Millennium Post

The I of the Tiger

This story began a long time ago. 1976. On his last night at Ranthambore, Valmik Thapar got to see the magnificent animal and his life was never the same again. Almost four decades and counting, Thapar has written, filmed, documented the cause the tiger and the fire is still blazing.

‘Summer in Ranthambore. There is still about half an hour to sunrise but the sky has begun to lighten and all around me the tall grass, the low hillocks, the scrub, and the rocky outcrops have begun to glow a golden yellow. There’s an alarm call from a sambar close by, and then I see what I have come looking for, a huge male tiger, walking along the path towards me, his steps relaxed and unhurried, but carrying within them the promise of explosive power...’  writes Thapar in the introduction to
Tiger Fire

‘When I began to think of writing and putting together Tiger Fire, what I saw in my mind’s eye was the definitive book on Indian tiger. I had been obsessively involved with this magnificent animal for nearly forty years...’ says Thapar in the introduction to his magnum opus on the wild cat.

Tiger Fire is Thapar’s life time of work that harnesses all narratives available on the animal, right from the early Mughal period, paintings, sketches, lithographs to the modern day high resolution pictures that seem to jump out off the page in all the splendor of stripes. On a slight aside he tells us that he is working on another book titled Wild Fire that is about other animals - and as incredible as Tiger Fire is, we definitely cannot wait!

So what makes a Sociology major from Delhi University dedicate his entire life to the cause of conservation? Thapar has worked extensively as a photographer and a documentary film maker since in 1972, till the tiger-vention happened in 1976. He speaks fondly of the then director of Ranthambore national park Fateh Singh Rathore who he calls his ‘guru’ and says that with him he learned to observe and record the life of tigers and passion took over.

The Indian tiger is one of the fastest dwindling species of the royal animal in the world. With the forest habitation being destroyed categorically  over the centuries, Thapar strongly rallies the cause of conservation adding that, ‘I do think, symbolically, the survival of the tiger in the wild is critical to the well-being of mankind in general because of what it stands for, and its extinction will mark the beginning of the end not just for India but for much of humanity.’

Though a lot is being done to preserve the species, it is not enough and in this case Thapar feels that the mindset needs to change. ‘The government needs to open up. They need to induct more people, make partners in the endeavour.  The forest departments treat national parks like their own private turf, not allowing people who are not from the government to take on pivotal roles in the preservation and the workings of the park,’ says Thapar.

‘You cannot train people for the forest department in Dehradun!’ says Thapar adding that a more more scientific and hands-on training is needed to create the right mindsets that can serve the cause of wildlife conservation effectively. ‘Students who study and specialise in wildlife sciences go to Africa to train, because they are not welcome here,’ rues Thapar. Research scientists in the field need to be brought on board to create initiatives that will work for the welfare of the park and the animals and for this the government needs to open up. Thapar believes that gross mismanagement and inadequate attention to the matter of conservation, not just at the level of tigers, but all wild animals in general, has lead to the dwindling figures in protected species and this needs immediate attention.

‘We need one forest director who isn’t a government official,’ says Thapar. The avenues need to open up, he says reinstating that when he visited Ranthambore, he was just a wildlife enthusiast and what he gained out of his time at the park was much more than what any other ‘government specialist’ can salvage. For this the youth needs to get up and pay attention, of course. ‘The youth today are fearful,’ says Thapar adding that the walls created by the government bodies, as far as matters of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries are concerned, has kept people away from actively being able to do much for the cause. He hopes with
Tiger Fire
he can get people to sit up, pay attention and actively take up the cause; not just as enthusiasts.

The book is split into five sections - Origins, The Tiger in Time, The Secret Life of the Tiger, Tiger Fire and The Last Tigers. As Thapar explains - Origins is all about  the scientific classifications and evolution of the tiger and the impact of the royal animal on Asia’s social fabric for centuries. The Tiger in Time is an exhaustive collection of articles written on the animal, right from the 16th century to the early 20th century including works by Babur, Akbar down to shikari-turned-naturalists FW Champion, Hugh Allen, Jim Corbett and more.

The Secret Life of the Tiger is a compilation of Thapar’s best works and Tiger Fire  puts together the most incredible photographs ever taken of the tiger in their natural habitat. The final section - The Last Tigers is Thapar’s impassioned plea to all those who realise the desperate need to work for the cause of conservation.

Last, but not the least, before we tell you to pick up this collector’s item of a book, we call this piece the ‘I’ of the Tiger because after getting thoroughly amazed by the exhaustive collection of stories and photographs and drawn in by the passion of this one man who blazes with fire to protect the stripes - the ‘i’ in the tiger for us is Thapar. And perhaps by the end of the book - we can add up to be the rest of the alphabets over time and spread the message.
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