains a highly profitable prospect in this impoverished region.
As wild tigers (Panthera tigris) become scarcer, the price on their heads goes up: tiger bones are sold for hundreds of dollars in Taiwan, Korea and China, according to WWF figures. A bowl of tiger penis soup (to boost virility) goes for $320, a pair of eyes (to fight epilepsy) for $170, and powdered tiger humerus (for treating ulcers and typhoid) for $3,200 per kilo in Seoul, according to the conservation charity.
I was in Nepal to see one of the country's estimated breeding population of 120 - one of perhaps 3,000 tigers left in the world, down from 100,000 in 1900. They are the largest of the four “big cats”, and used to be found anywhere from Siberia to Bali to Turkey. But hunting and habitat encroachment by humans have over the past century reduced their range by more than 90% and caused the extinction of three subspecies (including the Balinese tiger).
There are now six subspecies left, all of which are classed as endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including the Siberian tiger, which, weighing up to 660 pounds (300 kilogrammes), is the largest; and the Bengal tiger, which, with almost 2,000 individuals is the most numerous.
More worrying, their numbers have fallen by at least 40% in the past decade alone. Conservationists say that the animals may go extinct within two decades.
But here is the big question: Does it matter if we “run out” of tigers?
Useful, or not?
After all, most people never get to see them in the wild anyway, and for those who want to, we have ample footage and photographs of them in their natural habitat. Moreover, all the alarming figures above relate only to tigers in the wild – they are far from endangered in captivity. More than five times as many tigers live in captivity as in the wild, perhaps 20,000.
As we bring about what Anthony Barnosky, of University of California Berkeley, and other biologists fear may be the sixth mass extinction in the Earth's 4.5 billion-year history, we are inevitably losing different species. Saving biodiversity would cost $300 billion a year, according to the chief of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
If we are not willing to spend that level of money in the Anthropocene, the new “human age”, we are going to have to prioritise conservation efforts towards the species we do want to save. And are wild tigers worth the $350 million global fund set up to rescue them?
There is no evidence whatsoever that potions made from tiger parts have a medicinal effect that cannot be attained using other ingredients. We do not depend on tigers for meat or skins. They do not provide transport or help plough our fields. Unlike their far smaller cousins, you can't keep one at home to stroke and pet – well, not unless you want your face ripped off.