One of India's iconic tiger reserves is emblematic of its efforts to save the big cat
Preserving India's wild tigers has become a popular cause today. Most people might never see a wild tiger, but they fully support measures to save it. They are aware that, in spite of several challenges, tigers do persist and need help. Poaching, mining, indifferent forest bureaucracies, highways in sanctuaries, and unrestrained consumerism — all pose a threat. It is undoubtedly a gloomy picture. And this sense of despair once again pervades Valmik Thapar's writing, relieved only by an occasional glimmer of hope.
The Ranthambhore National Park, the tiger haven near Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan, is among Thapar's favourite haunts. The very name evokes images of vast forested lands, the ruins of a massive fort, and lakes with emerald vegetation attracting the big cats and their prey. The author's tryst with tigers here began in his twenties, and grew into a magnificent obsession over three-and-a-half decades.
This comprehensive book, the 21st by the crusading conservationist-author, is essentially made up of two parts. The first is a lavish spread of images, many of them by Fateh Singh Rathore, a passionate forester, which makes it worth collecting. The second is a critique of tiger conservation in the three decades since hunting was outlawed, major forest laws were introduced, and the protection of the environment became a policy imperative.
Even if the reader has no particular interest in Thapar's anecdote-laced analysis of what is wrong with India's forest and conservation policies, he will find the book quite absorbing and enlightening, thanks to the pictures that are supremely delightful and offer a lot of insight into the ecology, biology, behaviour, prey preferences, and habitat of the tiger.
The Government of India has spent enormous money since the launch of Project Tiger (which later became the National Tiger Conservation Authority). Yet, reading through the chapters of this book, one is left with the feeling that New Delhi was not really serious about the goal. Environmental governance under the supervision of Indira Gandhi yielded splendid gains and helped wildlife recover. But after her departure from the scene, it has been a systematic reversal, with Nature being looked upon only as a resource to be managed and extracted from.
This is the economics that, in Thapar's view, grossly tilts the scales against the survival of the tiger. Two things stand out in his analysis: policy confusion about protected areas that has resulted in mounting pressures on habitat and the generally hostile attitude of the forest bureaucracy to independent research, which prevents the growth of scholarship on conservation.
Thapar describes his interaction with several Ministers for Environment and, mostly, they do not cover themselves in glory, with the exception of Jairam Ramesh. They appear vague, vain or inept, while dealing with forest protection. The Environment Ministry comes across as a “funny place”, and the World Bank's $ 70 million eco-development project under the Global Environment Facility, a disaster for forests. One Environment Minister, Thapar says, surprised him by declaring that he had been presented a fresh tiger skin during an election meeting in his constituency.
Things were not good for the other folk working to save tigers. Independent researchers such as Raghu Chundawat, who worked with the author, faced unrelenting pressure to establish his bona fide intent and had to endure smear campaigns for the simple reason that they recorded the decline of tigers — as in Panna. The shocking story of Sariska's local extinction and clumsy attempts at re-introduction of tigers is told with a lot of personal insight. These are not new stories, of course, but form part of the long journey that Thapar has undertaken in Ranthambhore and elsewhere.
The book affirms the superiority of scientific research and gives credit to scientist Ullas Karanth and his camera-trap-based capture-recapture sampling technique to arrive at credible tiger counts. The reader is also treated to hilarious anecdotes, including one on the discredited pugmark method, which produced exaggerated tiger population figures. In one instance, a forest guard claimed that he had made a trace of a pugmark from the wet foot of a tiger on a rock, before it dried up.
On policy, if there is one issue for which a doughty fighter like the author is yet to come up with a solution, that is the perceived conflict between electoral politics and conservation imperatives. Thus, the Forest Rights Act in its present form — empowering tribals and traditional forest dwellers — is seen as divisive and harmful to conservation, and politicians focussed solely on votes as men of poor mettle. He calls it the “ignorant buzzword.” That debate is set to go on.
Ultimately, it is the tigers that elevate the book. They are everywhere in glorious colour, hunting in the lakes of Ranthambhore, walking, frolicking, snarling, leaping, sparring, mating or simply relaxing. Valmik Thapar and Fateh Singh Rathore spent many dreamy days in this idyll, watching a fascinating creature in its home. The book is a tribute as much to Fateh, who was Valmik's mentor from the beginning, as to the big cats.