Valmik Thapar is in the thick of a battle. For the last month, the man who's known as India's Tiger Man has been tramping through wildlife reserves like Ranthambhore, Sariska and Panna, counting pugmarks and cross-questioning forest officers. Now, he's back in Delhi and trying to cut a path through the bureaucratic jungle. His goal: to save the Indian tiger from extinction, nothing less.
Sitting in his sprawling bungalow in Delhi's Chanakyapuri district, his mood is militant. Thapar always tends to talk in hyperbole and now he's convinced that the years of struggle to save the breed are being thrown away. 'It's the worst wildlife crisis that I have known in my life and the deepest faced by the country since its Independence,' he booms.
Thapar's shout-from-the-treetops campaign appears to be reaching the right ears. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ordered action and sent a strong note to Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia. She, in turn, has ordered the suspension of a clutch of forest guards.
But, in Thapar's eyes, that's only a holding action. He believes it's time to look at conservation and the entire tiger project afresh. 'Sariska is a national embarrassment,' says Thapar, who's a member of the Project Tiger steering committee, angrily.
The crusade led by Thapar and a handful of others has put him in direct conflict with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The ministry insists that the conservationists are exaggerating the position. Thapar, on the other hand, insists that the tigers of Sariska are extinct and the number of male tigers in Ranthambhore has dropped alarmingly. There have also been steep losses, he says, in Bandhavgarh National Park and Panna Tiger Reserve.
Certainly, Thapar speaks from a position of authority. He has been tracking tigers for nearly three decades, keeping a keen eye on the cats, spending hours shooting them with his camera as well as watching them hunt, sleep and play. He has campaigned for their protection and fought to preserve their habitats.
He insists that today the poachers have finally gained the upper hand and are mercilessly laying traps for the great cats. What's more, the forest protection machinery seems to have collapsed completely.
Thapar heard the warning bells in early March when a census conducted in Sariska by the Forest Department, which was supervised by the empowered committee set up by the Supreme Court revealed that the park had been wiped clean of its tiger population by poachers. The tiger count in June 2004 stood at 16, but, according to the survey, the tigers had vanished entirely by October.
One person who has responded swiftly to the conservationists is Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Soon after the Sariska report, he called a meeting of the National Board for Wildlife of which Thapar is a member and also agreed to create a National Wildlife Crime Prevention Bureau. The Central Empowered Committee constituted by the Supreme Court ' an administrative body which looks into environmental cases which come before the court ' also began an inquiry into the crisis. Thapar is also a member of the committee. Then, the CBI's recently formed wildlife squad instituted an inquiry and backed the finding that Sariska's tigers have vanished.
But Thapar is stricken by the events of the last few months. With some 13 books on the jungle's poster boy, the tiger, to his name (the last was The Ultimate Guide to the Tiger published in the US) and decades of labouring for the protection of this threatened species, he feels that his efforts have come to naught.
Thapar's calling came early in life: he saw his first tiger from atop an elephant at age nine, in 1961. 'I still remember that tiger and her cubs looking up at me,' he says. Fifteen years later (and with a degree in anthropology under his belt), he began shooting documentaries. One of them took him to Ranthambhore. The 20 days he spent there, he says, changed his life. He abandoned film-making, began writing books and presenting and narrating films for the BBC. 'My life from that moment got entangled with the life of the tiger,' he recalls.
In '94 Thapar presented BBC's The Tiger Crisis after the big poaching scandals that rocked India in the early part of that decade, especially in Ranthambhore. In '96 the BBC also asked him to present six one-hour episodes The Land of the Tiger which boosted his reputation and fame as a tiger conservationist.
Spending most of his time in Ranthambhore, he launched the Ranthambore Foundation some 15 years ago which continues to work for the park's protection by educating nearby communities about the value of its priceless wildlife.
But today the beast is under grave threat in reserves across the country. According to Thapar, the solutions lie in setting institutions right. At the meeting of the National Board for Wildlife, Thapar pushed for the splitting up of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. He's pushing for an environment ministry that deals only with issues like pollution, CNG and urban environmental problems. Then, he argues, there should be a separate forests and wildlife ministry.
He also has more radical suggestions like one to create a National Park Service that will take into its fold wildlife scientists, botanists and others who will work to keeping alive our national parks.
But what is the future of Sariska' The harshness goes from his tone and he says softly, 'Sariska can be developed into a leopard sanctuary.'
And you can expect him to continue his fight for the tiger. His fourteenth book may just be based on the current crisis while a film on the troubled tigers of 2005 may soon see the light of day. There might be more Sariskas, and Thapar is determined to save them. He promises: 'For the tigers that are now alive, I will fight with my last breath.'
Photograph by Rupinder Sharma