The Tiger's Best Friend

How a volatile Indian named Valmik Thapar became an eloquent, and often contentious, advocate for the world's most embattled predator

11-01-2001 // Rick Steiner
The Tiger's Best Friend magazine layout - bengal tiger

THE PHONE CALL came to Valmik Thapar's elegant home in the diplomatic district of Delhi, India, just a week before the new millennium. A government sales tax inspector in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of Delhi, had stopped a truck traveling toward the Nepalese border--a known smuggling route into China. In a routine inspection looking for illegal garments, the inspector instead was shocked to find stacks of contraband tiger and leopard skins.

Senior officers with India's Ministry of Environment and Forests had called Thapar--known to many as "the Indian tiger's best friend" because of his many years of fierce advocacy for wild tigers--and asked him to accompany them to inspect the seizure. Now on the predawn trip by car to Ghaziabad, Thapar grew anxious. He had seen many such seizures of tiger parts bound for illegal trade in neighboring Asian markets, but something about the magnitude of this one disturbed him. And well it should. Entering the forest officer's house, he found the skins of 3 Bengal tigers and 50 leopards.

It was painfully easy for Thapar to imagine what had happened. From the good condition of the contraband, he reasoned that the tigers had been recently killed--probably in the last six months. As there were no bullet holes or trap marks on some skins, he suspected the cats had been poisoned, a favorite choice for poachers as it is inexpensive and quiet. He could imagine the agonizing death these animals had experienced upon eating a carcass laced with rat poison, strychnine or insecticide: intense abdominal pain, massive internal hemorrhaging, convulsions and seizure. As the skins had been professionally tanned and waxed, he knew this was the work of a well-organized gang. He wondered about the extent of its criminal operation, and how many other animals had been killed.

A few weeks later, the terrible answer came. In January 2000, acting on a tip from the Ghaziabad seizure, police in the town of Khaga, in the border state of Uttar Pradesh, seized the skins, claws and bones of approximately 50 tigers and 1,400 leopards--perhaps the largest seizure ever. More raids of illegal processing factories followed over the next few months, and the toll mounted.

The Tiger's Best Friend - Contraband Tiger Skins 

Photo: © Jay Ulall (Stern / Black Star)

SEIZED CONTRABAND goes on public display after officials found skins of 50 leopards and 3 tigers during a routine raid at Ghaziabad, near New Delhi, two years ago. Poaching, combined with depletion of prey animals and fragmentation of habitat, has put tigers at risk.

 

Thapar knew that the people behind these criminal operations, if ever apprehended, would spend little time in jail. And worse, that this was only the tip of the iceberg. As in other illicit smuggling, authorities estimate that for every unit of contraband seized, perhaps ten more go un- detected. Hundreds of tigers were being killed each year in India, perhaps as many as one a day.

Standing amidst such mute testimony to the tragedy unfolding, Thapar thought of his early years watching tigers play and hunt, of their sublime power and grace, and their perfect fit into the fabric of the biosphere. He thought of his decades of day-and-night effort to save India's wild tigers, and of what he so wanted to believe would be a hopeful end to a disastrous century for them. But now, all this had vanished. In his view, India's central government and its ministries, its states and nongovernmental organizations--and even he himself--had failed utterly.

This new poaching epidemic was an added, perhaps lethal, blow to the species. Tigers were already reeling from continuing loss of both their forest habitat and their prey. And more fundamentally, the country's political resolve was withering in the face of its skyrocketing human population (India has one-sixth of the world's people crammed onto three percent of its land). All these converging pressures foretold a bleak future for the tiger, Thapar feared.

As perhaps the most charismatic person involved in the battle to save tigers, Thapar, a fierce and imposing man, stands out. There are scores of other dedicated biologists and conservationists in the fight as well, some of whom feel more optimistic about the prospects for the species' survival. To be sure, people have been predicting the imminent extinction of the cat for many years and so far have been proved wrong. But Thapar, along with many others, sees the tiger in its most severe crisis ever. Against that backdrop, the story of Valmik Thapar is a testament to the tiger itself and to one man's heroic effort to save the quintessential symbol of the wild in the face of overwhelming human challenges.

