Scanning a barcode of regimented bamboo stems, I wonder if anything in this forest has a pulse. It's a quiet day and nothing is stirring. A zigzag of movement momentarily sets my heart racing, but it's no more than optical illusion. I have, it turns out, been bamboozled.
According to a report published by WWF and Global Tiger Forum in April this year, the wild tiger population has increased for the first time in more than a century. Having not clocked even a tuft of orange fur in six game drives, I'm finding that hard to believe.
Searching for a tuft of orange fur
Experts are equally sceptical; in light of shrinking habitat, the numbers seem incredulous. Issuing new census figures days before a Royal visit to India might also be considered cynical.
Dispirited, we hurtle in tin-can Gypsy 4WDs through Maharashtra's Tadoba Andhari National Park, leaving a tunnel of hot dust in our wake.
Ahead, leaves swirl in a pinwheel of russet and gold, churning up agitated grunts and bellows from retreating sambar deer.
A storm is coming, which could explain our run of unusually bad luck. Bengal tigers may be fierce, stealthy hunters, but a drop of rain will send them scurrying into the bushes, tails between their legs.
"You should have been here last week," says Aditya Dhanwatey, whose family own the Tiger Trails Lodge on the park fringes. Tadoba's queen bee tigress, Maya, he tells me, was seen hunting in clear view.
Tigers in trouble
Tigers are in trouble. Poaching remains a grave problem and as the human population grows, conflict is inevitable. In the midst of this, the government initiative Project Tiger seems to be strangling itself with red tape.
Aditya, though, sees a way through it. He has big ambitions to open India's first conservancy, managing tiger safaris on private land he hopes to buy from neighbouring villages.
"We already have tigers coming to our watering hole," he says, pointing to a collection of TV screens in the dining room, all connected to camera traps. The fuzzy monochrome images look more like a snowstorm in the Himalayas than the 48C furnace outside, but I trust his claims.
Crucially, a conservancy would enable greater freedom for game drives and, by giving employment, would incentivise communities to protect wildlife. So far, Aditya is making great progress. Maharashtra now has the relevant legislation in place and a search is underway for funding.
Playing by the rules
For now, we have to play by the rules - something that doesn't come naturally to my guide, Paul Goldstein, a restless wildlife photographer and campaigner who's rarely satisfied.
Pacing up and down outside the park's Khutwanda Gate, a five-minute drive from the lodge, he curses furiously until dithering, bleary-eyed officials arrive with keys at 6am.
Once inside, we rattle along bone-shaking roads, lined with pillars once strung with lanterns to herald the king's arrival. Clearly they know Paul is in town.
Wrapped in half-light, stripped white eucalyptus trees loom like spectres above a mist of brown, brittle grass. Two startled sloth bears bundle across our path, followed by a family of wild dogs wearing hazy early morning halos. Prettier than their scraggy African counterparts, they look more like well-fed foxes.
Lacking historical grandeur
There's no radio communication in the park, so we spilt off in different directions, searching for pug marks and dividing time between watering holes - the best place to find hot, thirsty tigers.
It may lack the historical grandeur of former Maharajahs' hunting grounds Ranthambore or the beauty of Kipling's Jungle Book setting Pench, but Tadoba is arguably one of the most progressive parks in India.
In 2012, when the Indian government ill-advisedly banned tourists from core tiger areas, Tadoba defiantly stayed open.
The Forestry Department has also shunned a zoning system, meaning all visitors can enjoy the available space.
Shedding blood, sweat and tears for the species
Paul obviously has faith in the park. He's been guiding tiger safaris for more than a decade, previously in Bandhavgarh, and has literally shed blood, sweat and tears for the species.
The day before we departed for Nagpur via Mumbai, 53-year-old Paul ran his 13th marathon in a 9ft, 30lb tiger suit to raise money and awareness for tigers. Ignoring an injury and doctor's orders, he completed the charity fundraiser in six hours and 25 minutes.
Now though, he's in agony - a pain exacerbated only by the refusal of his striped beneficiaries to show up.
After a mildly amusing diversion to spot a motionless nightjar camouflaged on the ground, we return to the lodge, dusty orange faces glowing brighter than the cast of TOWIE.
Driven by anger and frustration
"Anger and frustration, that's what drives me," admits Paul. "Tigers are still dying; we're not winning."
The following day, we schedule a meeting with Shree Bhagwan, the state's Chief Wildlife Warden, to discuss improvements in the park. Passing a dimly-lit office occupied by an administrator in Ray-Bans twiddling his thumbs amid mountains of faded, curling dossiers, I wonder if this might be a long day.
Sat beneath the shade of a teak tree, Paul hammers through his suggestions, drawing a plan in the sand for improved access routes.
Enthusiasm renewed, it's time to find our tigers, who are most likely on a sambar or gaur kill. Tadoba has an excellent prey base, part of the reason why there's a healthy tiger population.
Our eager-to-please driver heads in the direction of the 'frozen' nightjar and I worry this is becoming a euphemism for not spotting a tiger. "How much Araldite did they need to stick that down?" scoffs Paul sarcastically.
Fortunately, we don't have time to check; Maya and her cubs have been found. Tugging at a kill, every muscle in their bodies flashes with brilliance.
Over the next few days, we watch cats paddling in the water, staring at their reflections and snoozing in the sunshine. A jungle cat furtively skirting a watering hole is a bonus.
No matter the distance, coming eye to eye with a tiger is overwhelming. I quickly understand why Aditya and Paul have chosen such a difficult battle to fight.
As we drive back to the lodge, black, swollen rain clouds gather overhead. Another storm is brewing. It won't be the last.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of Exodus who offers a seven-day Tigers In Focus trip to Tadoba, India from £999pp excluding flights, with various departures from October to April. Paul Goldstein also leads special photographic tours for Exodus. Enquire for details about his next trip. A return flight from London Heathrow to Nagpur via Mumbai with Jet Airways (0808 101 1199) costs from £716 per person. Jet Airways, India's premier airline, flies daily from London Heathrow to Delhi and twice daily to Mumbai. Flights are also available from various UK regional airports via Amsterdam. For more information on Tiger Trails lodge, visit their website.
Photo credit: PA Photo/Paul Goldstein