One of the seven tigers Clemson students saw during their study abroad trip in India.

One of the seven tigers Clemson students saw during their study abroad trip in India.
Image Credit: Kara Robertson

On the first day of Spring Break 2k16, I sat closed-eyed and cringing as the wheels of our Boeing 777 touched down on the dark Delhi runway. Only after the pilot had turned off the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign and launched into his welcome spiel did it finally start to sink in. I was going to spend the next two weeks on a continent 7,000 miles from home.

I glanced at my seat neighbor, who returned my nervous smile with a chuckle and a thick Hindi accent: “Are you ready for India? It’ll hit you like an elephant.”

After successfully tracking down our luggage and weaving through customs, my study abroad group — including 13 equally anxious Clemson students — left the air-conditioned comfort of Indira Gandhi International. Though it was well past midnight, the humid, hazy night was alive with shrieking cars, wobbly rickshaws, lumbering hand-painted trucks and deceptively swift mopeds.

India’s capital city was thundering, trumpeting — larger than life. “Elephant” was no understatement.

The next morning, we rose with the sun and set off to our destination: Kanha National Park. More than a century ago, this 940-square-kilometer nature preserve served as the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Now, it’s a safe haven for more than 100 wild Bengal tigers.

We came to India with the high hope of seeing just one. Despite their undisputed status as kings of the jungle, tigers are in trouble. Tigers have seen the destruction of their natural habitat and 93 percent of their historic range disappear. And even with legislative regulations, illicit wildlife trade is booming. To feed the market’s demand, tigers are often poached, slaughtered and sold for parts.

With this knowledge, it’s not surprising that Clemson’s mascot is endangered. But it’s still a staggering statistic: There are only 3,900 wild tigers left on earth.

Clemson students Kara Robertson, right, get ready for a tour in India on a ricksha.

Clemson students Kara Robertson, right, and Kelly Ryan get ready for a tour in India on a ricksha.
Image Credit: Kara Robertson

This number alone had inspired me to dedicate a semester’s worth of studies to understanding more about India’s astonishing biodiversity. Now, it was time to bring everything we’d learned in Long Hall out into the field — to observe the animals we aim to protect.

As soon as my group arrived at the local lodge, we were packed into open-air jeeps and sent rumbling down the dusty dirt road toward the jungle. The majority of our safaris were spent searching: listening for a spotted deer’s alarm call, looking for a partial pugmark in the sand or territorial scratch marks on a tree — any clue that could bring us closer to encountering an elusive tiger.

One afternoon, during a moment of eerie silence, my group’s jeep jerked forward, sending passengers and binoculars tumbling to the floor.

As soon as the engine started, it sputtered to a stop. A couple of yards away, a tiger stepped out of the thick brush onto the open road.

My shaking hands fumbled with the camera lens as he padded closer to the vehicle, closer to us. I was overwhelmed with terror and respect and awe at the sheer strength of this majestic — did I mention massive? — animal.

Every moment I’d spent in Death Valley, moved nearly to tears at the simulated tiger’s roar echoing over the loudspeaker or high-fiving our own bipedal big cat on The Hill, came flooding into my mind. But not even the “most exciting 25 seconds of college football” could compare to the thrill of being 10 feet from our real mascot. I’d never felt prouder to be a Clemson Tiger.

Over the course of two weeks, we traveled to three different national parks and saw seven different tigers. To embrace cliché, every time was like the first time — though I did manage to take some decent pictures by tiger No. 3. For the first time in 100 years, the world’s wild tiger population has increased. Ecotourism, conservation funds and international efforts to raise awareness for the plight of the wild tiger have paid off.

Colorful image promoting the upcoming Clemson Study Abroad Fair. It reads: Study Abroad Fair, September 27, 2016, Hendrix Student Center, 1 a.m. to 3 p.m.We came to India for the wildlife, but a trip to this incredible country wouldn’t have been complete without a bit of culture. Between days spent chasing tigers, we toured the hulking marble Taj Mahal, climbed to the top of an ancient fort and visited a Hindu temple, complete with clanging brass bells, chai tea stalls and feisty langur monkeys.

Two weeks flashed by faster than two days. Before I had time to catch my breath, I was back home in America’s version of Tigertown. I must admit, there were a more than a few things I’d missed while overseas: Wi-fi. Warm showers. Toilet paper.

But even without these amenities, my trip to India was the adventure of a lifetime. Although we only saw a small part of the country, every city we visited was teeming with energy and life. Gut-wrenching poverty, luxurious wealth, rural simplicity — I saw it all. Ironically, the most eye-opening experience I’ve had during my collegiate years happened far from campus.

Clemson students played only a small part in the lives of the seven tigers we saw — but the tigers (and their breathtaking homeland) have had an irrevocable impact on mine. I hope that every student has the opportunity to experience a similar shift in perspective — one that, I believe, can only be gained through cultural immersion and global learning.

If you’re interested in an adventure abroad, be sure to head over to the Study Abroad Fair at the Hendrix Student Center from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept. 27.