During the two million years since it diverged from other cat lineages, the tiger has radiated into more diverse habitats than any other large mammal, except for humans. Tigers spread across Asia from the flooded mangrove forests of the Sundarbans on the Ganges and Brahmaputra Deltas to the arid forests of western India; from the tropical rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia to the eastern steppes of Turkey and Iran and the frigid subarctic taiga of eastern Russia.

Across this broad range, tigers exhibit significant variation in physical characteristics--body size, skull shape, stripe patterns, color and tooth size. This led biologists to believe there were eight subspecies. But recently geneticists have found tigers to have a remarkable degree of genetic similarity, persuading some scientists that there may be just two or three distinct subspecies.

Essentially, tigers successfully occupied virtually any area in which were found substantial populations of large ungulates such as wild cattle, deer and boar--regardless of temperature, altitude, vegetation type or amount of precipitation. Each individual needs to eat about 6,600 pounds of prey in a year. That translates to about 40 to 50 kills--60 to 70 for a tigress with cubs--and requires a stable prey population of about 400 to 500 hoofed animals. As tiger biologist Dale Miquelle mused, the key to tiger conservation is to "love thy ungulates."

The big cats are arguably the most finely adapted stalk-and-ambush hunters in the animal kingdom. Their striped coloration blends into shadows of forest edge and dry grasses. Their sinuous bodies enable flexible responses to the contortions of escaping prey. Padded feet, keen night vision and sensitive whiskers enable silent movement through dense undergrowth at night. Extraordinary hearing, powerful jaws and legendary canines for seizing the throat or neck of large prey are designed precisely for killing--all abetted by powerful muscles capable of strong but short bursts of up to 100 feet.

Both the Bengal and the Amur tiger of the Russian Far East can grow to 12 feet in length and weigh up to 650 pounds. And given adequate prey densities, their numbers can increase surprisingly fast. Such resilience comes from their basic biology: early breeding (age 3 to 4 for females), short gestation period (about 100 days), large litters (3 to 4 cubs), short inter-birth period (2 to 3 years) and a long life span (potentially 10 to 15 years).

Such characteristics are necessary considering that up to 50 percent of cubs will die in their first year from starvation, disease, flood, fire and infanticide by adult male tigers. And, another 20 to 30 percent of the non-breeding transients will die each year from competition with other species, accidents and injuries while hunting.

The precipitous decline of tiger numbers is legendary. Although it is impossible to know precisely, some speculate that a century ago, there may have been 100,000 tigers roaming their historic range, with one early naturalist guessing that about 40,000 were in India alone. Most estimates suggest that today there may be only 5,000 or so remaining in the wild. (There are also about 6,000 tigers in captivity in zoos, circuses and private collections throughout the world, but most biologists do not believe that reintroduction of these tigers into the wild is a viable option.)

The wild tigers are scattered across 160 or so discrete, disconnected areas of Asia. These "Tiger Conservation Units" (TCUs) are essentially habitat islands surrounded by human-dominated landscapes that are intrinsically hostile to tigers. Although ecologists dream of reestablishing corridors--wild passageways that would allow tigers to disperse from one TCU to another--such connectivity is not likely to exist again in most places. It is feared that such isolation may ultimately lead to inbreeding, gene loss and reduced fitness.

While the twentieth century began with eight distinct geographic populations of tigers, it ended with at least three of those extinct: the Balinese (1940s), the Caspian (1970s) and the Javan (1970s). The South China tiger is probably extinct as well, though some believe 20 to 30 may be left.

The remaining four are: the Amur, or Siberian, tiger--with 350 to 400 in the Russian Far East, North Korea and northeast China; the Sumatran--400 to 500 on the southeast and northern tips of the equatorial Indonesian island of Sumatra; the Indochinese--1,200 to 1,700 in the Southeast Asian nations of Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam; and finally the Bengal, or Indian--perhaps 2,000 to 3,000 in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Tibet and Bhutan. As tigers are notoriously difficult to count, many biologists question the reliability of such population estimates. At best, the numbers convey a sense of relative population size, as well as the magnitude of the tiger's decline.

