BOOKS: Land of the Tiger

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1998:

Land of the Tiger
A Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent
by Valmik Thapar
University of California Press (2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94720), 1998.
288 pages, 167 color photos, $29.95 hardcover.

You might expect a pornographic
preoccupation with predation from the title
Land of the Tiger , a dry tome from the subtitle,
a coffee table ornament from the oversized
illustrated format, or New Age quasi-spiritual
gibberish from the jacket blurb promising that
Valmik Thapar “links the reverence shown to
nature by Eastern religions, including
Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, to the
tremendous biodiversity that remains on the
Indian subcontinent today.”


Those are all western perspectives on
the most thorough description we’ve seen yet
of the wildlife of India from an Indian who
isn’t afraid to write and think like an Indian in
front of a western audience.
Valmik Thapar is perhaps the most
eminent of the first generation of Indian conservation
biologists whose education came
entirely after the end of British rule. Relatively
free to develop his own outlook, Thapar
avoids the “scientific” detachment characterizing
western peers who concern themselves with
species survival yet disregard individual wellbeing.
On page 118, for instance, Thapar
describes the Sundarbans region practice of
using tethered otters to fish, forthrightly concluding,
“This exploitation of an animal by
humans is quite cruel, as this naturally freeranging
creature is tamed and made to perform
like a dog on a chain. Over many centuries,
the largest land mammal, the elephant, has
also been snatched from the wild and tamed to
move at human command. The same is true of
the cheetah; extinct on the subcontinent today,
it was once chained to a leash and trained to
hunt the blackbuck across the grasslands.”
Despite such observations, and
despite Thapar’s years of work to protect tigers
and other species from poaching and habitat
destruction in the vicinity of Ranthambhore
National Park, he is still no misanthrope. On
page 179 he describes the Bishnoi with particular
admiration. Living in the Rajasthan desert,
the Bishnoi, Thapar explains, “are members
of a sect which believes in complete nonviolence
to all living organisms.” He credits them
as “the primary reason that desert wildlife still
exists on the subcontinent.”
The ancestrally related people of
some neighboring villages still practice animal
sacrifice, a matter Thapar leaves unmentioned.
Among the Bishnoi, however, Thapar notes
that “The women have been known to breastfeed
[orphaned] blackbuck fawns and save
insect life,” practices also documented in photographs
published recently by Animal Citizen,
the magazine of the Animal Welfare Board of
India. “Many of the men,” Thapar continues,
“have died in their efforts to counter armed
poaching gangs. Bishnoi, founded in 1542, is
an offshoot of Jainism, which teaches that all
nature’s creations have a right to life. This
belief reached its apotheosis in 1778 when 294
men and 69 women laid down their lives to
protect the khejri tree. A senior officer of
Jodhpur state arrived to cut down the trees,
which were needed for burning lime. The first
to challenge him was a woman, who hugged
one of the trees and was promptly decapitated.
Her three daughters followed suit and were
also axed. Many others followed them until
363 Bishnoi lay dead. This mass slaughter led
to a royal order that prohibited the cutting of
any tree in a Bishnoi village.”
Though Thapar makes no note of it,
probably because he had no way of knowing,
the massacre of the Bishnoi was literally the
origin of tree-hugging as ecological protest.
Mohandas K. Gandhi cited it in teaching ahim –
sa. Gandhi’s U.S. admirer Henry Geiger then
repeatedly published descriptions of the
Bishnoi incident in his influential philosophical
newspaper M a n a s, 1947-1988, and sent
copies to hundreds of other activists and journalists,
including those who introduced treehugging
in defense of old growth forests in the
U.S. and Canada circa 25 years ago.
Thapar, however, provides more
precise detail than did either Gandhi or Geiger.
His moral observations are firmly rooted in
fact, and thus are all the more persuasive.
Land of the Tiger is the book of a
patriot in the truest meaning of the often
abused word. Thapar loves his homeland. He
loves, as well, to share it.

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