An anthology compiled from non-fiction sources on the big cat by an eminent tiger scientist and conservationist
TIGER TALES — Tracking the Big Cat Across Asia: K. Ullas Karanth — Editor; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 350.
Conservationists and young wildlife scientists who have dedicated themselves to the preservation of nature are a driven lot. They believe deeply in the capacity of humans to save the world's magnificent biodiversity although much of it has been lost. This sense of hope encourages many who are working to save megafauna such as tigers and elephants in a general atmosphere of gloom about the future of the species. K.Ullas Karanth is an internationally recognised mentor of this scientific group. Based on his well-known work in the Nagarahole National Park, his hope-filled message to Indians is that the country can have a viable population of tigers in the wild in the 21st century and beyond if it shows sufficient political will and respect for science. Karanth's message will be heard with more attention today than ever because new tiger population estimates for central Indian reserves are soberingly low, and in reality, perhaps even lower.
The scientific literature on tigers in the subcontinent was enriched tremendously by The Deer and the Tiger, a treatise by the field biologist George B. Schaller based on his work in Kanha over four decades ago. The literature on the big cat was transformed, the focus turned away from the fear-inspiring, fanciful and invariably unscientific lore of trophy hunters to one of sound biological inquiry.
Tiger Tales edited by Karanth is a delightful compilation of such genuine narratives interspersed with many vivid accounts of the world's charismatic predator in habitats ranging from the icy snow-filled Siberian Taiga to the humid Western Ghats. The anthology has carefully compiled the chapters to reflect the past, the present and the hope for the future. It presents some shocking stories on the gruesome fate of India's wildlife suffered at the hands of post-Independence elites and international hunters, particularly in Central India. Forests of the Night by J.D.Scott exults in the planned slaughter of tigers and other animals for sport (raking in profits for Indian `Shikar' companies), and records the helplessness of a poor people who were compelled to participate in the destruction for economic reasons.
Cruelty of humans
There are many pieces in the book that capture vividly the wanton cruelty of humans on wild animals, tigers in particular. In Siberia, where tigers roam a vast, cold landscape, the icy snows are bloodied as the hunter's rifle shatters the cats. Vladimir Troinin records this destructive imprint in "The Year of the Tiger". When his wife Olga says, "Look how beautifully and smoothly it walked, and how we're disfiguring its trail. A shame!" it is like a lament for tigers everywhere.
The most interesting account of the mystical aura of tigers and the petrifying effect it has on those living near forests is found in Kenneth Anderson's "The Swami of Valaithothu". Although entirely serendipitous, the surprise arrival of a wandering Sadhu in a superstition-ridden farming community on the forest edge and the equally sudden appearance of a tiger in the area are too much for the fearful natives. It has the amusing effect of merging the personalities of man and beast. What results is an entertaining story with unexpected thrilling twists and turns.
Much of the book, however, consists of serious chapters written by tiger biologists based on their research in Nepal, Siberia, Java and India among others. Karanth is best known for his rigorous study of tigers in Nagarahole in Karnataka. Here he has apparently chosen the many contributions with the idea of providing an accessible body of work to anyone interested in tigers. He explains techniques such as radio telemetry and camera trapping. As one of the leading researchers on the species he writes here too on the importance of saving not merely the tiger, but also its prey. The hunting of prey, as Karanth never tires of explaining to his audiences, has as much of a devastating effect on tiger populations as the poaching of the predator itself.
The book is a good introduction to the entire gamut of issues in conservation. It explains the historical background, the biology of the species and the best approaches to save the cat. You might have read some of the themes and authors elsewhere, but this is a compact compilation for everyone.