A vehement Valmik Thapar says there is no hope for our animals unless the forest service is completely revamped and more young people understand Nature

Belonging to a family of politically active, sophisticated intellectuals, adolescent Valmik Thapar escaped the din of the city, and went to Ranthambhore to make a documentary on the deep jungle. The retreat turned into a lifetime mission when he saw his first tiger standing on a ruined monument.

Today, he is India's best known ‘Tiger man', having spoken, written and screamed vociferously about India's national animal threatened with extinction.

Thapar speaks less loudly now, and with smouldering fire. His cynicism, a by-product of having battled against obdurate Governments and blind policies through the decades, has not snuffed out his passion for the mesmerising creature that walks through rapidly shrinking haunts.

Excerpts from an interview with the natural historian, wildlife documentary filmmaker, conservationist and author.

At what moment did you decide that the tiger was going to be most important in your life? And, any regrets?

For weeks, I was at Ranthambhore National Park, when the forest guard said a tiger had entered a walled complex ahead. In our midnight struggle to see this elusive creature, we plunged into the lake. Then, the tiger came up on the wall, and looked at us. A vision…? What keeps me going despite all the scams in this sector is the sheer power and beauty of this animal. My heart stops when I see a tiger, just as it did when I first saw it 35 years ago under the full moon.

I regret that I failed to intervene in the politics to persuade the powers to do more. The Prime Minister (I.K. Gujral) most empathetic to the tiger cause had too little time. Others who showed interest had other issues taking precedence. The trouble is that everyone sees forests as a source of revenue.

Why do you sound more and more pessimistic as you talk about saving the tiger?

In India, when the corporate world changed course, Finance Ministries underwent reform, created new regulations, amended laws. After 35 years in wildlife, serving on 150 committees of Central / State Governments, I know nothing has changed for the forest sector. Hundreds of files and documents reveal shocking governance of 20 per cent of our landmass.

You have been repeating this downhill story!

I've failed miserably. The people you repeat it to are part of a forest service, who don't know how to save wildlife or deal with rampant poaching, but who also want no change, no tourism, no projects involving local communities. So now I say — disband the forest service. Create a new service with new recruitment rules, syllabus, training and specialisation in forest regeneration, protection, wildlife management with community partnership. Without vision, we'll have nothing left to save. The system has to be overhauled.

Has any other country succeeded in such a drastic revamping?

Kenya. In 1980s, its wildlife was being wiped out. The President put wildlife expert Richard Leakey in charge of Kenyan Wildlife Service with the dictum ‘Shoot all poachers on sight'. Leakey's book “Wildlife Wars” says it all. Today 70 per cent of Kenya's national revenue comes from wildlife tourism. A small national park brings $150 million entry fee to two Masai councils each year.

With so many sanctuaries, can we develop ‘site-specific' land use policies for all?

I'm saying for the first time — you can't have 600 national parks and sanctuaries as we do — some only on paper, a 100 in Andamans and Nicobar that nobody knows or visits… I don't believe in restriction anymore. We must involve local communities to use tourism for conservation.

Cut down the parks. Leave local communities to manage an area with sarus crane and black buck; let a revamped Forest Department manage regions with carnivores. Let scientists study the results and shape better models.

But parks are not known to welcome scientists.

Forest Departments are afraid of whistleblowers. They lodged false complaints against Raghu Chundawat, when he warned that tigers were dying in Panna. Now they've spent crores to reintroduce tigers into the park. Jairam Ramesh has done a great job over Vedanta, but he is struggling with huge problems. There's no partnership between the State and the Centre. There's no delivery system either, without which we have no hope in hell.

Such menaces return when the Government changes. Tigers don't get votes for politicians to prioritise them. Is there any hope of awareness among the young?

We can't have an Indira-Rajiv yojana for the whole country. I'd have every school in districts around Ranthambhore teach courses in environment, wildlife. Around Jaisalmer, the focus has to be on what the desert gives you — music and culture. I've talked about this for 25 years. Nothing has happened. The new generation in the city, the town and the village doesn't have the empathy that old generations had with cultural symbolism. Fear of and respect for Nature vanished when the free market economy invaded India in 1990-91. The tiger is not devi's vahan for the young. With no mythology of Nature, it is easy for people to destroy it. Science has grown tremendously to understand Nature, but is not taught at the local level.

Are you treading new ground with your new book about the tiger as a cultural symbol?

For this visually-rich book, I've tapped the museums of the world to find amazing artefacts from rock art and tribal beliefs, showing how tigers have influenced and inspired man.