Valmik Thapar has a long history of writing on the tiger with over 20 books published so far. Tiger Fire aims to be “the definitive book on the Indian tiger” and is, by far, the most comprehensive compilation of writings on the tiger. It is also one of the most beautiful, with an incredible collection of photographs, representing almost all aspects of tiger-life through stunning images, making the book worthwhile without even going into the text.
The book is divided into five parts. ‘Origins’, a short section, describes the evolution of the tiger from simpler life forms around 50 million years ago and touches on “the cult of the tiger”. The long cultural significance of the animal, going back to the Indus Valley civilisation 4,500 years ago, is striking. From being a god to the Udege people in Siberia and repelling evil spirits in Korea, to being entwined in Chinese culture from the Shang dynasty 3,000 years ago, the tiger is a feature in the mythology of people wherever it lived — Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and almost all of South East Asia, not least India.
The next section, ‘The Tiger in Time’, forms the bulk of the book at 320 pages, and is a comprehensive collection of historical texts on the tiger, starting with writings by Emperor Babur in 1589 and ending with a piece by Raghu Chundawat and Joana van Gruisen from 2012. These collated pieces provide a sense of how numerous and widespread tigers were across India, including a story from 1910 of a tiger that got its head stuck in a cooking pot in a Malabar Hill kitchen, now in the middle of Mumbai. When forests covered most of the country, the king of the jungle was, in a sense, the real king of India. The book also includes fascinating accounts of encounters between tigers and people, as well as tigers and other animals like gaurs, water buffalo, wild dogs (dhole), bears and wild boar — in some of those battles, tigers ended up on the losing side.
The third section, ‘Secret Life of the Tiger’, written by Thapar, draws from his observations at the Ranthambhore National Park. It is a detailed account of the history of Ranthambhore’s tigers, from their unique hunting techniques to mating habits and ways of bringing up the young, including atypical behaviour, like that of an adult male bringing up an orphan. It also charts out kinship across generations, with a fascinating account of a dominant female from this supposed solitary species allowing up to nine tigers, mostly related to her, to feed on her kill.
The fourth section, ‘Tiger Fire’, is an inspiring pictorial essay with about 120 pages of wonderful images of tigers, highlighting the beauty of the animal and the forests it inhabits.
The final section, ‘Last Tigers’, provides brief portraits of seven “tigerwallahs”, who the author believes have done the most for the tiger in the last century. It highlights the crisis the tiger is in and lays out Thapar’s vision for saving the tiger in India, which largely involves a complete revamp of the system, particularly the Indian Forest Service, with a lot more focus on science and monitoring, and a more detailed plan for Ranthambhore.
Despite the thorough research that went into the book, it could perhaps have benefited from editorial collaborations with natural and social scientists and a historian. The ‘Origins’ section, for example, while attempting to be a scientific description of the evolution and biology of the tiger, is more a portrayal of the magnificence of the animal through ideas from evolution and biology. Some small inaccuracies show up — like the claim that the infra-sound used by tigers for communication has the “ability to pass straight through solid objects like trees and mountains”. Infrasound does travel further than audible sound, but more by the better ability to bend around objects and scatter less rather than passing straight through mountains.
‘The Tiger in Time’ section could have benefited from more background and context, allowing the reader to see how different epochs influenced the ways in which the animal was written about. Colonial hunter literature, for example, carries an undertone of justification of colonisation: the idea that white settlers were “saviours of the natives”, protecting them from dangerous animals in the wild and “uncivilised jungles”. I would have also preferred to have the dates of the writings upfront rather than at the end of the text. Similarly, Thapar’s vision of change ends up reading more like a wish-list, and would have benefited from some insights into the social, legal and democratic processes in India that could facilitate this blueprint of tiger conservation.
The book is, nonetheless, the most significant collection on the tiger so far, and worth a read for anyone interested in the past, present and future of this beautiful animal.
The writer is founder of The Shola Trust,working on people-based nature conservation in the Nilgiris.