February 18, 2020
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Cats: The Last Show?

A celebration of the men who struggled to bring the tiger back from the brink warns that the great cats aren't home free yet

Cats: The Last Show?
Tiger Wallahs
By Geoffrey C. Ward By Diana Raines Ward
Oxford University Press Rs 425, Pages: 200
It could be the story of the cheetah all over again: a magnificent cat, once found in India in its many thousands, brought to extinction by the most wanton predator, man. Once common in the forests that covered most of the country, the tiger now survives in a few sanctuaries, under the fragile protection of Project Tiger, under attack from nature, poachers, and from the villagers to whom these sanctuaries offer a traditional livelihood. Only a few thousand tigers - estimates vary from a realistic 3,000 animals to an optimistic official 4,000-plus - survive of the hundred thousand or so that were thought to have roamed the forests at the beginning of the 20th century. In between, the depredations of bloodthirsty aristocrats and hunters had brought the population down to a low of about 2,000: appallingly close to extinction.

That the tiger population has increased a smidgeon since the start of Project Tiger is no reason for joy. Had matters been left to the bureaucracy, the tiger would have disappeared. Instead, a few brave figures have managed, often in the teeth of official disapproval and despite many failures, to bring the tiger back from the brink. Jim Corbett, "Billy" Arjan Singh, Fateh Singh Rathore, Valmik Thapar: all figure on the brief list of tiger-wallahs who have braved personal loss and danger to save the tiger.

The authors of this book know their India, their tigers, and their tiger-wallahs. In a chapter that occurs early on in the book, Geoffrey Ward describes his father's shift to India from Chicago, and his initial dislike for the country. His discovery that there was something "inherently silly" about shooting occurred when a local lad offered to get the young Ward five ducks for five rupees: the local boy caught and drowned them easily, his knowledge of the terrain and his target coming in far more handy than a firearm.

Ward writes of India's major sanctuaries and of the men who started them, of princes who tried to destroy them and of others who tried to undo the damage, before moving on to the tiger-wallahs. He knows all the later ones personally and his regard for them and for the land shines brightly through.

The authors understand very clearly something that tiger-wallahs know almost instinctively: the relationship between the tribals and the villagers who live in or around these sanctuaries. These people, who depend on the forest for their living as much as the tigers do, are a major threat to the tiger but are themselves victims of precisely the kind of development that threatens the tiger. No one asked them before declaring their forests sanctuaries, and they have nowhere else to go. Thus, Fateh Singh Rathore weeps when he hears of one of "his" tigers being poisoned but will deal peacefully with the same villagers, who, seeing him as a threat to their livelihood, beat him up badly and left him for dead.

This is the theme of the book: that in the long run the survival of the tiger depends largely on the villagers who inhabit the fringes of the sanctuaries. Only four per cent of the country's land is available for sanctuaries: this land must be protected, and the people best equipped to do it are the ones who live around it. Since the writing of the book, directors of several parks have instituted programmes to reimburse farmers who lose cattle to tigers, and this has helped. But in the long run, respect for the tiger - and for the environment - must be built into our culture, as it is into the culture of the Bishnois who caught Salman Khan in the act of hounding one of their charges to death.

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