Humans and tigers have coexisted interchangeably as hunter and hunted throughout Asia for millennia. In the past, with greater tiger numbers, the big cats killed hundreds of people per year. Today in India the toll is perhaps 30 to 40 annually--fewer than those killed by elephants, crocodiles, snakes or leopards. In the 4,000 square miles of mangrove forests in the Sundarbans, where the overwhelming majority of these attacks on people occur, tigers have been known to swim 18 miles across the Ganges Delta, and some have gained fierce reputations as man-eaters, even snatching fishermen from their boats.

At the same time, few animals have been afforded such omnipotence and reverence in Asian religious beliefs. Some Indian mythologies hold that tiger and man were born of one mother, and thus are to be considered brothers. Ancient paintings depict holy men riding tigers in resolute opposition to evil. And throughout India today, the tiger is the official national animal and is widely regarded as the symbolic heart and soul of the country.

Despite such reverence, the tiger's decline reflects a familiar pattern of interaction between humans and large predators. Even before guns came to India in the eighteenth century, tigers had been extensively displaced from historical habitats by the conversion of lands for agriculture.

Under two centuries of British rule, sport hunting, or shikar, became a legendary favorite pastime for British and Indian nobility alike, the hunters often employing hundreds of beaters to flush a tiger from its forest home toward gunmen waiting atop elephants. Astonishingly, some Indian maharajas boasted of killing more than 1,000 tigers in their lifetimes.

The Tiger's Best Friend - Archival Image of Man-Eating Tiger

From "Tiger Shooting in India" by Lt. William Rice, 1857, London, photographed by © Diane Ward (Peter Arnold Inc.)

SPORT HUNTING of tigers was once a favorite pastime for British and Indian nobility. British army officer William Rice (above, on the right) prepares to shoot a tiger mauling a companion.

Even when India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947, the central government maintained an official bounty, encouraging villagers to shoot and poison tigers to support its "Grow More Food" campaign. As a result, by the end of the 1960s, fewer than 2,000 tigers remained in India, according to the government's first-ever comprehensive tiger census.

In light of these startling population numbers and the growing global sympathy for wildlife protection, the situation for India's tigers began to improve in the early 1970s, albeit modestly. Under the passionate leadership of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Indian government first recognized the challenge and responsibility to protect its remaining wild tigers. In 1971, it banned the hunting of tigers, the first tiger range state to do so. Other nations quickly followed India's lead. And in 1973, the Indian government established "Project Tiger"--a bold new network of government reserves intended to protect the tiger, its habitat and its prey.

Project Tiger reserves were intended to insulate core tiger habitats from all human interference. In addition, the cores were to be surrounded by buffer areas allowing only limited human access. At the time, these reserves were well managed, as there was strong support from the prime minister that permeated out to the well-disciplined forest guards protecting the reserves from poachers, graziers and woodcutters. But a resulting tiger recovery was short-lived. After Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984, and as India's population and its socioeconomic problems continued to increase, the protection of tigers began to evaporate.

Raised in the innermost power circles of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Valmik Thapar learned early on how government does and doesn't work. His parents were well-known journalists and social activists throughout the years of turmoil leading to and following India's hard-won independence from Britain in 1947. But by 1975, at the age of 23, Thapar--known to his friends simply as Valu--was growing increasingly disillusioned with what he later described as his "vacuous existence" in the abstract political world of Delhi. A piece was missing from his life and he decided to find out what. As something of a spiritual quest, he hopped an early morning train south to the small village of Sawai Madhopur next to the just-established Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. It was a trip that would change his life forever.

Viewed from its periphery, Ranthambhore rises like an enchanted island out of the vast, arid plains of the state of Rajasthan on the eastern edge of the great Thar Desert. Although the total area of the reserve in the ancient Aravalli hills is just over 500 square miles, its critical protected core is small--about 100 square miles. Within its boundaries are the ruins of the enormous fortress of Ranthambhore, built more than 1,000 years ago, along with ancient mosques, water catchments, crumbling temples and old stone palaces. It had been protected as a hunting reserve for the maharajas of Jaipur for well over a century, shielded as a wildlife sanctuary in 1955, and in 1973 designated one of the first nine Project Tiger reserves in India.

In contrast to the human-dominated land around it, Ranthambhore is an oasis--an artifact of the ecological Eden this land must have been. Marsh crocodiles sunbathe on the shores of lotus-covered lakes. Troops of langur monkeys scamper across limbs of ancient banyan trees. Leopards, hyenas, jackals, sloth bears, cobras, pythons, mongooses and monitor lizards move silently through its forests.

