Meet India’s new vanguard of tiger conservationists who are fighting for the big cat in unique ways
The year 2010 was the Year of the Tiger, and no, we are not just going by the Chinese calendar. That year, the number 1,411 popped up everywhere and on everything from bumper stickers to bus board hoardings and even promotional text messages. In case you were wondering what the number was, it was the number of tigers left in India according to a report released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, in 2006.
In 2010 however, the actual number stood at 1,706, and a mere four years later at 2,226. The steady rise in numbers can be attributed to several awareness/fundraising campaigns that were launched, urging all those to join the Save The Tiger campaign, in whatever way they could.
Apart from the Indira Gandhi government’s successful Project Tiger (launched in 1973) that focussed on protecting the Indian tiger from extinction by allowing them to breed in their natural habitats (by setting up sanctuaries), it was 2010’s Save Our Tigers Campaign that caught the most media attention, and had the most impact, with the official website of the Wildlife Conservation Trust (one of the collaborators of the campaign) claiming that the project reached over 100 million people worldwide and generated `95 million in funding for tiger conservation.
Thanks to such cumulative efforts, today, India has over 50 tiger reserves spread across 18 states, where the population of the big cats is steadily growing, reassuring us that they would not just be a feature in William Blakes poems anymore. This International Tiger Day (July 29), we celebrate not only the increase in the number of tigers, but the filmmakers, wildlife photographers, artists, authors and all those tireless conservationists who have worked quietly behind the scenes, to make sure that the public is made aware of the mighty cats problems through their respective mediums.
The art of using visual imagery to tell a story is hard to master. Yet, it is a field that Sandesh Kadur excels in. Several works by this Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker have been featured on television networks including National Geographic, BBC, and Animal Planet. This Bengaluru-based wildlife photographer, who is currently working on a project on India’s big cats, explains why investigative films on the Indian Tiger are supremely important in spreading information concerning its conservation efforts.
“Such documentaries bring about a spotlight on a particular landscape where the beast resides. It not only entertains but also educates; thereby creating a constituency of viewers who hopefully become more concerned and aware about the tiger’s plight,” says Sandesh, who recently won a BAFTA award for his work on BBC’s Planet Earth 2.
Filmmaker Shekar Dattatri, who made the documentary The Truth About Tigers in 2010, feels that conservation issues are often quite complex and defy simplistic explanations or blanket solutions. “To make an insightful documentary that will have lasting value, it is imperative that the filmmaker understands the nuances of the issue in question and also gains first-hand knowledge at the field level.
Merely relying on interviews is not enough,” he says, adding that staying objective while making films like these is not a tough task, and the real challenge is “to make truthful and sincere films, despite one’s inherent biases”. The Truth About Tigers, the Chennai-based filmmaker says, was made to “demystify tiger conservation and make people aware of the exact reasons why tigers are in decline. About 35,000 DVDs of the film were distributed free of cost to individuals and organisations all over the country to spread awareness.”
Empathy not sympathy
S Nallamuthu, who has been creating tiger-centric films for almost three decades, is one of the leading proponents against misrepresentation in cinema. “They are a very important umbrella species for the well-being of our forests. Unfortunately, this magnificent creature is often maligned on film for the sake of entertainment. For instance, the highest-grossing Malayalam film ever, Pulimurugan, was made using a VFX-generated tiger and was about a ‘man-eater’,” explains Nallamuthu, who is currently working on a docu-film based on real incidents that portray the Indian Tiger in a positive light.
The National Award-winning director of Tiger Queen (Animal Planet) and Tiger Dynasty (BBC) is known for weaving unique wildlife stories for a grassroots audience. That’s one of the reasons why his latest made-for-the-masses flick The World’s Most Famous Tiger (National Geographic) — completed after filming a tigress called Machli for nine years —has been dubbed in 37 languages and is being screened across 147 countries. The Kanyakumari native elaborates, “I’m not a conservationist. I don’t show tigers hunting/mating/growing—I strive to produce a deeper emotive narrative to trigger the viewer. This especially works in the rural belts around forests, where one can’t present facts and figures to convince villagers to not hunt tigers. Not everyone in India has access to wildlife resorts to admire this majestic cat from within the safe confines of a safari jeep.”
