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A religion called tigers

Sunny Sebastian
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Premiere of ‘Tiger Dynasty' for BBC's Natural History Unit

A roaring success:Wildlife film-makerS. Nallamuthu.— Photo: Sunny Sebastian
A roaring success:Wildlife film-makerS. Nallamuthu.— Photo: Sunny Sebastian

If anyone has ever stalked a single tiger so closely and with so much passion, it is wildlife film-maker S. Nallamuthu, who has almost made the feline creatures his religion.

He has kept his eye on a special tigress, Baghani — the daughter of the famous Machili who reigned supreme in the woods of Ranthambore till she was over 10 years of age — in the terrain of her birth till she was four.

Then came the great transformation in Baghani's life and in Mr. Nallamuthu's too. The Rajasthan wildlife authorities, with the support of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, chose her as the first female to populate the now-barren — as far as tigers are concerned — woods of the distant Sariska reserve in Alwar.

Before her, as part of a recovery programme chalked out by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for Sariska which lost all its tigers in 2004-05, male tiger Rajore was released in June 2008.

At least in India's history of conservation efforts, this was perhaps the first time that tigers were flown to a distant place after sedation. The Air Force helicopters took Baghani in July 2008 and released her into the special enclosure created in Sariska.

“Baghani is a very special tigress. Daughter of Machili, I have been filming her since she was a cub. When she was shifted out of her natal territory, I was keen to see how she would survive along with her mate Rajore and finally fulfil the dreams of a number of people by starting a new dynasty of tigers in Sariska,” said Mr. Nallamuthu, confessedly averse to making speeches, in his brief presentation at the Indian premiere of Tiger Dynasty , a film directed and photographed by him for BBC's Natural History Unit.

The show at the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur was attended by State Minister for Forests & Environment Bina Kak, Chief Secretary S. Ahmad, Principal Chief Conservator of Forest U.M. Sahai, a large number of senior officials, nature lovers, film-makers and photographers.

Dynasty may be a derided concept in politics but in the animal kingdom and in conservation history, bloodline counts. Tiger Queen , a 50-minute film Mr. Nallamuthu once made on Machili and her litter — that was shown on the National Geographic and Animal Planet channels -- talks about Machili being the most dominant carnivore in Ranthambore, displacing her mother and then Machili's own daughter T-17, doing the same to her mother. Baghani, T-18 in Ranthambore, too was driven out from her territory by T-17. It was then that she was picked up for the special task.

“In a sense, this story is a journey which we both, Baghani and I, took together — the challenges were similar for both of us. She was blindfolded prior to the translocation and when she opened her eyes she was in a completely unknown territory. In the same way, Sariska was completely unfamiliar to me. I had filmed her in abundance in Ranthambore and we were both well-versed with that place. But Sariska, in its 800 sq km expanse, was unseen forest,” the film-maker recollects.

Even for those who know the story, the film, shot over 180 days in high definition, proved a rare visual treat with first-time close exposures of a Ranthambore tiger's response to leopards, hyenas and wild boar. The emergence of the leopard when Sariska was totally deprived of its tiger population, the reflexes of a tiger released into unknown territory (Baghani even played dead when a Sambhar deer came close to her) and the amorous encounters between Baghani and Rajore in the initial days of courting… all are there in this breathtaking film.

“I borrowed money to shoot Tiger Queen as the channels initially refused to fund the project. In the case of Tiger Dynasty , I shot 60 per cent of it with my own funds till the BBC stepped in. In this case, I wanted to tell the story of the forest through a translocated tiger. Tiger Dynasty is a tiger's tale through a human's voice. I was adamant about how I would tell it,” the “tiger cameraman” confessed.

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