By Lavina Melwani

He has trudged through impenetrable rain-forests, down swirling rivers, up icy mountains and through harsh deserts. He has traveled to international conferences, to countless schools and colleges and met with scores of political leaders and common people. He talks to anyone willing to listen, and some who are openly unwilling. He has written a million words, spoken a million sentences, filmed a million pictures–all to save India’s endangered wildlife.

It must have to do with karma, with debts in past lives. How else to explain Valmik Thapar’s tireless and obsessive single-handed crusade to save the tiger, the elephant and the langur in a world oblivious to the fate wildlife faces? At the turn of the century, the world had approximately 100,000 tigers. Now it is estimated there are only 3,000 to 7,000 left in the wild. In the last 50 years, three subspecies have vanished, and a fourth, the South China tiger, is on the brink of extinction. More than half the tigers that survive in the wild are in the Indian subcontinent, persisting in threatened habitats. If the trend continues, our magnificent tiger–so integral to the stories heard by Indian children, so much a part of India’s myth, folklore and ecological richness–may disappear completely from the face of the Earth.

Valmik Thapar is one of the world’s leading experts on tigers, and he is an eloquent and persuasive spokesperson for these awesomely powerful yet beautiful cats, which have been revered throughout history. As Thapar writes in his book, Land of the Tiger: A Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent (1997, University of California Press, Berkeley), “The tiger evokes myriad images: provider, protector, guardian and intermediary between heaven and earth. Tigers are depicted carrying princesses on their backs, growing wings in order to travel great distances to cure and heal, turning white to become part of the Milky Way and thus keep a protective eye on the Earth and its inhabitants, fighting dragons to create rain, guarding forests against thoughtless woodcutters, changing into men and back again, carrying people into the next world, fighting evil so that mankind can love and reproduce. People have looked to them to prevent disaster, regenerate life and provide balance, peace and fertility. No other animal has so much attributed to it.” Thapar’s style in Land of the Tiger is engaging. Even while telling of the geologic history of the Himalayas, for example, he includes relevant Hindu lore as well as tales from his personal diary. These anecdotes convey the sense of awe and majesty that the land and its residents instill.

Thapar’s lifelong passion began in childhood. He recalls, “As a boy looking at pictures and hearing stories of tigers, I developed a great urge to see one in the forests of India. I still remember that early morning in Corbett National Park in 1961 when, at the age of nine, I got on top of an elephant in search of a tiger. The grasslands were enveloped in mist, and I remember my hands were numb with cold as three elephants swept through the high grasses searching for a tigress and her cubs. My heart raced in anticipation of seeing a tiger.” That day Thapar saw a stately tigress with her two cubs and thus began his lifelong commitment to the tiger and the multitude of creatures which share her land and waterways. After receiving a degree in anthropology from Delhi University in 1972, Thapar dedicated his life to work ceaselessly for the preservation of the tiger. He is the author of several other books on tigers, including With Tigers in the Wild (1983), Portrait of a Predator (1986), Tigers: A Secret Life (1989) and The Tiger’s Destiny (1992).

Conserve and protect: Ranthambhore National Park is the world’s most important tiger conservation reserve in India, and Thapar has been with it for a quarter century. He is the executive director of the Ranthambhore Foundation, established in 1987, which works to maintain the ecological balance necessary for man and nature to coexist. Thapar also coordinates Tiger Link, a network of organizations to save the tiger. He is on the steering committee of Project Tiger, the Indian Government’s initiative set up in 1973, and the Tiger Crisis Cell. He is Asia’s vice-chair of the Cat Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.), serves on the Indian Board for Wildlife and is a board member of the New York-based Tiger Action Fund for India.

Thapar’s latest effort sees him as host and narrator of India: Land of the Tiger, a Thirteen/WNET Nature series on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). This six-part mini-series premiered on US television in November, 1998. It is a companion to the book–revealing in breathtaking photography the riches of India’s abundant wildlife. The six segments explore the subcontinent’s varied terrain, the sacred rivers, the oceans, deserts, mountains and the monsoon forests. These are home to some of the richest populations of wildlife, and you will see things you’ve never seen before–fish that walk, elephants that swim and lizards that fly.

The subcontinent, which is just one-third the size of the US, is home to more than a billion people, and a constant tug-of-war between man and beast results. As humans clear land for agriculture, the tigers are pushed to ever-shrinking forests and lose the prey-species upon which they feed. Human greed takes its toll as these noble beasts fall to ruthless poachers, who slaughter them for bones, skin and body parts. To the poacher, a tiger is worth far more dead than alive. If no action is taken, it is estimated that only the 1,300 tigers in India’s 23 tiger reserves will survive by the year 2002.

Early in 1998, Thapar and K. Ullas Karanth, one of India’s leading scientists and a zoologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, spoke in New York at several gatherings organized by the Tiger Action Fund for India, including one at the American Museum of Natural History. Thapar emphasized that “only economic benefits can change living tigers from liabilities to assets, and change the people who must live with them from hunters to guardians.”

Yet, funds from tiger-based tourism rarely find their way to benefitting the tiger reserves, or even the human populations living on their fringes. Conservation faces other problems, too, such as lack of coordination between state and federal governments, and lethargy of politicians. There is a great need to raise public awareness. As Karanth points out, “We need sacred groves for the 21st century which can ecologically harbor tigers and rhinos and elephants. It’s not a big sacrifice to set aside one percent of our land for preservation, for the right to survival these creatures have. It’s also the right of future generations to have these creatures. We don’t have the right to finish them off in our generation.” According to Thapar, “Changing economic policies, the spread of television and a consequent demand for new-fangled products have had near-fatal impacts on our natural resources. People exploit, loot and pillage the wilderness under the guise of development and ‘livelihood rights,’–a systematic dismantling of nature which I, as an observer, regard as the most tragic experience of my life. The land of the tiger is being torn apart.”

Monkey see: Ironically, if there is one country which culturally and historically is most apt to be a wildlife haven, it is India. Religion is at the core of reverence for animals found on the subcontinent, and ancient animist beliefs permeate two of the great religions practiced in the region, Buddhism and Hinduism. Worshipers of the Hindu pantheon have the utmost respect for fellow creatures. Elephants, monkeys, cobras and many other birds and animals are the mounts of the Gods and Goddesses. The Warli tribes of India have staunch belief in the Tiger God, Vaghadeva, and worship him to this day.

If only more humans lived as the Bishnoi tribe do, wildlife would again flourish in India. The Bishnoi are a desert community which believes that all creatures have a right to life. Thapar tells us, “The women of the community have been known to breastfeed black buck fawns and save insect life, while many of the men have died in their efforts to counter armed poaching gangs.” In 1778, a mass slaughter left 294 men and 69 women dead. They sacrificed their lives to prevent officials from chopping down the khejri trees. According to Thapar, this debacle led to a royal order which prohibits the cutting of any tree in Bishnoi villages. Clearly, it is a culture like this which can avert the complete loss of the tiger.

Thapar aspires, “If people who care translate their will into tangible protection of nature, we have a ray of hope. A new ideology must be created–a way of life that is entwined with consideration for the wilderness and not with economic models of growth.” The tiger symbolizes the heritage not only of India, but of the whole planet. If she disappears into the mists of time, the world, and our offspring, will suffer the loss.