But the main story is the tigers and the ungulates. Grazing Ranthambhore's rich grasslands and forests verdant from the summer monsoon are several thousand spotted deer, or chital; elk-sized sambar deer; blue bulls, or nilgai; chinkara gazelles and wild boars--a hoofed smorgasbord for the tigers.

Here, on his first night in the park, Thapar would unexpectedly find precisely what he had been missing. He was crouched at a small campfire with forest staff on the shores of one of the park's placid lakes, listening to the haunting sounds of the night-forest--crickets, owls and bats overhead. The stillness was abruptly shattered by a loud alarm call from a sambar deer. Then the staccato warning of the chital, closer yet to the group huddled around the fire. It was unmistakable: Somewhere just outside the glow of the fire, a tiger prowled. The large predator passed by unseen, but in the tension of that trancelike instant, Thapar felt, for the first time in his life, completely alive and connected. Ranthambhore was to become his second home. The tiger was to become his teacher, his purpose and his entire life.

Throughout Thapar's first few years at Ranthambhore, tigers were a rare sight. They remained largely nocturnal. Occasionally, he and his "tiger guru," Fateh Singh Rathore, then on the reserve staff, would bait tigers by staking out a young buffalo, one of the only easy ways at the time to observe these shy cats. Rathore and Thapar would even walk through the reserve with cow bells to attract tigers, once being startled when a tiger leapt from a ravine, right over their heads.

At the time the reserve staff, under Rathore's leadership, was in the process of relocating several villages from inside the park in order to make way for the tigers. Thapar recalls one long night in the spring of 1977 huddled around a small fire, watching and listening in awe as Rathore argued to persuade angry leaders of the village of Lahpur to move their homes. Such village relocations, although difficult in terms of their human toll, have been key in tiger protection throughout India.

As a result of the relocations and the hunting ban, Ranthambhore's tigers began to be seen much more frequently in the 1980s: Their numbers had increased, but more interestingly, they were becoming less shy around people. Visitors watched them in broad daylight lunging at sambar in lakes, relaxing on roadsides, teaching cubs to stalk and even stealing deer carcasses from the mouths of mugger crocodiles in the lakes. Ranthambhore became known as the best place in the world to observe tigers.

Rathore intended to keep things that way, repelling would-be graziers, firewood cutters and poachers with an iron hand. His tough tactics did not sit well with local villagers, however. One day, Rathore and his driver came upon a group of 50 villagers illegally grazing their buffalo in the reserve. When he confronted them, Rathore was beaten mercilessly with stones, axes, sticks and fists. The attack almost killed him, breaking ribs, both hands, both legs, and splitting his skull. After his three months in the hospital, villagers apologized. Still today, Rathore recounts, "You have to be strict if someone is doing wrong."

Over time, it had become increasingly apparent to Thapar and others that some of the chief threats to tigers at Ranthambhore and elsewhere were spawned by the growing pressures on the reserves by people living in surrounding villages. Relocating the villages from inside the reserve was one thing, but within a six-mile radius just outside of Ranthambhore there were still 170,000 people living in some of the poorest conditions imaginable. Few had electricity, clean water, adequate food or health care. Most had literally no other option for survival than to use the reserve, and an estimated 85 percent remained entirely dependent upon its resources for meeting many basic needs: firewood, fodder, grazing land, meat, timber and building materials.

To address this concern, Thapar started the Ranthambhore Foundation in 1987 under the on-the-ground leadership of Dr. Goverdhan Singh Rathore, Fateh's son. The idea was to reduce human pressures on the tiger reserve and to help local people see the tigers as an asset rather than a competitor.

The foundation supported many simultaneous approaches to improving life for the villagers: a health service offering free immunizations; family planning and voluntary sterilization in local villages; a women's cooperative to produce handicrafts for export; a literacy education program; a tree-planting program around the reserve to reduce future pressures on the park's forests; workshops on sustainable agriculture; a school of art where local artists create tiger art for sale. It also launched a pilot dairy development project to grow fodder for the villagers' cattle and buffalo (which graze the same forage as the tigers' prey) in the hopes of reducing grazing pressures inside the park. And to reduce the need to collect firewood from the park, it put 50 or so small-scale bio-gas generators into local villages to produce gas from cattle dung as an alternative to wood.

