Seeing the tiger casts a spell over you. It is the ancient bewitchment of the Indian wilds at play. I was hypnotised by the Bengal tiger’s magnificence early in 2017. It was an incredibly powerful experience, seared into my memory.
That sighting sparked an intense passion inside me. It kindled a fierce zeal for the Indian wilderness. It had me staying up countless nights thinking about tigers and elephants. I read all the books I could find about tigers. All I wanted to do was to be in the forest searching for animals.
I spent a large part of that year travelling to Tiger Reserves in search of tigers. Sadly, it remained elusive. The tiger chooses whether to reveal itself to you or not.
I then moved to a boarding school. Unable to visit the reserves, I threw myself into the rich literature of India’s wild history. I spent my free time reading the work of Kailash Sankhala, FW Champion, A J T Johnsingh, and many other stalwarts of wildlife conservation in India.
I learnt that there is so much more in the forests of India than the tiger. Herds of elephants roam the southern forests, rhinos browse in the grasslands of the northeast. Wild asses stride across the plains of west India, and the snow leopard prowls the upper reaches of the Himalayas. I acknowledged the plethora of wildlife my country had to offer.
Fast forward many years later and I was in a jeep driving through Tadoba Tiger Reserve when we heard that a tiger was spotted at a waterhole nearby.
4 years had passed since my first tiger sighting So on hearing this, I was awed with excitement. A feeling of euphoria washed over me.
After having wormed our way through the maze of jeeps, we made it to the waterhole. And sure enough, on the edge was the largest tiger I have ever seen. Sitting at the edge of the water, he calmly looked at us with piercing amber eyes.
I expected to feel a sense of accomplishment, for I had spent years waiting for this moment. And yet for some reason, something fell inside my heart.
What was it? Why wasn’t I getting that same rush that I got all those years ago? After all, I was seeing a tiger after searching for it for many years. Somehow, I wasn’t as inspired as before.
I began to question myself. Was this not my greatest passion? Was all that I felt before just a farce, just a mere childhood fascination? This made me uncomfortable for a long time.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I have got a better grasp of my feelings.
At Tadoba, there were around 20 jeeps around the poor animal, all pointing a lens at it. There was no respect for its privacy. The scene hauntingly mirrored what Filmmaker Sumanth Kuduvalli (a mentor of mine) told me a few years ago, “ Nowadays, seeing a tiger amid a sea of jeeps is no different than seeing one in a zoo. It will make you wish you hadn’t seen it.”
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Over the years, the tiger has gone from being an icon of wild India to another tourist attraction. Resorts now make millions catering to the tourists eager to see one of these beasts.
This outlook has spilt over to the conservation world as well. It has grown to be increasingly mammal centric, focusing on the large mesmerising species like the tiger and panda. Good looks are dictating where funds for conservation go. This phenomenon of charismatic megafauna is explained in this video.
Who are we to deem one species more important than another? Every animal has its role to play in the web of life. And each is majestic in its own way, from the mightiest tiger to the smallest insect.
This mindset first arose with Project Tiger, an initiative spearheaded by Indira Gandhi in 1973. It centred all conservation measures behind this one species.
The culture of conserving the wild around one particular species has led to the deprival of resources to other, more vulnerable creatures.
Who are we to deem one species more important than another? Every animal has its role to play in the web of life. And each is majestic in its own way, from the mightiest tiger to the smallest insect. We must learn to see beauty in all beings.
Now, when I visit a national park, I keep my eyes peeled for all wildlife, including the tiger. But whatever I see, I am glad that I am in the midst of nature.
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