Book Review: Tiger Tiger Burning Bright: 50 Years Of Project Tiger

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 44 No. 2, February 2024

With improved technology and a much greater appetite among the young for books to remind them of the wonderful biosphere in which they live, it is heartening to see how many new, high-quality publications are emerging from within India. Here are books that Sanctuary believes should be in every public library and in the homes of all those whose hearts beat to nature’s drum.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright: 50 Years of Project Tiger
By Yashpal Rathore and Vijay Mohan Raj
Large format, Hard cover,
257 pages

Inspired by the legendary wildlife photographer, M.Y. Ghorpade, author of Sunlight & Shadows, an Indian Wildlife Photographers Diary, both authors have come up with a remarkable large format book that is a visual delight. Every page encourages you to pause, absorb and reflect.

Appropriately “Dedicated to all the people who strive to make space for the tiger in India”, the book is one of the most impressive publications of its kind on the tiger I have seen in recent years.

Revealing glimpses of the past, the book covers the story of the tiger before and after India’s Independence, making respectful mention of the men and women who spent their lives to save Panthera tigris and its forested home.

The images in this large format book were contributed by a virtual who’s who of Indian conservation photography. Not surprisingly therefore, despite spending half my life evaluating nature images, I found myself flipping back and forth to marvel at  the sheer impact of visuals that encompassed large landscapes, incredible behaviour sequences, and the depiction of cultures, including the awe-inspiring Huli Vesha dancers, whose artistry with body painting and powerful, wild grace somehow encompass the magnetic impact of tigers in the wild.

What pleased me most about this publication was the fact that its backbone was hardcore conservation, though its surface exuded beauty and aesthetics. People like R. Sreenivas Murthy, a tough Forest Officer who resurrected Madhya Pradesh’s Panna Tiger Reserve’s tigers, post local-extinction, have been given pride of place between the covers of the book. With grit, determination and an undisguised strategy based on Jan Samarthan se Bagh Samrakshan (people’s support for tiger conservation), Murthy redefined conservation to incorporate the support of communities living next to the tigers’ home.

From Jim Corbett to ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh, who have left us, to Valmik Thapar and Belinda Wright, who continue to battle on to save the tiger, the book covers remarkable territory, yet escapes the trap of verbosity. What is more, in an age when writers and publishers are doubly careful about what they say or write, this book tells it as it is. On page 217, for instance, I was gratified to read bland truths being told, without being struck off by an editor’s ruthless blue pencil:

As India surges ahead with newfound prosperity, a booming economy and a young demographic, forests and natural resources find themselves under threat… The term development is used as a cover to decimate nature and natural ecosystems. Thankfully with a proactive judiciary the rate of habitat loss has slowed down. What is now worrying is the changing preferences of landowners who manage cultivated lands in a way that does not favour biodiversity… Forests and areas known for their pleasant weather have now been usurped for vacation homes. The work-from-home paradigm is putting pressure on these resources with many young urbanites setting up pleasure homes deep in the woods.”

Not afraid to take on the flawed arguments of powerful, biased decision makers either, the authors quite correctly support sensible, well-designed tourism, stating that ecotourism has been acknowledged as a powerful tool to turn citizens into crusaders for conservation; however, it is also a soft target for critics…  carefully managed ecotourism and appropriate behaviour by the ecotourist can have very long-term benefits for all involved.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Dr. Anish Andheria speaks about new age tigers, using hard science and long-term research to underscore the reality that “forest loss and forest degradation play a bigger role in higher human-tiger interactions than tiger density”.

Tiger Tiger Burning Bright fittingly concludes by stating a reality that anybody even half-involved with tiger conservation has known for over half a century: “Tigers are the keepers of the ecosystem and therein our existence.”

As the editor of Sanctuary Asia and one who has seen the positive impact of still pictures and moving words on young and old, I would unhesitatingly recommend that libraries across India and the world acquire this book, as should those with pockets deep enough to afford what I believe is likely to be its high (but not mentioned) price.

By Bittu Sahgal


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