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India is lucky to have the world’s largest population. Photo: Thinkstock
India is lucky to have the world’s largest population. Photo: Thinkstock

The tiger truths

Shoba Narayan on why we need the tiger to thrive

Indian forests are wonderful ecosystems. Teak and sal trees shed dew tears in the misty mornings. Babblers babble; Serpentine eagles soar; Rufous treepies shriek; and humans shiver in the morning cold. Jackals come out of the grasslands. Herds of deer graze under trees. Langurs swing from trees which whisper and sway towards each other. There is the gum tree, gooseberry, Arjuna, pipal, banyan, and countless other species. Picturesque as they are, these species are no match for that apex predator in terms of viewing pleasure: Panthera tigris.

Tiger numbers are up. That is the good news. The latest tiger census shows that we have 2,226 tigers in our wildlife preserves, up from about 1,706 in the last census in 2010. Among experts, there is a lot of sniping and critiquing about methodology and the accuracy of camera traps. Odisha is miffed that its tiger count is lower than expected and wants a recount. There are questions about whether shrinking habitats can sustain the rise in tiger population.

For amateur wildlife enthusiasts, it is enough that India’s wildlife efforts are gaining traction and moving in the right direction.

Conservation scientist K. Ullas Karanth, like many in the field, is optimistic about India’s prospects. “Tiger conservation has been more successful in India than any other country," he tells me, adding, “We are doing it in a more cost-effective manner. But we have no goal. What is the objective for the year 2020? We are spending money, often too much money, without any goal."

That said, this piece is not so much about the how of conservation, but about why we should care.

When talking about nature, wildlife, or the ecosystem, humans often use the paternalistic and patronizing word “fragile". We see ourselves as custodians of this planet as well as its most deadly criminals. We conserve and exterminate. We use more resources than any other species and are the planet’s apex predator.

This human-centric view is both understandable and wrong. The planet isn’t fragile. Life on earth existed long before humans got here, and will likely continue in spite of us. The engine of evolution will continue in spite of human intervention. This so-called fragile planet, in other words, isn’t waiting with bated breath for humans to save it. It couldn’t care less.

Humans need wildlife, not because of some misconstrued sense of noblesse oblige, but because nature is central to our existence. The birds, bees and beasts that surround us weave a web that is far more complex than we can fathom; and far more necessary to our well-being than we have the knowledge or sense to admit. We need them more than they need us. At the very least, nature and wildlife are what differentiate us as a species.

The tiger exists to show us what is possible and what is not. It is a biological differentiator as well as a milestone in the evolutionary history of homo sapiens, going back millennia. It is also, quite simply, a magnificent beast, inspiring awe and fear. S.H. Prater describes why in The Book Of Indian Animals, published under the auspices of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) by the Oxford University Press. “The characteristics that mark a perfect carnivore—claws especially adapted to strike and hold struggling prey, and teeth especially designed to bite into, cut up and tear flesh are most perfectly developed in the cat."

This feline grace, strength and agility is reflected in every aspect of the tiger. It has the largest eyes in the Felidae family, able to see acutely at night. Its tracks, or “spoor" as they are called, reveal four toes and a pad with no sole. This is because cats are digitigrade: They walk on their toes, giving their bodies a forward thrust that means they are built for speed and stealth. When tigers track their prey, they place their hind legs in the exact same spot as their forelegs. They walk like bipeds, as The Book Of Indian Animals says.

Project Tiger was then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s gift to Indian wildlife. Since its inception in 1973, several stalwarts, such as Fateh Singh Rathore, Raghu Chundawat, Belinda Wright, Billy Arjan Singh, Ullas Karanth, Valmik Thapar, H.S. Panwar, and M.K. Ranjitsinh, have worked tirelessly to preserve our ecosystems and wildlife.

The connection between humans and forests is ancient and primal. Trees are where we came from; and returning to these wildlife sanctuaries calms us and makes us feel alive and connected to our planet and ecosystem.

Nature heals in mysterious ways. It gives us solace without saying a word. As Anne Frank said in her dairy, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside; somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God."

Wild animals show us a way of being that is primitive, yet noble. Their way of life is alien, yet it rises above human constructs such as greed and materialism. We in India are lucky to have not just the world’s largest populations of tigers, but also the only surviving population of the Asiatic lion in the Gir forest. We have snow leopards in the Hemis National Park; barasingha deer in Kanha; and two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga. We need them to show us another approach to living.

To paraphrase ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, our natural world holds the “greatest expression of life on Earth". Our forests hold answers to questions that we have yet to ask. At least till we figure out the questions, we need to hold on to our forests.

Shoba Narayan hopes, wishes and dreams that she will visit the Kaziranga National Park this year. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read

I’m confident India won’t let the tiger go extinct: Ullas Karanth

India’s tiger population rises 30% since 2010 to 2,226

Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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