Eyes on the Tiger

With the launch of his new book that traces the Indian tiger over the last 500 years,Valmik Thapar talks about the government apathy that has led to its near-extinction

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Published: December 11, 2013 3:55 am

He doesn’t entirely dismiss the oft-made comparisons between the animal — whose conservation has been his lifelong passion — and his own,burly self. But Valmik Thapar believes that’s a thing of the past. “Now,I look more like a bear,” he says with a shrug. Yet,the fire’s still visible in his eyes — nearly four decades after he first took up the cause of the tiger — as he talks about the uncertain future of the country’s national animal. Some of this passion has manifested into his new book,Tiger Fire: 500 Years of the Tiger in India (Aleph Book Company; Rs 2,995),which he launched in Mumbai at a recently concluded literary festival.

Although he has nearly a dozen titles as well as documentaries on the Indian tiger behind him,Thapar’s latest takes readers on a new trail. The author has extensively researched lithographs,artworks and chronicles to trace the history of the animal in India over the last 500 years. “Detailed accounts of encounters with the tiger can be found in the Akbarnama and Baburnama as well as other texts and miniature paintings from the Mughal period. But upon close study,one gathers that the description of the wilderness hardly matches that of the dense forests where the tigers live,” he says,adding that the Mughal kings wouldn’t be too keen on being mosquito or leech-bitten. Instead,Thapar implies that the hunts were perhaps staged in the private grounds of the rulers — they stretched to 200-400 square kilometre and were used for their pleasure,leisure and hunting — at the edge of the forests where the big cats were thrown in for the purpose of being hunted down.

This narrative of the tiger in Indian history undergoes a change upon the entry of the British,who,Thapar says,came with the intention of plundering the country’s resources. “They needed wood to build ships for the British navy. There,they discovered the wildlife and the beautiful tiger. It made for great game when alive and turned into precious artefacts once killed. Several man-animal combats find a mention in British texts,” the author says.

The text is accompanied by rare,beautiful images that the author has spent years collecting and collating,sometimes travelling to museums in distant countries or seeking out fellow tiger enthusiasts across the world,such as Kim Sullivan. Take for instance,the painting that dates back to 19th century and shows a dead tiger with a dead python wrapped around him — an incident where perhaps the two creatures battled ferociously,killing each other off. Or the photograph — no more than 40 years old — where a tiger stands watching a porcupine from a distance,enamoured.

Thapar believes that among many other evils that India inherited from the British,the “British attitude” of plundering is one. He points out that the policies to protect wildlife haven’t evolved since and the East India Company has been replaced by the local mafia,which is now eager to displace the animal for what lies beneath its majestic paws — precious iron ore,minerals or just real estate.

“Things started to go bad for the tiger in the ’80s when poaching became rampant,” says the author,who believes that Indira Gandhi’s passion for wildlife helped places such as the Ranthambore National Park flourish. According to him,the period between the ’50s to the ’70s proved to be the most fruitful time for conservation as some of the prominent wildlife enthusiasts,such as Fateh Singh Rathore,were in charge of sanctuaries.

Poaching continues to ail the many tiger conservation projects in India,including Project Tiger that Thapar himself was a part of. However,in the author’s opinion,bureaucracy is the larger evil. “Babus from income-tax departments are transferred to these places as forest officers. They neither share the passion for wildlife nor are they educated to handle it,” he says.

The threat of the tiger’s extinction is real and Thapar doesn’t fake optimism on the matter. He says if concrete steps are not taken now,the animal may be gone forever. The only answer to the problem lies in boosting wildlife tourism as well as forming public-private partnerships. “If Nandan Nilekani can helm the Adhaar project,why will the government not give a chance to,say,a villager who resides on the outskirts of a forest reserve and knows how to tackle wild animals?” he says.

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