Some observers of this effort suggest that it is naive to think that human development alone can help save tigers. They argue that the focus instead should be on protecting the reserves from incursions and direct assaults on tigers and their prey. Others, reflecting efforts to include humans in conservation plans worldwide, cannot imagine tigers surviving without such development initiatives. At Ranthambhore, the results have been mixed. Although the foundation's efforts have improved the lives of local villagers to some extent, even Thapar concedes that this community work has yet to translate into significant benefits for tigers.

Efforts to increase protection for those on the front lines of tiger protection have proved more fruitful. Thapar's foundation, along with other local and international conservation groups, have provided forest guards with four-wheel-drive vehicles, motorcycles, elephants, radios, binoculars, uniforms, even snake-proof boots (not a trivial concern, as snakes kill more than 20,000 people in India each year). And as guards face a daily threat of murder by poachers and others (50 forest guards die and 100 are seriously injured in the line of duty across India each year), they have set up an insurance policy to care for the families of incapacitated or deceased forest guards. Thapar also initiated a program to award forest guards for exceptional performance.

Shortly after the community development work of the Ranthambhore Foundation began in the early 1990s, the tiger story in India took a dramatic and unexpected turn for the worse. News started trickling in that tiger sightings at Ranthambhore had decreased. By 1992, the number of tigers in the park had declined from perhaps 50 to something like 15. Fateh Singh Rathore and others feared poaching was to blame.

The extent of the crisis was clarified with the confession of a poacher apprehended just outside the park. He confirmed that at least 15 to 20 tigers had been killed over the preceding two years. The wave of poaching also raged across the rest of India and other tiger-range nations. Between 1990 and 1993, as many as 1,500 may have been taken by poachers from India, perhaps a third of the entire population.

Because the tiger had become so rare, it had become an extremely valuable commodity in the black markets of Asia. What was worth a few hundred dollars to a poor farmer-turned-poacher in rural India could now bring hundreds of thousands of dollars on the city streets of East Asia. Live tiger cubs could be sold as exotic pets. Tiger teeth, claws and skins could be made into handicrafts. But most importantly, virtually every part of the tiger was considered valuable in age-old Asian folk medicine.

Every manner of therapeutic effect was ascribed to tiger parts: eyeballs to treat cataracts, blood as a strengthening tonic, tails for skin disease, whiskers for toothache, brain to treat laziness, tiger fat for hemorrhoids, testes for tuberculosis, skin to treat mental illness and nose for epilepsy. Tiger penis and other parts are also used for their purported effects in boosting sexual stamina.

But beyond such Asian folklore, it is tiger bone--Os Tigris--that is generally recognized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for its anti-inflammatory value in relieving symptoms of rheumatism and pain, and as a muscle strengthener--effects owed perhaps to its content of the amino acid ossein. Others say aspirin works just as well. Tiger bone is taken as wine, gelatin, pills, soups and tonics. A bottle of tiger bone pills can sell for $27,000 in Japan, a country that didn't ban domestic trade in tiger parts until just last year. And because of their soaring market value, tigers are now being bred in tiger farms and tourist exhibitions in China, and bones from those that die of "natural causes" are finding their way into the black market trade, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Several discrete elements can be seen to have caused the recent tiger poaching crisis. The stockpile of tiger bone (accumulated in China as a result of Chairman Mao Zedong's edict to eradicate the South China tiger as a pest in the mid-twentieth century) was running out by the late 1980s, and tiger-bone traders turned to India to continue supplying this age-old market. Although most tiger-range nations had outlawed the trade in tiger bone by the early 1990s (China itself banned use of tiger bone in 1993), the soaring Asian economy supplied plenty of surplus cash.

The political situation in India had changed, too. While the tiger states in India had been controlled in the 1970s and 1980s by one political party with a conservation agenda, control had now become fragmented into more than eleven different political parties with other priorities. As a result, the will to protect tigers, in Thapar's words, "totally dissipated."

