IN LOVE WITH THE PREDATOR

Rich in anecdotes of encounters with tigers that promise to thrill, conservationist Valmik Thapar's new book is also a visual delight for wildlife lovers

AUTHOR Valmik Thapar
BOOK Tigers My Life:
Ranthambhore and Beyond
Oxford University Press
Pg 418
Akash Bisht Delhi

In a packed hall of a premier hotel in Delhi, Valmik Thapar, one of India's leading tiger conservationists, unveiled his new book that recounts 35 years of his association with tigers across India. Titled Tigers My Life: Ranthambhore and Beyond, the 418-page volume comprises 1,200 photographs of animals in the wild, primarily tigers, and detailed personal anecdotes from the author's engagement with Ranthambhore National Park and other places across the country.

The book offers a visual delight for wildlife lovers and takes the reader through the annals of Ranthambhore National Park. Valmik believes the park is "so rich that it takes your breath away". With help from eminent historian Romila Thapar, the author recounts the early days of the Ranthambhore landscape and shows how there is enough evidence to suggest that even lions once inhabited this open habitat. There are several references to the famous Ranthambhore fort, documenting how the rulers considered it their prized possession and how it took Akbar more than a year to conquer the fabled fort. Valmik recounts his hunting escapades as well. The book traces the journey of the fort as it changed hands from the Mughals to the maharajas of Jaipur, and later during the British Raj.

After this historical overview, the book takes the form of a memoir starting with the author's early days as a photographer and filmmaker. In 1972, Valmik graduated from Delhi University and decided to visit Ranthambhore where he met Fateh Singh Rathore – the man responsible for putting Ranthambhore on the world map. This meeting, Valmik says, changed his life forever. He stayed in the forest for 20 days. Remembering those days, he writes, "I don't think I will ever forget those 20 days of my life. It was like shedding one layer of skin and putting on another." He then narrates his experiences with Rathore and how their friendship bloomed during their escapades into these mythical forests in search of the magnificent cat.

There are nerve-wracking stories of Valmik's encounters with this great predator. He talks about Genghis, one of his favourite tigers, who had perfected the art of killing Sambar deer in the lakes; Noon, the tigress he adored and called the queen of the lakes; Padmini and her four cubs; a large male named Broken Tooth; and several others that roamed and ruled these forests without any threats. Valmik's writing moves like a cinematic narrative capturing incidents that thrill and make you jump out of your seats.

Valmik also writes about the initial days of the tiger conservation programme in India and how there was a political will to save the tigers that were on the verge of extinction. The book talks at length about how it was after Indira Gandhi's efforts that the tiger population rose to its highest ever levels. He adds that with her death, the "greatest saviour" of the tigers was gone, and
thereafter tiger conservation became hugely complicated.

Remembering the year 1990, Valmik writes that even as poaching started to take its toll on the tiger population in the park, politicians and bureaucrats paid no heed. Tiger conservation was no longer in their list of things to do. By this time, Valmik's NGO Ranthambhore Foundation started working with the local community on health, education, nursery, biomass, dairy development, better cattle breeds, art classes etc.

Valmik was distressed with the lackadaisical attitude of the government towards saving the tiger. He lobbied hard with people in power, but that yielded no results. Then he networked with several other NGOs to work for the cause. The numbers of tigers in the park was abysmally low and no one seemed to care until GV Reddy, the then field director, came and intervened. He was successful in bringing the numbers up and also keeping cattle out of the core area.

Meanwhile, Valmik was also making films for several organisations and his documentary, The Land of the Tigers, was making waves across the world. However, despite NGOs and wildlife experts shouting at the top of their voices that tigers were being poached like never before, their pleas fell on deaf ears till Sariska happened. Valmik expresses his disgust over the way tiger conservation has progressed in the country in the last few decades. He was part of the Tiger Task Force (TTF) constituted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after the Sariska debacle, and had prepared a brilliant report in consultation with other members of the TTF. He writes in his book that just like several other reports, this one too is gathering dust and most of its recommendations are yet to be implemented. Meanwhile, Valmik has resigned from the National Tiger Conservation Authority and remains very critical of the governmental body.

Valmik has dedicated the book to Rathore, whom he fondly calls his guru and mentor, and concludes the book with the latter's passing away on March 1, 2011. Mourning this great loss, he writes about Rathore's deep impact on his life and that of others who knew him from close quarters as a man who had dedicated his life to tiger conservation
in Ranthambhore. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2011