Katy Yocom vividly remembers her first sighting of Machhli, Ranthambore’s once-reigning tigress, even though it was in 2006, more than a decade ago. “The first time I ever saw her, she was lying down at the edge of Rajbag lake. It was late afternoon and the sunlight was bouncing off her golden coat and her reflection shimmered in the water. She just looked so regal. She was a charismatic tigress,” recalls Yocom during a Skype conversation from her home in Louisville, Kentucky.
Machhli, a female tigress, once the main draw of Ranthambore and a subject of numerous safaris, documentaries, short films and books, prowled the Aravalli forests for close to two decades before passing away in 2016 with the distinction of being the oldest surviving tigress in the wild. Machhli is also a crucial character in Yocom’s debut book Three Ways to Disappear, set to release worldwide in mid-July.
Even as Machhli has had a comfortable life amid cult-like status that spurred her immense popularity inside the Ranthambore National Park and across the world, Yocom uses her persona as a tool to conflate numerous issues facing tiger conservation efforts in India. While at its heart Three Ways to Disappear is a book about family tragedies, lost connections and a seemingly failing marriage, endangered tiger conservation in the Aravalli forests forms the epicenter of the novel’s plot, where most of the action takes place.
In the book, Sarah DeVaugh, an erstwhile journalist, travels to India after being hired by an organisation that works on tiger conservation in and around Ranthambore. As the forests dwindle and the tiger population gradually increases, human-tiger conflicts have increased. The book, through DeVaugh’s character, sheds light on the inner workings of tiger conservation and the dilemma faced by an organisation which must deal with the hostility of villagers to their effort, in the face of tigers encroaching human settlements and vice versa.
The book makes the reader contemplate on larger questions: At what cost is tiger conservation worthwhile? Can the persistent human development around forests be stopped to avoid conflict situations? Is the goal of tiger conservation without expansion of tiger territory really sustainable?
While Yocom didn’t set out to write a book on tiger conservation initially, she nevertheless remembers being fascinated by tigers in her local zoo that perhaps dropped a seed in the soil of her imagination. “Everything started when a tigress in the Louisville zoo had a litter. I became obsessed with them. At first, I didn’t know this event would intersect in my life as a writer,” she says. This was back when Life of Pi was out, so Yocom didn’t think another book on tigers would be a saleable idea.
Even as she continued to research on the idea, Ranthambore did not appear until later. “The tigers in the zoo were Sumatran tigers. At first I thought the book should be set in Sumatra, but when I started researching, it became clear to me India is the only place the story should be set in,” she says.
Multiple factors played into Yocom’s decision to set the book in Ranthambore. “It was unbelievably beautiful,” she says, lighting up in the memory of her research trips to the national park. “The landscape, the ancient ruins, the ability to see tigers in such a dramatic setting. Ranthambore spoke to me.”
Yocom relied little on her imagination to recreate tiger sightings occurring in the book. “Lots of scenes with tigers in the book are actual experiences I had seeing her,” she recalls. This creates a sense of exacting realism in the book, making the subject matter at hand all the more enchanting. “After seeing her (Machhli) so many times with her cubs, she just instantly became a real character,” she adds.
Her research took her to a few villages in the Savai Madhopur district around Ranthambore and in the Sundarbans. Yocom says going to these villages helped her put a face to the ecological destruction of the parks committed by people living around them. “It brought me face to face with the fact that they really have no choice. Given the current situation, there is a lack of education and economic opportunities. They need water and food for their livestock, firewood for their cooking and it’s incredibly destructive [for the forests] but they have to eat,” she says.
Since her time in India in 2006, Yocom says she has seen the man-tiger conflict grow multifold. She wonders if it’s partly because of the Tx2 initiative that’s trying to double the global population by 2022. “That’s a really admirable goal, but if the goal is limited to growing the tiger population without increasing the territory, the result will be increase in incidents of human-tiger conflict,” she adds.
As forest territory continues to shrink, Yocom believes the conservation efforts are at odds with their goal of increasing tiger population. “These are species that need to disperse. If they’re in these isolated islands of wilderness, they can’t do that. The human population continues to grow. The amount of land available to the tigers continues to shrink and be invaded by infrastructure development projects, like roads and power lines, creating impossible situations for the tigers.”
Yocom, who addresses most of these issues in her book, believes environmental fiction has a crucial role in making the overwhelming global situation personal and bringing it to the human level, to the reader. “I think when we experience something at a human level, it changes us. The reason that is so important is that at the human level, it is possible to find hope, may be not so much when you’re looking at it at the global level. Besides, hope is unequivocally tied to action.”
Yocom’s manuscript won the Siskiyou Prize for new environmental literature in 2016 and was subsequently picked up by Ashland Creek Press. While Yocom – who recently read Delia Owens’s sleeper environmental fiction hit Where the Crawdads Sing and JoeAnn Hart’s satirical fiction on plastic pollution, Float – counts Amitav Ghosh and Barbara Kinslover as her inspirations, she says it’s hard to overlook Salman Rushdie’s hard-hitting prose when he writes about war and destruction.
According to Yocom, though the urgent concerns of survival in an increasingly difficult world are shared by both wild animals and humans alike, there is still reason to be hopeful. Referring to a quote pinned to her desk from writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book Crow Planet that often proffers her succour, she recites: “The honesty of our despair may preclude blind hope, but it need not preclude joy or action based in love.”
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