Tiger, tiger, burning bright

The documentary 'Tigerland' the fascinating lives of two passionate tiger conservationists, separated by half a century.

What happens when an Academy-Award winning filmmaker joins forces with an Oscar-winning producer to tell the story of the striped wild cat? You get an unusual documentary that explores the fascinating lives of two passionate tiger conservationists (one Indian, another Russian), separated by half a century. Tigerland premiered in India on Discovery Channel and Discovery World HD on International Tiger Day (July 29). And the timing couldn’t have been better, with the All India Tiger Estimation Report 2018 reporting a substantial increase in India’s tiger population — from 1,411 in 2006 to 2,967 in 2019.

Story of hope

When director Ross Kauffman was asked why he agreed to make the film, his answer was simple. “I wanted to make people fall in love with the tiger,” he said. Much like his acclaimed films on the brothels of Kolkata and the war in Syria and Libya, the ace director adopts a humane approach in his first wildlife documentary. Tigerland weaves together parallel narratives of two very different heroes, who dedicated their lives to save one of the world’s most endangered species.

Kailash Sankhala, Indian naturalist and conservationist — renowned as the Tiger Man of India — was not an easy man to work with. Through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, he toiled relentlessly to ban tiger hunting and encourage the development of national parks and reserves in India as safe havens for the fast-declining tigers. His unlikely partnership with the then prime minister Indira Gandhi ensured that Project Tiger was a success, laying a strong foundation for the preservation and protection of the iconic species.

Amit Sankhala
Amit Sankhala

“There was political will and many people joined the revolution to save the tigers. India has done an amazing job… Did you know that 95% of Africans haven’t seen a lion or been on a safari? In India, there’s still hope. We care for nature; we have a connection with wildlife. We just need to reignite that passion for the wild,” says Amit Sankhala, the grandson, who is taking forward his grandfather’s legacy through responsible tourism.

Over a skype call from Canada, Amit shares memories about his “rigid”, “arrogant”, “media-shy” grandfather, who introduced him to the magic of the jungle. “I was 12 when my grandfather died (in 1994). I remember spending summer holidays with him in the jungle. After he retired, he was much more joyful,” recalls the man, who is now a father to six-year-old Siyana, a budding wildlife enthusiast.

One of the biggest challenges for the Tigerland team was finding material on the Padma Shri awardee. Apart from photographs (mostly of tigers) and chapters from his unfinished memoir, there was very little that could be captured in a visual format.

Oscar-nominated animator Daniel Sousa does a splendid job of breathing life into memories — about rearing Jim, a young tiger cub; killing a tiger in his early days as a forest officer. “I watched the documentary for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival this year and was bowled over by the unique approach. With animation, they managed to recreate everything,” raves Amit, an ardent cat lover.

Arguably, the most awe-inspiring thing about Tigerland is the story of Pavel Fomenko, director of Rare Species Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund. It takes the audience on an edgy ride, up close and personal with the “beautiful killing machine.”

Amidst tranquiliser guns and terrifying growls of the Siberian tiger, Pavel conveys beauty and humour in endearing ways. Thrilling attempts to save a tigress and her cubs come at a huge personal cost, yet his love for the creatures of the wild never wavers. The fear, the trauma, the humanity of the story stay with you long after the end credits have rolled.

Saving the world

A century ago, the documentary notes, 100,000 tigers existed in the wild; now just about 4% remain. The issues of poaching and habitat loss due to destruction of the natural ecosystem not only account for the shrinking tiger population, but also for climate change, environmental degradation, and the downward spiral of modern life. Tigerland’s message is loud and clear: Save the tiger, save the world.

In the eloquent and erudite Jai Bhati, 14, Kailash Sankhala’s great-grandson, we see glimpses of a brighter and greener future. Where the call of the wild will not be muffled by the daze of development. Where local communities will be empowered to deal maturely with human-wildlife conflicts. Where the tiger will continue to burn bright.

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