The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers by Raghu Chundawat

Book Notes – In this series, I share my insights, ideas, and reviews of my favourite books, whose topics are wide-ranging.

Rating – 7/10

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Amazon Link

Book Compressed into 3 Points

  • The only long-term study on tiger biology conducted to date in India.
  • Through radio collaring and rigorous scientific protocols, it shows the secret life of tigers, how they use their environment, and what they need to survive.
  • It shows how politics and society hold enormous power over tiger conservation.

Who is it for?

  • Environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts
  • Nature lovers
  • Anyone interested in wildlife biology.

 Favourite Quotes

  • Good conservation should be based on good science.
  • A better understanding of the ecosystem can only come from ecological study. Unfortunately, very few studies have been conducted on the ecology of tigers, with even fewer long-term studies. In the absence of substantive reliable information, management actions remain dependent on personal whims which may have very little relevance to reality.
  • No one likes to be part of a failure and this is why for India it is important to have successful programmes so that the national and international communities continue to support and partner its tiger conservation mission.
  • We need strategies that will not only save the habitat and tigers’ prey, but also the tigers themselves. Unfortunately, generally speaking, our present management continues to use the same methods that it has been using for decades and these are proving inadequate.

Insights

“India is filled these days with self-styled tiger experts, both foreign and domestic. Anyone with the price of park entry, a mobile phone and a presence on Facebook feels qualified to weigh in on how best to protect the national animal. Raghu Chundawat, the author of this rich and compelling book, is the real thing.” 

  • This quote from Geoffrey C. Ward in the foreword speaks to a widespread phenomenon where many self-proclaimed experts are popping up around the glove. These people provide opinions on conservation that are not grounded in science and thus distort the public’s idea of wildlife protection.
  • We need more work like this book, which dives deep into the data, and shows trends from years’ worth of research. It embodies the need for more hard-core scientific inquiry, showing that academia is crucial for devising effective conservation policy.
  • Dr Chundawat conducted the only long-term study on tigers in India, done in Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. This book is the go-to resource on tiger ecology.
  • Much of the literature on tigers exist as anecdotal accounts. Very few books provide accurate research from the field, giving us an understanding of the species grounded in science.
  • It starts with an introduction to the world of tigers, its different subspecies, its population trends in Indian history, Project Tiger and so on. Each topic is highly detailed and merits its own article and even book.

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  • I like how he extensively cites other researchers and conservation workers. This not only demonstrates the need to collaborate and acknowledge fellow practitioners, but it also demonstrates what goes into making a scientifically accurate inference. Delving into the research of others is the only way to obtain a sound understanding of a topic or animal.
  • The book also talks about the political drama behind the disappearance of tigers from Panna, how the researchers were blowing the whistle and how the establishment tried to cover it up. It shines a light on the bureaucratic hegemony that holds over conservation.
  • The book analyses every aspect of the park(topography, climate, history, vegetation, fauna) and explores how it affected the lives of tigers there.
  • Panna Tiger Reserve has many villages in its periphery, and their study looked at how its demographics affected the behaviour of the animals.
  • They used line transects and radio-collaring techniques to study tigers and their prey.
  • The book is filled with tables and graphs showcasing the data they collected from the field, with inferences and insights. These were on prey abundance and spatial distribution, tiger movement, consumption patterns and much more.
  • Dr Chundawat radio-collared several tigers, through which he got an inside look at how tigers interact with their environment and with one another. It is important to note that while biological similarities existed across subjects, each study animal had a degree of individualism
  • Since the study was conducted for close to a decade, the researchers also saw how an individual tiger’s spatiality changed over time. As the years go by, their territory is subject to alterations due to various actors (prey availability, the arrival of new tigers etc.)
  • They could track the litters of several tigresses, observing how they interact with their mother, at what time they disperse and so on.
  • The book goes in-depth into radio collaring—the protocols, risks involved, observation method, data collection, etc. This is a niche field within wildlife biology, only conducive to certain animals, and thus it is fascinating to see how scientists go about it.
  • Through radio collaring, they got data on the tiger’s home ranges, movement patterns and use of different habitats and human-affected regions of the forest.
  • It explains complex concepts in wildlife biology, like distance sampling and the capture-recapture model (read my post on camera traps), for everyday people to understand.
  • Since camera traps were involved in some of the research, they also collected data on other predators that shared the forest with the tiger, like the leopard and striped hyena.
  • They carefully tracked the diet of the study animals, recording all the tiger kills they came across. This gave them an idea of how many prey animals are required for a healthy population of tigers in a forest.
  • Through understanding their spatiality (use of space), the researchers got an idea of what habitat types required extra conservation focus.
  • They also looked at how anthropogenic pressures affect tigers. Livestock kills, for example, anger the local population, who, in retaliation, poison the carcasses. While often killing the tiger, scavengers also end up dead as bycatch.
  • In one of the last chapters, Dr Chundawat takes a slight detour from the scientific approach to his writing and dives into the politics of tiger conservation. He gives the reader a detailed account of what happened when Panna Tiger Reserve lost all its tigers. He talks about how the establishment remained impassive and even turned hostile towards them as poachers overwhelmed the forest. It is a shockingly gripping insider look into the administration’s hold over wildlife.
  • In the end, he gives us a roadmap to successful tiger conservation. He speaks about every sphere involved, from the management system to better scientific practices. It is a blueprint for saving the tigers of India.

Review

While this is a scientific book about biology and ecology, it is also an account of the author’s journey. 

Panna Tiger Reserve was the centre of much turmoil when it lost all its tigers to poaching earlier in the 21st century. Dr Chundawat, throughout his research, developed a personal connection with his study animals, which shines through his writing. He was the one who raised the alarm on the loss of tigers at Panna, campaigning furiously for its addressal. From his rigorous research and conservation work to his fight against cancer, his story is nothing short of inspirational.

I will say that this book is suitable for readers above 17. Those younger might not fully grasp the detailed information and thus not fully appreciate the rigour behind the research. Readers must realise how important it is to have such long-term studies for effective conservation. I would also say that some basis in science helps understand the analysis.

The book is not written in the lifeless voice that dominates most academia. Instead, it is as engaging as it is informative, with research data often interspersed with anecdotes from the field. I highly recommend it to any interested person.

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

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