The Tiger's Best Friend - Hindu God Ayyappan riding Lion

Pulivahanna ("Tiger Vehicle") Poster Courtesy of Hinduism Today
The Hindu God Ayyappan rides a tiger, a conveyance that implies respect for animals.

In an effort to combat the poaching epidemic head-on, two conservationists, Belinda Wright and Ashok Kumar, formed the Delhi-based Wildlife Protection Society of India to document, investigate and help prosecute wildlife crimes throughout India. During a six-week period in early 1994, Wright, posing as a buyer, was offered the sale of 49 dead tigers. Today, their small group is active in more than 100 court cases regarding wildlife crime. Although it is well known who the three largest traders are, Wright says today, the government can't seem to apprehend or prosecute them. "The tiger has no secure future in India," she concludes. "We've lost, and I think we know we've lost. It is a tragedy of enormous proportion."

The disintegrating situation for tigers in the early 1990s marked an important turning point for Thapar. What innocence he had enjoyed in previous years simply watching tigers was now not enough. If tigers were to be saved, he would have to aggressively engage government and the international community. And so he did. His mantra became "debate, dialogue, discussion and argument."

Thapar became involved with virtually every committee of the government of India dealing with tigers, chaired the South Asian committee of the Cat Specialist Group of the IUCN--The World Conservation Union, wrote eight books and hosted a popular television documentary on tigers. He became India's "ambassador for the tiger"--a catalyst and provocateur, as ferocious as his tigers, and a passionate and articulate spokesman for them.

With his large stature, booming baritone voice, laserlike eyes, finely honed intellect and combative temperament, Thapar became tiger incarnate. He was the living embodiment of Shakespeare's admonition in Henry V to "imitate the action of the tiger, stiffen the sinews, disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage."

Still, coming to grips with the renewed poaching crisis was not easy. After emerging from what he described as a "deep depression," Thapar recharged and decided he had to expand his fight. Last year, he stepped down as executive director of his Ranthambhore Foundation to allow time to zero in on the looming tiger crisis throughout India. His focus is now inescapably on reforming governance.

Although India's constitution states that the government "shall endeavor to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country," the existing Ministry of Environment and Forests, Thapar observed, spent virtually no time on its duty to protect 20 percent of the land area of the country's forests and wildlife. The government, he charged, seemed more intent on facilitating commercial "looting" ($12 billion in minerals, timber, energy and wildlife is liquidated every year) than in protecting the land upon which the tiger walks for future generations.

By its own admission, the government seems powerless to correct the problem. In a stunning self-critique filed as an affidavit with the Supreme Court, the ministry essentially agreed with Thapar and asked the court to intervene on its behalf. Among the problems: Perhaps 40,000 of its 160,000 field positions remain vacant--as high as 50 percent in some reserves.

And with the ever-present enticements from bribery and corruption, much of the money designated for tiger protection not-so-mysteriously disappears--the tragic alchemy of bureaucratic inefficiency and decay. Today, many believe that rampant corruption, involving complicity throughout Indian society, is India's most serious and intractable problem. "It is a plague that envelops us," Thapar says.

To begin to correct such an entangled mess, Thapar has campaigned for the past few years to have the Ministry of Environment and Forests split into two new ministries--one for environment, the other for forests and wildlife. This, he argues, would give due attention to India's forests and wildlife, strengthening authority over the states and elevating wildlife conservation to a national priority.

In the field, Thapar and others feel that tiger conservation all boils down to one preeminent principle: Keeping the right man in the right job. The deputy field director today at Ranthambhore, for instance, the indomitable G. V. Reddy, has reversed years of official apathy toward grazing, woodcutting and poaching in the park. He is resolute and committed--precisely the sort of person Thapar says is essential to make tiger reserves work.

Since coming to Ranthambhore in 1997, Reddy and his guards have stood their ground in numerous violent confrontations with graziers, sometimes armed with only bamboo staffs. For the first time in years, they've prevailed. When asked how they punish offenders, he answers with a smile, "First we give them a good bashing, then we prosecute them."

At the national level, P. K. Sen, until recently director of India's Project Tiger, sees a "doomsday scenario" for the species. Although the program helped initially to raise sympathy for tiger conservation, today, he says with unusual candor, "No one really cares whether the tiger survives. With 1 billion people and 800 million cattle, saving the tiger is simply not a priority in this country."

