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Lunch with India's Tiger Man
Anjuli Bhargava

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May 05, 2008
After spending 33 years of his life following the tale of the tiger and its fight for survival, Valmik Thapar is far from convinced it will happen.

By the time I arrive, I find Valmik Thapar already seated in Tamura, the small but authentic Japanese eatery on the second floor in the Friends Colony Community Centre market, the location of which only Thapar seems to know. I have called him to ask for directions (after several others looked at me blankly) and been told off quite curtly, "You should have found it by now. I have been waiting and I told you I have to leave early", writes Anjuli Bhargava.

Is it just my imagination or has spending so much time in the wild led to an uncanny resemblance between wildlife and tiger expert Thapar and his favourite companion? Of course, no man can really look like a tiger but aren't the characteristics somewhat alike? As I ponder this and gush into an introduction, I mention Land of the Tiger, which I had heard was one of his best documentary films.

"It's not mine," he thunders. "I was only the presenter. It was a BBC film," he adds, quite disgusted at my ignorance. Maybe the resemblance is less striking than I first thought. Despite my two blunders, I remain uneaten.

We quickly order (fried prawns and some kind of noodle soup for him, and a plate of stir-fried vegetables for me) and get down to business. I have caught him between two trips to Ranthambhore where, in 1975, Thapar's love affair with the tiger began while shooting a film, Deep in the jungles of Rajasthan. He's just been there for ten days during his son's school vacation -- a trip that will result in his 15th book on tigers, Ten Days in Ranthambhore -- and is leaving for another short weekend trip there.

His trip was special for three reasons. It was his first trip with his five-and-a-half-year-old son, he says, in a visible softening of his otherwise gruff exterior. He managed to catch up, for eight hours every day over the 10-day period, with Macchli, a 15-or 16-year-old female tiger whose life he's been closely entwined with. He saw her fifth litter (he says she's thrown 12 cubs to maturity), which was just readying to leave her. And it was special because after many years of visiting the national parks in India, he spotted a tiny glimmer of hope.

Just two years ago, Thapar had declared that "the tiger had been placed in its coffin." But today Ranthambhore, in his view, is a prime example of what can be done, if someone puts their minds to it. "Tigers everywhere you look," he says estatically. He says the credit for this goes entirely to chief minister Vasundhara Raje. She hired 200 ex-army men to increase protection, she put in place good rangers and took a personal interest in the problems facing the park.

But Ranthambhore has a tiny population of 30 tigers. For the bigger and wilder majority, there's little hope. Thapar estimates the current tiger population in India at somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400. In 1973, he says, there were 1,800. Painstakingly, this was doubled to around 3,600 five years ago. But in the last four years, rampant poaching and poor protection have brought the number down by 2,300.

Thapar is at his wits' end with the approach of the government which, he's convinced, is absolutely wrong. He says he's worked on at least 150 committees and sub-committees (since 1992, when Kamal Nath created the Tiger Crisis cell) of the government relating to tigers which have "all been a waste of time". He says all the money in the world can't save the tiger unless there's a change in tack. He also squarely blames the state governments. "The Centre can only provide money and guidance. But the state has to do the day-to-day running of the park," he explains. Forest guards are treated "like dirt" in an era of "brainless governance and absolute ignorance".

I know I risk Thapar's wrath, yet I mention the task force on tigers set up in 2005. The task force was a "mess" consisting of a "strange bunch of people" who, in his view, had "no understanding of the tiger. If they want to deal with people's problems, they should set up a people's task force or a tribal task force, not a tiger task force." Thapar dissented with the final report of the task force which suggested people and tigers can co-exist. Hogwash, he says.

"Between 1850 and 1950, 30,000 tribals and villagers were killed by tigers and 100,000 tigers were killed by man and you're trying to tell me the two can co-exist! There's no harmony here," he adds. Today, he stands vindicated. "Now, they are struggling to relocate villages as they realise tigers and man do not co-exist!"

I suggest that the task force's composition may have been deliberate to keep alive an element of objectivity in the report -- his views may be too "rabid" for public consumption. He begs to differ. "I'm not saying you must have 5,000 tigers. All I say is have 2,000 if that's what you can manage. Genuine forest dwellers must have their space in the forests. The tiger must have his. All I am saying is don't try and mix the two. Simple. Is that rabid?"

Thapar argues that if tigers vanish, in due course, so will forests and India will be "desertified". "Who will visit the forests then and who will say 'oh let's save this forest just for its natural beauty'! Forget it! India has 600 national parks and forests. There are 100 in Andaman and Nicobar islands alone. Who even knows their names? Tourists go to eight-ten out of 600."

He says he's shocked at corporate India's apathy to India's environmental and forest heritage. "All of them -- the top corporates -- want to visit the sanctuaries but no one wants to come forward and do anything to preserve them. It's a national shame -- what the corporate world hasn't done!" He says he's exhorted each of them personally to get involved, but to no avail.

I, for the life of me, can't imagine him on any kind of government committee. He must be quite a shock to the stodgy, dull bureaucratic senses, I suggest? "They hate me," he says matter-of-factly. He says he's on numerous committees because someone or the other forces him onto it or forces the bureaucracy to put him onto it.

And is there more to Valmik Thapar than just the tiger? He says he and his family have discovered a new love: snorkeling and underwater life. Every year, he, his wife (who's a deep sea diver) and his son spend a month in the Maldives, with their heads buried in the water watching the marine life go by. "It's the new thing that's happened in our lives," he reveals, quite happy to spend a few moments describing the ocean with its myriad colours and life.

I ask if he sometimes feels fed up with the futility of things as he sees them. "What can one do? We can only push, cajole, pressurise or embarrass. We can't beat the system. The first tiger crisis was in 1992. Sixteen years later and we are back where we started. It doesn't give one much hope," he says in conclusion. The tiger, it appears, has been left to its own devices. Its survival -- if it happens -- will be despite the system, not thanks to it.

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