Friday, August 5, 2011

Tigers In Red Weather - Ruth Padel

We waited a long time. At the biggest waterhole at BR Hills in Karnataka, India, we waited, crouched near some under growth for almost an hour because one of has had maybe seen a bit of an orange splotch in the middle distance. Could be a tigress with her cubs; this was her territory. We went back to the forest guest house at dusk; the orange splotch never did show itself again and all we got that day were false alarm calls, a LOT of spotted deer and one extremely obtuse gaur. I have been going to the forests since I was a kid and I have never seen a tiger till date. Not one. What pushes me to go back again and again is the possibility. So what if I have never spotted the biggest of the big four of the Indian jungles? It is enough that they are there, we should protect them irrespective of whether we trespass their territory. And that is exactly what Ruth Padel tells you in her book, Tigers In Red Weather.

From the back of the book: "Can wild tigers be saved, or is this their last moment before extinction? Ruth Padel embarks on an astonishing journey to find out, searching forests from Bangladesh to Bhutan, China to Russia, Nepal to Thailand for that most beautiful of all animals, once known as the soul of Asia."

Retelling her experiences of a journey spanning two years across Asia in a quest to really understand tigers and their conservation, Ruth Padel gives us what is probably the most comprehensive guide to all wildlife and especially tiger conservation that exists today. Out of a five year relationship and slightly at loose ends, it isn't very clear as to why she decided to make this journey. Maybe it was her way of getting on with her life and this is evident throughout the book where she laces bits and pieces of her life into chapters.

The book is split into several sections: The first one covers India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan; the second covers Russia, Korea and China; the third covers south-east Asia and the extinct tigers and for the final part she comes back to South India.

As she travels across the continent, she braves the wild, fights her fears over leeches, snakes, rocky terrains where a foot in the wrong place will send you plunging, in order to really understand the tiger, its habitat, its plight, its future, its metaphysical links with man. India, Nepal and Russia leave you slightly despairing yet hopeful; China quite simply drives you mad; The violence in areas like Laos, Nepal, areas of Russia and Indonesia is described vividly and the reader comes away with real empathy for the people of the Asian Forest. The relationship that the locals around a forest area share with their wildlife is a delicate and sometimes belligerent one. It isn't possible to save one without the other.

This isn't a breezy travel memoir of a woman going on holiday; to me it seemed rather like a personal crusade against destruction of the wild. This is an important book; important because it is honestly written and without any facelifts. Difficult as it may be to see our cursory attitude to nature through Ms. Padel's eyes, Tigers in Red Weather evokes genuine concern.

Some might argue that the pace lags a bit at places and that there is too much of detailing. Sure, it isn't all about breathtaking journeys into the jungles; a lot of the book focuses on local administrative problems, the menace of poaching and logging etc. But that's why I say that this is an important book: in her two years in Asia, Ruth Padel is able to sight tigers just twice or thrice but that doesn't stop her from venturing into the forests over and over again: the tigers are there and that's enough.

Ruth Padel is actually the great-great grand daughter of Charles Darwin! Fancy that :)