Despite Thapar's lobbying efforts--which include pushing for a new wildlife protection "strike force"--little has happened. So poaching continues unabated. In a poignant example of how flagrantly out-of-control it has become, poachers recently broke into a zoo in Andhra Pradesh at night, killed a caged tiger and made off with the tiger's skin, bones, organs and even its blood, all right under the noses of zoo officials.

Concludes Thapar, "We live at the moment in a nightmare, and the best we can hope for is to have perhaps 1,000 wild tigers remaining in India." But if present trends continue, he fears, there may be just 500 or so left within five years in 10 to 15 sanctuaries.

Not everyone agrees with Thapar's dire predictions. Among them is Ullas Karanth, a tiger biologist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. Karanth feels the tiger has a good chance in India--better than anywhere else in Asia except perhaps Nepal. Although tiger habitat has been greatly reduced, he notes, India still has some 115,000 square miles of it, with about ten percent of that area in well-protected reserves. He points to several conservation success stories at reserves such as Khana, Nagarahole, Bandipur and Kaziranga. "Tigers are not yet a lost cause," he says.

Like many of his colleagues, Karanth is less concerned about tiger poaching, suggesting that there is an "annual surplus" that will die anyway. Thus, tiger populations can withstand some pressure from illegal killing, he feels. Ranthambhore, for instance, recovered from the poaching of the early 1990s and now boasts a tiger population of perhaps 45 or more. Depletion of the tiger's prey base is a more serious threat, Karanth argues.

Others see the cumulative loss and fragmentation of habitat as the greatest worry. Timber harvest (both legal and illegal), mining, road construction, dams, irrigation projects, power plants, quarries, agriculture and grazing are all problems. Many cite ill-conceived industrialization financed by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and others as the main culprit. On this note, Karanth sees "sustainable use"--a model currently championed by various international development and conservation organizations--as one of the most pernicious long-term threats to the continuation of strictly protected tiger reserves, and thus to the tiger itself.

Despite such disagreement, the chief threats to the survival of the tiger--habitat loss, prey depletion and poaching --continue. Underlying these human-induced dangers is the ever-present possibility of natural catastrophes from fire, flood, drought and disease. But whether one is optimistic or pessimistic, one thing is certain: The power of the tiger continues to push and pull at the very essence of our basic human nature and provides troubling insight into the present human condition.

Through it all, Thapar carries on. Early in his quest to save India's wild tigers, he had heard about a site in the Himalayas of Nepal where Buddha is said to have given his life to feed a starving tigress and her cubs. A few years ago, he decided to make "the pilgrimage of a lifetime" to visit the place, which is known as NamoBuddha.

It was an evening Thapar would never forget. As he arrived, a setting sun and hundreds of flickering candles cast a mystical light upon the monastery, the doors of which had been painted with bronze tigers. Buddhist monks chanted hypnotically in the deep blue twilight, multicolored prayer flags blowing in the stiff Himalayan winds. Yellow flowers were spread across the red stone that depicted Buddha's last act.

The story suggests that at this very spot, Buddha had come upon a starving tigress with two cubs, all near death. In a supreme sacrifice, he offered his own life to them, and they consumed him. This is said to have been one of Buddha's preparatory stages to enlightenment--his destiny was the tiger's destiny as well, no more, no less. At NamoBuddha, the intertwined destiny of humanity and tiger resonated with Thapar. But it was now the tigers that were being sacrificed, to the insecurities and indulgences of modern humans. For what enlightenment could this possibly be a preparatory stage?

He remembered his first fateful trip to Ranthambhore and the night around the fire as the tiger approached--that moment when his own life had become wondrously entangled with the great cat. He remembered instances where he felt happiest, most whole in his life, and they were times, he saw clearly, that were spent with tigers.

Although he suspected he might be fighting a losing battle, he also knew that his effort had spared the lives of perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of these magnificent animals, and that he had found purpose through the fight. Such transcendent, unconditional reverence left him with a sense that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, there still just may be a chance to save his beloved wild tigers of India. At least he could hope.

Rick Steiner is a professor at the University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program. He traveled to India for International Wildlife to interview Valmik Thapar and other experts to report firsthand on the status of tigers.

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