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One night in 2016, Saw Kae, while fishing on the Ban Chaung river near the Kyaikpheelan village of Myanmar’s Dawei District, was thinking to himself how incredible it would be to see a wild tiger. Though throughout his 50 years of life he had heard many tales of tigers in the surrounding jungle, he had never seen one. The tigers seemed more like a local myth than reality.

As night fell gradually over the river, Saw Kae opened his lunch box and as he raised a spoonful of rice toward his mouth, he heard something. With the dim evening light, he couldn’t see where the sound was coming from, but he felt the presence of someone or something large approaching. Sliding his hand down to the pocket that usually held his knife, he stopped.

It was the tiger he had waited for all these years.

For a brief moment in time, the tiger and Saw Kae locked eyes. Panic soon set in and Saw burst into action, diving into the Ban Chaung and swimming fiercely toward his boat. He headed home. The next morning, he told everyone in his village about the tiger, and returned to the spot where they had met, noticing the only trace of the tiger’s visit; a huge paw print in the mud.

This story was re-told by Mann Kyar Thein. He is a bishop at the Church of Kyaikpheelan.

"Nobody believed me at the time, but then they all saw the big paw print that next morning. It was huge. So big we all think the tiger may have been as much as 18 ft. Where we found the print was just 1 taung from where Saw Kae was fishing. They had a very close encounter.”

Kyar Thein then went on to recount the story of his unforgettable encounter with a tiger some 35 years ago. Kyar had been asked by his grandfather to feed the pair of cows in his field near the village. As he led the cattle across the field one after the other, a tiger appeared and attacked the cow behind him. Frozen in fear watching the tiger wrestling his grandfather’s cow, he finally realized what was happening and sprinted toward the village, pulling the remaining cow with him.

He’s 50 now, and since then there has been no more evidence of tigers visiting Kyaikpheelan. “It was the very first and last time I got to see a tiger. We can assume that there are still tigers living in the community forest, but I have not since heard of any sightings.”

70-year-old Saw Phe Zat has also encountered Myanmar’s elusive tigers. Twice, in fact. The first time, Saw was out hunting to the east of Ban Creek and it was just a brief glimpse. The second time he came face to face with a tiger in the forest, he shot at it with his Tumee gun, failing to kill it.

“The first time I just saw it, but the second time we were too close. I had to shoot. When I returned to the village I was in a state of shock and I never wanted to see a tiger again. I was so scared!” He said with a smile on his face.

The forests in this part of Myanmar were once abundant with wildlife. Today, it is rare to see even a barking or samba deer. The populations of these species have been decimated by habitat loss for agricultural expansion, and by poachers for the rampant illegal wildlife trade.

WWF is working to conserve tigers in 13 countries, including Myanmar. On today the 29th July, as we continue to work to protect these incredible big cats, we dedicate this story to World Tiger Day.