LITERARY REVIEW

A magic betrayed

CONSERVATION

Tigers in Red Weather

A magic betrayed

"HOW can local people benefit from living with the tiger?" asks a Chinese conservation officer in the course of Ruth Padel's Tigers in Red Weather. An answer to this question would probably be the saving of the mysterious animal that has haunted people's imagination from time immemorial. Almost every other day, we read of tiger skins and bones being seized at various points. Poaching is rampant, and trade in wildlife, though illegal, seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. Is there any silver lining in this dark cloud? Well, this book provides it.

Trying to cure a broken heart, Ruth Padel set off on a trip to India. But instead she gets on to the tiger trail and follows it through India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia, China, Korea, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and Myanmar. Elephant rides, treks through insect-ridden jungles, boat rides despite being "a wimp about water", inspecting animal faeces across varied landscapes, eating leeches... Padel's quest is as much about the human as about the tiger. About people who live in and around reserved forests competing for the same resources; the band of dedicated fire-fighters trying to douse the conflagration that threatens not just the tiger but also the forest it depends on; government officials who seem to sound the same no matter how far apart they may be geographically.

Padel's prose is lyrical and full of word pictures. A travel book of this nature usually has photographs but this one doesn't. And you realise why — they are not needed. Padel's words conjure up the dry forests of Rajasthan reeling under a drought; the harshness of the Amur winter, the richness of Sumatran tropical forest. Talking of what the tiger stands for in various countries, Padel writes: "Every country has betrayed that magic in different ways and struggles differently to keep it alive."

The book is mainly pitched on the conversations with the conservationists and scientists she meets across the globe but she also quotes from a wide variety of sources to show how the tiger has held us in thrall over the millennia. For example, a quote from the Mahabharata that sounds oddly contemporary: "Do not cut down the forests with its tiger, do not banish tigers from the forest. The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers. The tiger should stand guard over the forest; the forest should protect all its tigers."

As can be expected, a large part of the book is devoted to the issues confronting the survival of species — habitat destruction, less prey, humans and their needs, logging, roads in forests ... the list seems endless. But top of the heap are poaching and illegal wildlife trade. She describes markets where so-called endangered and protected species are openly sold. China is the "Black hole pulling in all dead tigers".

Even as conservationists work to find solutions to the man-animal conflict, Padel wonders if time is running out. Political upheavals can sound the death knell for these magnificent cats. In Bangladesh, of the $82 million allotted by the Asian Development Bank for conservation, only $5 million went to that end. The rest ... everyone knows without being told. In Nepal, the outbreak of Maoist insurgency has seen less protection for the forests. Her distress and anger are evident when she writes of the market in tiger parts, especially in China. "Every culture has betrayed the tiger. But I felt China had most; had betrayed its own feeling for it."

At another level, these journeys also represent her attempt to break free from a relationship gone awry — "I had to break these bars". And so mingling with the tiger refrain is also her coming to terms with loss of love and the pain and healing it created. The autobiographical portions of the book are stark and some may turn away from the intimacy portrayed.

Despite all the despairing comments in the book, it does not end on a note of defeat. Instead it is oddly optimistic — Padel believes that in India at least the tiger can be saved by the work of those who are fighting for it. And in a book dominated by the tiger, the hero appears but rarely. Most often Padel gets to see only pugmarks or scats. But she does not mind, at least it is evidence that one tiger is roaming the wild. But for how much longer is the question.

R.K.