Sunday, May 6, 2012

The tragedy of the Bengal tiger in India

A renowned TV cameraman came to the Brympton Literature Festival in Somerset recently to speak about the plight of tigers in India.
Michael Richards is the cameraman behind "Tiger: Spy in The Jungle" ( a BBC TV documentary narrated by David Attenborough) as well as the book "Tigers", which he wrote with Hashim Taybji.
The festival, the first ever to be held, took place inside the majestic and quirky Brympton House, a privately-owned 13th Century grade I-listed manor house in Somerset. It is occasionally hired out for weddings or films but otherwise remains a private residence.  It originally belonged to various aristocratic families but it was sold in 1992 to the present owner, who is a judge and his wife. 
Richards, one of the speakers at the literary event, is one of the world's leading experts on wildlife who works for an independent production house in Bristol which makes programmes for, among others, the BBC.
He spent three years inside Pench National Park in India filming the tigers and his talk was about how he made the famous documentary film, "Spy in the Jungle."

The three series of the film were first broadcast on the BBC in 2008. They  followed the lives of four baby cubs, two male and two female, growing up to be adults in the Park.

The production team used motion sensitive cameras, hidden in logs and rocks, triggered by moving wildlife as well as remotely-controlled cameras carried by elephants on their trunks and tusks, known as trunk-cams and tusk-cams, so they could catch the lives of tigers, not usually caught on film. The tigers were oblivious to the elephant as they do not perceive them as a threat so they went about their daily business as usual, so it all got caught on film - something that would never had happened had humans done the filming. The human crew instead watched the images and controlled the cameras from the tops of other elephants nearby.

The spy cameras happened to catch four 10-day-old baby cubs playing with their mother and the crew decided to follow them as the core thread of the documentary.  It showed them suckling their mother, playing together, relaxing in water, learning to hunt and having to face the dangers of the jungle. One of the elephants they used to film the tigers with also gave birth in the middle of the film!

Apart from capturing on film a range of other extraordinary wildlife such as sloth bears and langur monkeys, the cameras also happened to capture illegal activities such as rural people and cattle illegally bathing in waters in the national park, Richards said.  Did the Park staff turn a blind eye? It is very concerning.
The truth is that humans and tigers cannot coexist as the unsustainable habits of of humans further degrades the tiger habitats.

Richards also spoke about how hotels were being constructed just outside the Park too, which were also destroying the tiger corridors. Fences were being put up around areas that tigers had previously used to migrate through. Tigers need corridors to move freely between different tiger habitats in search of mates to spread their genes. These corridors are especially crucial for male tigers who need to establish their own territory to avoid being killed by another male. These corridors can play a crucial part in preventing tigers from going extinct, which could easily happen if more is not done to protect the tiger in India. Why is planning permission being given?

Poaching is another massive problem that tigers in India face as their body parts are used in traditional Chinese medicine, even though doing so is illegal and there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that tiger skin and bones can cure anything. Ninety-five tigers are said to have been killed across India in 1994, 89 tigers were killed in 1997, 36 tigers were killed in 1998, 72 tigers were killed in 2001 and 35 tigers were killed in 2003. Are Park staff turning a blind eye?
The number of tigers in India has halved in the past 10 years. 

But Richards explains that the brutal slaughter of tigers began not with the Indians, but with the British - during the British Raj - something for the Brits to be ashamed of. 

Apparently there were more than 100,000 Bengal tigers in India during the British Raj but hunting them became a prized sport of off-duty British Army Generals, who would go hunting with the Maharjahs. Jim Corbett, a British Indian army colonel, is one of the most famous tiger hunters, who killed the Champawat Tigress which had killed nearly 500 humans. 
Between 1997 and 2006, Bengal tigers in India are thought to have lost more than 50 per cent of their habitat. Now there are believed to be less than 1,800 tigers in India and less than 3,500 in the world. This is a far cry from 100,000 a century ago. Indeed mining, dams and road building are seriously interfering with their natural habitat as trees get felled and the dense forest they require to live in shrinks.

Richards also  spoke about the challenge of getting the millions of Indians who scrape a meagre living at the bottom of the social ladder the slightest bit bothered about saving the tiger, when they have so much to worry about in their own lives. 

When I was in Mumbai recently, I visited the apartment block I had stayed at in Bandra. There was not a cat in sight. That was mainly because I had brought my two domestic short-haired Indian cats back to England. The other Indian strays, who I had tried to look after, who lived outside, had disappeared. The building, by the way, was suddenly eerie and soulless.

One wonders what an India without its national symbol of the tiger would be like? The word soulless comes to mind. Will India allow this to happen?  It would be ironic if India, one of the world's fastest-growing economies, manages to destroy the tiger, its unique national symbol, through a rapid and  programme of deforestation and industrialisation, in a ruthless attempt to be come a global economic power.

Wildlife expert George Schaller once wrote: "India has to decide whether it wants to keep the tiger or not. It has to decide if it is worthwhile to keep its National Symbol, its icon, representing wildlife. It has to decide if it wants to keep its natural heritage for future generations, a heritage more important than the cultural one, whether we speak of its temples, the Taj Mahal, or others, because once destroyed it cannot be replaced."


CurryBadger said...

It's too bad people exist that like to kill cats.

jessica frei said...

Hey Naomi,

The article is great, but my issue is that you have included my image on your blog which is also pointing to my site.

I have been punished by Google, So I want to remove that, If you want to include the image that is not a big deal, you can use it but you need to delete the link pointing to my site.

My sites link is and the image link is

Naomi Canton said...

Hey Jessica I have just emailed you and hope to get this resolved asap. Do check my email. Sorry about this. Thanks...