BOOKS: Tigers and Tigerwallahs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2003:

Tigers and Tigerwallahs
Tiger-Wallahs: Saving the Greatest of the Great Cats
by Geoffrey C. Ward with Diane Raines Ward

Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett

The Secret Life of Tigers by Valmik Thapar,

and Tiger Haven by Billy Arjan Singh

Oxford University Press (YMCA Library Bldg., Jai Singh Rd., New Delhi
110 001, India), 2002. Circa 750 pages, hardcover. No U.S. price listed.

Relatively few people in India will ever see Tigers and
Tigerwallahs, a manificent four-volumes-in-one collection of tiger
conservation classics–but many might avidly absorb it if they could
afford it.
Tigers and Tigerwallahs is available in other nations only by
special order.
People who care profoundly what becomes of tigers must go to
that trouble, because as grim as some of the accounts in Tigers and
Tigerwallahs are, and as bleak the prophecies, the experiences of
the authors over the past 100 years amount to a comprehensive manual
of what to do and not do in trying to save large, charismatic
megafauna of almost any kind.

The first great tiger conservationist was the tiger hunter
Jim Corbett. Not at all the stereotypical “great white hunter,”
Corbett was born in India, albeit of British parentage, and was
thereby excluded from advancement in either British expatriate or
native Indian society. He hunted as a youth to help feed his rather
poor family. As an adult, he came to loath sport hunting, making
no secret of his rather caustic opinion of anyone who would kill
animals without need.
Corbett hunted tigers, but only maneaters. He believed that
only a small minority of tigers ever turn to killing people, and
then only in dire circumstances, such as in arthritic old age or
when suffering from severe disability. If the “maneaters” were
eliminated from the breeding pool, and/or put out of their misery,
Corbett believed, humans might tolerate tigers.
Otherwise, all would be exterminated for the deeds of a few.
Corbett never took pay for killing a tiger, always hunted
“maneaters” alone, and never hunted any tiger if sport hunters were
anywhere in the area. He endured almost incredible hardship,
illness, and injury in his pursuit of “maneaters.” His methods
often included staking out live buffaloes and goats as bait, but he
seemed sensitive to their suffering as well as to the plight of the
tigers’ human victims. He knew from his own background what families
endure after the loss of a mother or wage-earner, and though he
never had children, he appreciated the grief of those whose children
were killed and eaten.
Yet Corbett did not pretend that the killing done by tigers
was evil while his own killing was morally justified. On the
contrary, Corbett was troubled by his work, and eventually felt
that it was all for nothing. Retiring with his sister to Kenya
after Indian independence, Corbett expected the Indian tiger to be
extinct within a decade of his own death.
That nearly happened. Geoffrey C. Ward, Billy Arjan Singh,
and Valmik Thapar take turns describing the trophy hunting bloodbath
that engulfed India for more than 25 years after independence. While
British hunting declined, the Americans and oil shieks who followed
proved to be even more trigger-happy, with more firepower at their
disposal. Tigers and blackbucks were only two of many species that
were hunted to the brink of extinction before the political
ascendancy of the late prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Morarji
Desai finally brought into effect and enforced the 1973 national ban
on sport hunting.
Billy Arjan Singh meanwhile tried to save tigers, blackbuck,
elephants, and other species by establishing and defending his own
private refuge, called Tiger Haven, not affiliated in any way with
the captive tiger facility by the same name in Tennessee. The
preserve that Singh started eventually became federally protected
habitat. Once a ruthless hunter himself, as was Ward, Singh
metamorphized into an equally ruthless warden, who dragged poachers
to town behind his jeep and expressed unsympathetic views about the
losses of employees and visitors who were foolish enough to bring
their children into proximity with the captive tigers and leopards he
rehabilitated for release. Most people were afraid of Singh, whose
closest companion for many years was his elephant.
Singh preserved wildlife at the cost of antagonizing so many
people that elected officials came to treat him as a leading public
enemy. Backlash against his methods, as well as naked greed,
contributed to the near ruination of the Indian refuge system during
the 1980s and much of the 1990s, under the mantra of “sustainable
use.” The theory was that ordinary Indians would support refuges
only if the refuges contributed to their prosperity. Refuges were
opened to grazing, wood-gathering, and eventually to so much other
economic activity that some, like Sariska, were reduced to narrow
heavily trafficked tourist corridors.
Valmik Thapar, an initially reluctant student of Singh’s,
in time redeemed Singh and the refuge concept by demonstrating with
Singh’s help and investment how habitat reclamation could provide
even greater economic benefits than the other common uses of refuge
The struggle to save tigers is far from over, and indeed may
barely have begun, with intensifying poaching and human population
pressure evident throughout their remaining range. Thapar has,
however, emerged as a unique and original voice in wildlife
conservation. His challenges to conventional wisdom are grounded in
both experience and the ethical views of animals embodied in Hindu,
Jain, Bishnoi, and Buddhist culture. Thapar has begun to be heard
not only in India, but far beyond, suggesting that his approach may
eventually be widely emulated.

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