A dedicated tiger defender all his life and one of India’s best- known big cat experts, Valmik Thapar tells Joyee Chan about his love affair with the charismatic beasts, the up and downs of his mission, and his newfound optimism for the big cat’s future.
When did you realise that your life would be entwined with tigers?
When I was 23, I started my career as a documentary producer after graduating in sociology. I was on an assignment to film the forests of Ranthambore, a magical place where the ruins of 100-year-old forts and summer palaces have been taken over by nature. Having spent 20 days searching fruitlessly for tigers, I at last caught glimpse of one through the grass in the middle of the night. Those five hypnotising seconds were enough to give me the challenge of finding out more about this animal.
Which big cats are your all-time favourites?
One of my favourite tigers is Genghis – after the mighty warrior king, Genghis Khan. He was the first tiger to race into Ranthambore’s lake after sambar deers [which are drawn into the waters by succulent aquatic plants] and kill them. For the next 22 years, his tactic was mimicked by resident tigers that watched from the shore and passed the trick on to every cub.
Another darling is Noon, whom I spent most of the 1980s tracking. She acquired her moniker because she liked the day, unlike most tigers that hunt at night. The best memory of her was when I saw her trying to bring down a huge sambar stag with the wrong grip… predator and prey were frozen on the road for ten minutes, gaze locked. Even though she adjusted tactics, the deer broke free. It was one of the best examples in literature of the complexity of predation.
Have you ever been in any life-threatening encounters with tigers?
Never. My tiger guru trained me to walk with tigers at night – there were no rules and no visitors back then. He taught me to lose the fear of this animal because only then you can learn more about it. It is safer to walk with a tiger than to cross the road in New Delhi today. The closest experiences were being mock-charged by Genghis and another tigress I have come to know as Nasty. But they have never even touched my jeep. For me, they weren’t so much life threatening as mesmerising… and paralysing because of their thundering roar.
You once called your life a failure and held a pessimistic view towards the future of tigers. Why, for the first time in years, do you now claim hope?
I used to believe, in the 1990s, that there would be no more tigers by the turn of the century. I consider a lot of my life a failure. I failed [to create] larger national parks and habitats, involve non-governmental experts into decision-making, and [establish] a wildlife service and a national park authority. But we still have some 2,000 tigers. I’m optimistic because this figure is not bad. I would give it five out of ten. I wouldn’t have believed that ten years ago.
I am a great believer that tigers are alive because individuals outside the government have come together in a quiet way [to reverse their fate], and because our culture has made tigers a deep- seated symbol of respect, almost god-like.
Just last month, it was revealed that the global wild tiger population has increased to 3,890, up from 3,200 in 2010. What is your take on this?
The increase is a reflection of increasing numbers in India, but there are serious declines across Southeast Asia, especially in Laos and Cambodia. [Another reason is] better technology and the use of camera traps, that have now detected presence of tigers in areas that were difficult to survey earlier, [indicating perhaps] not so much a genuine increase in population as merely better surveys.
After working in tiger conservation for 40 years, I believe the future is in partnerships and engagement. For example, I’m recently working on a game-changing project known as Van Dhan, or Forest Wealth. The people-centred project focuses on resolving conflict between tigers and humans living around national park and tiger reserves. We consolidated several government funds to finance non-governmental partnerships to promote alternative energy, offer livestock and crop compensation, plant indigenous trees and encourage grass-fed rather than free-ranging livestock. When people are better looked after, national parks thrive.
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