Tiger-Wallahs: Saving the Greatest of the Great Cats
by Geoffrey C. Ward with Diane Raines Ward
Man-Eaters of Kumaon
by Jim Corbett
The Secret Life of Tigers
by Valmik Thapar
by Billy Arjan Singh
Oxford University Press (YMCA Library Bldg., Jai Singh Rd., New Delhi 110 001, India), 2002. Circa 750 pages, hardcover. No U.S. price listed.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Relatively few people in India will ever see Tigers and Tigerwallahs, a magnificent four-volumes-in-one collection of tiger conservation classics–but many might avidly absorb it if they could afford it.
Tigers and Tigerwallahs is available in other nations only by special order, or online through Amazon.com and similar distributors.
People who care profoundly what becomes of tigers must go to that trouble, because as grim as some of the accounts in Tigers and Tigerwallahs are, and as bleak the prophecies, the experiences of the authors over the past 100 years amount to a comprehensive manual of what to do and not do in trying to save large, charismatic megafauna of almost any kind.
The first great tiger conservationist was the tiger hunter Jim Corbett. Not at all the stereotypical “great white hunter,” Corbett was born in India, albeit of British parentage, and was thereby excluded from advancement in either British expatriate or native Indian society. He hunted as a youth to help feed his rather poor family. As an adult, he came to loath sport hunting, making no secret of his rather caustic opinion of anyone who would kill animals without need.
Corbett hunted tigers, but only man-eaters. He believed that only a small minority of tigers ever turn to killing people, and then only in dire circumstances, such as in arthritic old age or when suffering from severe disability. If the “maneaters” were eliminated from the breeding pool, and/or put out of their misery, Corbett believed, humans might tolerate tigers.
Otherwise, all would be exterminated for the deeds of a few.
Never took pay for killing a tiger
Corbett never took pay for killing a tiger, always hunted “man-eaters” alone, and never hunted any tiger if sport hunters were anywhere in the area. He endured almost incredible hardship, illness, and injury in his pursuit of “man-eaters.” His methods often included staking out live buffaloes and goats as bait, but he seemed sensitive to their suffering, as well as to the plight of the tigers’ human victims.
Corbett knew from his own background what families endure after the loss of a mother or wage-earner, and though he never had children, he appreciated the grief of those whose children were killed and eaten.
Yet Corbett did not pretend that the killing done by tigers was evil while his own killing was morally justified. On the contrary, Corbett was troubled by his work, and eventually felt that it was all for nothing. Retiring with his sister to Kenya after Indian independence, Corbett expected the Indian tiger to be extinct within a decade of his own death.
That nearly happened. Geoffrey C. Ward, Billy Arjan Singh, and Valmik Thapar take turns describing the trophy hunting bloodbath that engulfed India for more than 25 years after independence. While British hunting declined, the Americans and oil shieks who followed proved to be even more trigger-happy, with more firepower at their disposal. Tigers and blackbucks were only two of many species that were hunted to the brink of extinction before the political ascendancy of the late prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Morarji
Desai finally brought into effect and enforced the 1973 national ban on sport hunting.
Billy Arjan Singh
Billy Arjan Singh meanwhile tried to save tigers, blackbuck, elephants, and other species by establishing and defending his own private refuge, called Tiger Haven, not affiliated in any way with the captive tiger facility by the same name in Tennessee. The preserve that Singh started eventually became federally protected habitat.
Once a ruthless hunter himself, as was Ward, Singh metamorphized into an equally ruthless warden, who dragged poachers to town behind his jeep and expressed unsympathetic views about the losses of employees and visitors who were foolish enough to bring their children into proximity with the captive tigers and leopards he rehabilitated for release. Most people were afraid of Singh, whose closest companion for many years was his elephant.
Singh preserved wildlife at the cost of antagonizing so many people that elected officials came to treat him as a leading public enemy. Backlash against his methods, as well as naked greed, contributed to the near ruination of the Indian refuge system during the 1980s and much of the 1990s, under the mantra of “sustainable use.”
The theory was that ordinary Indians would support refuges only if the refuges contributed to their prosperity. Refuges were opened to grazing, wood-gathering, and eventually to so much other economic activity that some, like Sariska, were reduced to narrow heavily trafficked tourist corridors.
Valmik Thapar, an initially reluctant student of Singh’s, in time redeemed Singh and the refuge concept by demonstrating with Singh’s help and investment how habitat reclamation could provide even greater economic benefits than the other common uses of refuge land.
The struggle to save tigers is far from over, and indeed may barely have begun, with intensifying poaching and human population pressure evident throughout their remaining range.
Thapar has, however, emerged as a unique and original voice in wildlife conservation. His challenges to conventional wisdom are grounded in both experience and the ethical views of animals embodied in Hindu, Jain, Bishnoi, and Buddhist culture.
Thapar has begun to be heard not only in India, but far beyond, suggesting that his approach may eventually be widely emulated.
This article reminds me of the story behind the Beatles song “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.”
Richard Cooke III, an American who was present while the band was studying transcendental meditation with the Maharishi in India, took a break from his spiritual quest to go kill a tiger. The Beatles wrote the song to mock him. Supposedly, Cooke was so abashed at being called out in such a public way he gave up hunting altogether.