Most extensive Indian wildlife tour packages cost between `6,000-`1,00,000. Krithi Karanth, an associate conservation scientist from the Wildlife Conservation Society, states that tiger-focused tourism is a major force within this realm — comprising 32 per cent of all visitors. With Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Karnataka, all vying to be the next ‘Tiger State’, these resort journeys seem to cater to the elite.
“Fundamentally, tourism is a quick way for the general public to see a tiger in the wild, and understand why this mammal is so important. No high-end CGI beats the real experience. We cannot expect people to care about and fight to protect an animal they have never even seen,” shares Krithi from Bengaluru, who is the executive director of the Centre for Wildlife Studies.From a population perspective, the Indian Tiger, which accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s tiger population, is the most viable subspecies of the big cat. Nonetheless, is our government’s resolve to double the country’s tiger population by the year 2022 viable? The Yale University alumna adds, “Clearly, we have the habitat area to achieve this. The lack of suitable prey needs to be tackled alongside stronger anti-poaching measures. It’s a doable proposition, but we cannot congratulate ourselves yet — still a lot left to tackle.”
Axis of action
This sense of complacency is the biggest threat to tiger conservation in India. This is what conservationist, Prerna Singh Bindra, strongly believes. “The blistering pace of infrastructure growth (be it roads, highways, or mining) is encroaching upon prime habitats and tiger corridors. If even tiger reserves are unsafe, then what’s there?” asks the author of The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis, citing the example of Ken-Betwa river-linking project which threatens over one-third of Panna National Park.
Media too can play an integral role in giving conservation a push in the right direction, and it has already managed to do so, feels Prof YV Jhala, HoD: Animal Ecology & Conservation Biology Wildlife Institute of India. “What the media shouldn’t do is sensationalise things. Yes there are conflicts, but to take it beyond context, and create controversies where there are none, just to sell a story is what needs to be looked into,” says the professor, who is also one of India’s most established tiger conservationists.
So, how can the general public help and support the Indian Tiger’s conservation cause? “Don’t stop with signing an online petition or changing a Facebook DP. Become politically involved and empower yourself with knowledge about ‘why we need to save tigers’. I’m not expecting everyone to become conservationists — but contribute your skill, or use your sphere of work. If you’re a teacher — inculcate love for nature. Lawyer? Take up a relevant case. Web designer? Design for an NGO that needs support. Become an ambassador,” says Gurugram-based Prerna, who was previously a member of India’s National Board for Wildlife.
On the canvas
The calm yet, powerful eyes of the tiger inspired Chennai-based Aishwarya Ramachandran to capture them on canvas. “I began painting tigers when cancer had taken over my life, and something about the silent strength of the animal resonated with me,” says the artist, who exhibited a series of paintings called Regal Stripes in the city in 2013, which almost sold out at the end of the show. She believes in spreading the message of conservation through her art, and even donates proceedings from her shows towards conservation projects. “Realistic works of art require utmost patience, and that’s the biggest reason I continue to work with them,” says Aishwarya, who is working on a series of paintings for her next solo show.
Man vs beast
Kalyan Varma, who has shot on assignment for BBC Earth and Nat Geo Wild, and is also a conservation photographer at the Nature Conservation Foundation, says that while conservation efforts over the years are laudable, the real issue is that there is no room for more tigers to breed, even in sanctuaries.
“If you take tiger reserves in India, over 30 per cent of them have very good tiger numbers. In fact, they are so good that the numbers are actually high. Tigers are animals that are happy to breed, and are very territorial. When there are too many tigers within a certain space, what tends to happen is that some of them end up coming out to the nearby villages in search of prey, and kill men and cattle,” adds the Bengaluru-based photographer, who also shot for the BBC Big Cats project last year.
The future of tigers in India, Kalyan feels lies in maintaining the connectivity corridors between forests, and in managing the conflict between man and beast. He elaborates, “People in the cities have the luxury of benefitting from conservation efforts. But that is not the case with those who live on the outskirts of the forest reserves.
The media plays a huge role in providing the right kind of narrative, to create empathy for those who are suffering. Personalise their stories, to reach out to more people. Tigers have enough ambassadors as it is. The real guardians are the people who deal with them on a daily basis — the ones living in the outskirts of the forest reserves, and the forest officials, most of whom work on poor salaries, and sans any safety.”