Noted environmentalist and wildlife filmmaker Valmik Thapar says that in the present climate there is no hope for the tiger

Neither the balmy sea air, nor the beautiful morning in Kochi seems to alleviate Valmik Thapar’s anger at the condition of the tiger in the country. The Tiger Man of India, much like the majestic cat, purrs, chuffs, growls, roars and lambasts the governing system whose apathy he believes has brought the tiger to the brink.

He has been on all government committees that make rules and laws regarding wildlife and nature parks. He has worked inside the system before he quit in sheer frustration. Valmik has written several books, made films and documentaries on the tiger and espoused the cause for the past four decades. He considers his efforts to be a failure. On a short holiday to the city Valmik spoke to The Hindu MetroPlus on the current situation, the remedies, and his latest book that’s not on the tiger.

There is an increase in the tiger population in the country. Isn’t that cause for optimism?

Population doesn’t go up by magic; there is a huge problem in the figures. There is no hope of numbers building up in the future. Where the tiger walks is the richest forest area in India. I believe the situation has regressed in the last 20 years and this is because of our politicians and our bureaucrats. It will catch us one day.

Is the situation that dismal?

At this point I see no hope. As far as I am concerned the tiger is in the gravest danger and that too from the forest department. It cannot give any relief to the tiger.

The present climate tolerates non-governance, which has led to this present crisis. I have worked with many governments, four prime ministers and been on all the committees that had anything to do with wildlife. Nothing ever happens. A rejected report is brought on after a gap of some years. Unscientific policies and poor governance have endangered the tiger the most.

What do you advocate?

The first thing is to go for a complete overhaul of the forest department. It is a department set up by the British. The service is archaic. There should be a new rule for recruitment. There should be checks, within the system, on those who exploit timber and those who protect wild life.

Secondly, there are five to six laws that govern this field - The Forest Act, The Environment Protection Act, Forest Rights Act, the Indian Forest Acts and some others. These were made in the late 1800s by the British. All these laws are fighting each other. We need one holistic law which is both prohibitive and enabling.

The third point is to forge genuine partnership between wildlife personnel and people outside the system, the local community. In a landscape like Periyar, the local naturalists should be involved in decision making.

In such a situation what would you do?

I have a wholly new concept. If you take our 42 tiger reserves, some complete mess, some better, I would roughly put a 1,000 people in all hierarchies, in all different disciplines that will help in landscape conservation. This is done in every field. The best minds are brought in. It is only in this country that we kick talent around like football. It saddens me to see the best talent in the country being ignored while the wrong people are there for the job.

What is your view on the debate over ban on tiger tourism in core areas?

I am totally against the ban. It is a complete no-no. Tourism is the only check and balance of what is happening inside a park. I am a great supporter of innovative wildlife tourism. People should be allowed to walk in the park, camp, and have the freedom to understand the language of the forest.

What is your advice?

There should be site specific tourism. Good tourism can make a difference. The forest department should engage the tourism department as equal partner and give the people a fantastic experience. Parks do better or worse depending on the individual in charge. The best thing one can do for conservation is to get the right person for the job.

What are you currently working on?

I have just completed my book on lions and cheetahs - Exotic Aliens, published by Aleph, to be released in February. My aunt, historian Romila Thapar, is writing the foreword. I am excited about the book. After three years of research I reached the conclusion that lions and cheetahs are not indigenous species…that the lion was imported from Mozambique and the cheetah is a total royal pet. It changes the natural history of the world. I looked at history from the eyes of an animal. Lions are mongrels. No lion existed in Kerala but lion art did. Gir was where the imported lion was bred. It is only in a certain period of time that lions and cheetahs begin to appear in our texts and art. The shikar was stage managed. Mughal historians will hate me for this. I stumbled upon this information. This is my greatest delight in all this gloom.

What are views on the Periyar Tiger Reserve?

There are lots of problem with PTR. They tried to rehab poachers but several tiger skins were found. It is a good thing to rehab poachers but did they? It is a difficult area to manage… the boating inside the park. There needs to be innovative thinking. Money needs to go back to the local. If I was in charge of Periyar I would bring in the local people with knowledge as decision makers. Kerala is fantastic in the terms of knowledge that exists with common people. Use that talent. Don’t kick the talent.

On his favourite tiger Machli, Valmik soften at once. Machli is Noon’s offspring. She must be touching 70. I am sad about Machali. She is artificially fed on buffalo meat and kept alive, says Valmik who spends about 15 days in a month in Ranthambore.