A valuable corpus presenting current perspectives mixed with the historical perception of the tiger
TIGER - The Ultimate Guide: Valmik Thapar; Oxford University Press and CDS Books in association with Two Brothers Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1950.Valmik Thapar has been saying in recent times that he has engaged an untested sixth gear to get the campaign to save the tiger moving again. His anxiety for the cat is well founded, and heightened by local extinctions in designated tiger reserves, the most publicised example of which is Sariska.These are difficult times for tigers, tiger biologists and conservationists in general, as the Ministry of Environment and Forests, in a bizarre and self-negating twist to its mandated role, has been dangerously tinkering with protective laws. The Ministry has also been surprisingly passive and tolerant when confronted by news of the decline of the species due to poaching. The least that any determined activist can do at such a troubled moment is to advance public understanding of the tiger's plight. This is crucial to create a broad constituency of citizens who reject myths about the species, support science-based conservation and are wholly unwilling to tolerate poaching and habitat loss.
Thapar, the dissenting member of the national Tiger Task Force of 2005, is a redoubtable fighter in the cause of the tiger. He is the author of many works that provide hours of well-researched and immensely interesting detail on the big cat. This book is an anthology that improves upon his admirable collection by lending new insight, stunning photographs and art motifs drawn from around the world. Some of the most dedicated researchers, writers and campaigners who have worked for the tiger have contributed to this compilation. There is George Schaller, whose path-breaking work in Kanha helped India's most admired conservationist-Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to form her earliest policies to protect forests, K. Ullas Karanth and Raghu S. Chundawat, tiger biologists who have braved governmental intimidation to pursue science, Billy Arjan Singh who has spent a lifetime cheek-by-whisker in Dudhwa and Fateh Singh Rathore, Romila Thapar, Dale Miquelle, Ruth Padel, Belinda Wright and others. An assemblage of experts and writers such as this can legitimately bring a diverse set of perspectives and the book does not disappoint. There is Thapar's own rich field experience that is shared in the major part of the narrative, often marked by despondency at the hopelessness of tigers dying in metal traps and electrified snares in 'protected places'; the cautious optimism of George Schaller, who reminds the reader that India and Nepal have done the most for the tiger, but it is only in Russia that the species has grown in numbers; Andrew Kitchener's interesting taxonomical explanation, based on bio-geographical studies, that there were originally only three tiger sub-species: the mainland (Panthera tigris tigris) spanning Asia through China, Indo-China and into the Russian Far East, the Sunda Islands (Panthera tigris sondaica) covering Sumatra, Java, Bali and Borneo, and the Caspian (Panthera tigris virgata). Thapar puts the issue in perspective by pointing out that tigers were divided into eight sub-species traditionally. The Caspian, Balinese and Javan sub-species are extinct, hounded out of existence by man, leaving the Amur, Bengal, Indo-Chinese, South China and Sumatran sub-species. There are fears for these too and the South China tiger may be extinct.
Human reaction to the tiger has, over the ages, ranged from fear, provoking deadly violence, to the mystical and religious. Romila Thapar, who traces changing responses to the tiger during the evolution of India's civilisation from pre-historic times, concludes her scholarly exploration with an appeal for reflection on the altered relationship of people with forests and wild creatures. Valmik Thapar completes this theme with his own record of the grisly end that befell the vast majority of tigers, the decline turning precipitous with the advent of the gun and the automobile.The fate of the tiger outside India is not often documented in interesting detail for a popular audience, but this book has appealing perspectives on how it is faring in Russia, at the far northern end of its range. Dale Miquelle tells these heart-warming stories of tigers in a distant and cold landscape with passion and they only reaffirm the value of armed security in the protection of endangered species.
Where such safeguards are missing, there could be devastating consequences. Belinda Wright, who recently exposed the apparently thriving trade in tiger skins in Tibet, records the grim reality at some length. We learn, for example, that the poaching machine is well oiled and thought to be functioning essentially from 13 villages of Katni district in Central India, feeding the deadly trade in tiger bones, teeth, nails and skins.Thapar's Guide is a valuable corpus that presents such current perspectives mixed with the historical perception of the tiger among artists (from Indian miniatures to Salvador Dali), scientists, writers and conservationists. Ruth Padel, a descendant of Charles Darwin, goes back to the Origin of Species to explain why the great evolutionary biologist did not talk about tigers in any significant degree. Her conclusion is both elementary and convincing: tigers represent all of nature in such fundamental terms that Darwin may not have felt the need to write explicitly about them. "In a sense, he was writing about them all the time." It is this timeless and all-pervasive influence of tigers on the human consciousness that Thapar's work captures beautifully.