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The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers: Raghu Chundawat's book raises valid concerns, but disappoints

The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers: Ten Years of Research in Panna National Park by Raghu Chundawat is the story of a passionate wildlife scientist and one of the better-known tiger reserves in the country. It depicts both – the scientist’s research and monitoring work during his association with the tiger reserve and the troubles he faced after he let the cat out of the bag by pointing out to major mismanagement in the tiger reserve.

To begin with, the author has the guts to call a spade a spade. He is a rare species in the wildlife conservation world where keeping shut is the norm. The sector is infamous for not speaking up – be it to protect permits, or maintain liaisons, or ensure funding or else.

 The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers: Raghu Chundawats book raises valid concerns, but disappoints

The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers, by Raghu Chundawat

Neither does he shy away from taking names, nor is he scared of the authorities. These include the holy cows of wildlife conservation in India — Wildlife Institute of India and National Tiger Conservation Authority. He describes how the authorities used to conduct tiger census and ‘tiger shows’. The forest department, he adds, used to spend almost 70 percent of its funds on civil construction and purchases and continued to use outdated practices. The latter included working around ‘beats’; ‘beats were delineated decades ago with commercial forestry in mind’. He also talks of how the forest department went after him once he made public the tiger conservation scenario at Panna. He succinctly points out that while the forests warrant them to be ‘proactive and adaptive’, the forest department ends up undertaking little more than ‘fire-fighting’. His narratives about the forest department reminded me of the friend who used to often say – our forests are what they are despite the forest department and not because of them.

The author is in his element when he treads the natural history path like when he shares his observation on the congregations of the four-horned antelope near mahua trees during the flowering season. He also does not shy away from stating observations which are ‘contrary to belief’. These portions bring out the intensity of his efforts and make one jealous of the time he has invested in the wilderness at Panna. He neither hesitates to put forth some of the dilemmas and questions he came across in course of these efforts nor does he shy away from describing the adaptations in processes the team had to undertake to generate optimal information.

The book helps raise broader questions which the author appears to have skirted around.

On the one hand, we have an inordinate focus on tigers in our country — to the extent that we neglect other species. As a friend had remarked — tigers are to Indian wildlife what cricket is to Indian sports. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to come across the line — we know so little about tigers and their prey. A mismatch if there was one!
With the focus on numbers in the tiger conservation ‘game’ have the numbers become an end in themselves? A proverbial missing of the woods for the trees! And has the number race led us on a path which is sub-optimal for tiger conservation in the long run?

The forest department has been petty, to put mildly, in reacting to the author’s stand on tiger scenario in Panna. No two thoughts on this. But this surely is neither the first nor the last case of authorities bestowing all support and encouragement when a person is perceived to help and augment their position and turning tables in no time if they envisage threat of any nature. Are there lessons to be learnt on this front? Lessons on managing and negotiating relationships with stakeholders, to enable conservation, in a world where each of us is in the proverbial grey.

The book does have its fair share of shortcomings. It misses an editor and acutely at that. Lack of uniformity is apparent from the initial pages and only gets jarring as the book moves ahead. The repetitions also are just too many to state. They include lines that talk about ‘hard and pioneering work’ done by the author and how ‘robust science is crucial’ for tiger conservation. These repetitions could get many a reader to skip pages or even move on to another book. The book could be shorter by 50-75 pages.

Sweeping statements could have surely been avoided. These include — ‘I do not think there was any wildlife research project in India that did not benefit from his support’ and ‘But in India, the Forest Department owns and manages all the wildlife habitats, so technically it should be a much easier task’. They carry what such statements usually do – no weight.

The author is out of his element when he talks of people. “Tribal form the largest community in these villages...’ For someone based at a single landscape for few years not even naming the tribe, leave aside stating their practices and culture, is striking. The tone too does not help; he ‘takes time off from monitoring’ to converse with a local! People for the author appear to be more of a hindrance to conserving tigers rather than crucial stakeholders. For conservation in a country like ours importance of taking people along together cannot be overemphasised.

The data-tables appear to be in over-supply while a map giving a clear understanding of the Panna landscape is absent.

The author discusses protected areas during the later part of the book where he states that ‘it is risky to entirely depend entirely on the protected area network for conservation’. Here one agrees with him but in a few pages he moves on to say ‘at present, all our conservation eggs are in one, old, basket; protected area network’. For a culture with conservation ethos (albeit with conservation values disappearing fast like he has pointed out) protected areas are fairly recent and surely not the only practice – we have a long-standing culture of community conservation areas, for example.

It is not easy to understand how a research project can claim credit for the success of a tiger reserve. Assessment of tigers, their numbers, and saving them are two separate aspects. To draw the author’s analogy – just as ‘we tend to confuse science with the use of technology (camera traps and drones)’ we tend to confuse science with conservation. Science – good or otherwise — may or may not lead to conservation.

In the end, the book is a disappointment given the story Chundawat had on the one hand and his knowledge of the species on the other.

Raghu Chundawat's The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers: Ten Years of Research in Panna National Park is published in India by Speaking Tiger.

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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2018 14:23:33 IST