Every year, tourists visit Corbett National Park in northern India hoping for an encounter with the reserve's famous Bengal tigers. But it seems a group on an elephant safari got a bit too close...

The short clip was filmed by Harmit Ahuja in the scenic Dhikala Zone of the reserve, and it features a particularly disgruntled cat. Ahuja and the rest of his tour group initially spotted the tigress in the thick vegetation beside the road, where she's thought to have made a kill earlier that day. After emerging for a drink from the nearby river, the cat began to move towards the tourists, possibly with her eye on some sambar deer also drinking in the vicinity. 

While vehicles jostled for prime position at the sighting, the stealthy predator managed to sneak across the road undetected. Tour guides quickly reversed their vehicles to catch up with the cat – which is when she went on the offensive, charging towards the tourists atop the elephant.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the tiger backed down at the last second and bolted into the undergrowth. But the story didn't end there: the big cat emerged a second time in another attempt to see off the perceived threat. Ahuja managed to snap a few stills of the action, and describes the sighting as "a wonderful, hair-raising experience".

The tigress emerges a second time to see off the potential threat. Image © Harmit Ahuja
The tigress charges the elephant for a second time. Image © Harmit Ahuja
The elephant can be seen on the extreme left of the photo as the tigress approaches to see off the threat. Image © Harmit Ahuja

Despite having similar home ranges, Asian elephants and tigers rarely interact. The big cats would certainly not attack prey as large as an adult elephant, so our best guess is that this one felt threatened. "The footage does not illustrate an attempt at predation, but more likely a defence of the tiger's turf, possibly due to nearby cubs," explains Dr Wai-Ming Wong, Assistant Director of Field Programs for global wild cat conservation organisation Panthera. According to Ahuja, the tiger's young were likely concealed somewhere nearby.

Elephant safaris are certainly controversial, and some commenters online have speculated that the people riding the elephant may have spooked the tigress, though Wong suggests this wasn't the case.

"The tiger sees the elephant, not the people riding it, as a threat," he says. "Many safari elephants live within Corbett, and [although] this type of interaction involving a tiger charging an elephant is very rare, when an interaction occurs, the territorial elephant will typically chase the tiger away." 

After retreating once more into the undergrowth, the tigress made a final appearance, charging down one of the safari vehicles.

The tigress emerged a final time and charged down one of the safari vehicles. Image © Harmit Ahuja 
The tigress seeing off a vehicle likely perceived as a threat. Image © Harmit Ahuja
The tigress seeing off a vehicle likely perceived as a threat. Image © Harmit Ahuja

This tiger is one of an estimated 227 that live in India's Corbett National Park – a 1,288-square-kilometre tract of prime tiger territory that's home to more of these big cats than any other national reserve in the country. Ecotourism plays a critical role in the conservation of India's tiger populations, and wildlife parks like Corbett are considered vital. The reserve was the first to come under the country's Project Tiger initiative – a conservation programme launched in 1973 to help protect the big cats – and it remains one of India's prime ecotourism destinations.

Along with protective legislation and on-the-ground patrols, these efforts have seen tiger populations increase in the park and its surroundings, but Corbett's managerial strategies have also come under scrutiny. "The biggest threat faced by the Corbett tiger reserve is the leakage of its tiger populations to its peripheral areas," TRAFFIC India's Samir Sinha told the Wall Street Journal in 2011.

Some observers are concerned that a high number of visitors to the park – traffic jams of vehicles at tiger sightings are common – might upset the big cats' natural migratory patterns, forcing them into surrounding areas where the risk of poaching and conflict with local communities is high.

All of this has led some experts to push for a ban on tourism activities in critical tiger habitats at the centre of parks. But not everyone agrees. Tito Joseph, anti-poaching programme manager for the Wildlife Protection Society argues that proper regulation is the key factor. "Tourism is allowed in core areas all over the world; if regulated well, it is not a problem," he says.

Anti-poaching efforts in Corbett are ongoing, including the employment of local villagers as park rangers to help spread awareness and reduce human-wildlife conflict. According to Dr Wong, the conservation efforts in the park are having a positive effect, and tiger populations in the reserve are on the rise, despite reports of poaching in the area.

"Between March and May of this year, there have been at least six instances of tiger poaching," says Wong, who remains hopeful that increased protections can keep these big cats safe. Corbett National Park is now patrolled by Special Operation Groups that are specifically trained to combat poaching and other threats. "They have proven to be very effective in protecting the future of the region's tigers," he says.

Top header image: Christopher Kray, Flickr