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Review: An Ode to the Spirit of a Tiger Scientist Who Fought the System

A review of 'The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers' by Dr Raghu Chundawat

The reigning monarch of wildlife conservation in India, Panthera tigris tigris has inspired movies, folk art, books and a loyal tribe of trigger-happy wildlife photographers. In spite of this obsession with our national animal, there are few long term ecological studies on India’s most dynamic big cat, there are even fewer attempts to take scientific findings outside the haloed world of journals to the average tiger aficionado. The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers by Dr Raghu Chundawat (Speaking Tiger, 2018) does this and much more. It compiles Chundawat’s decade long research in Panna National Park from 1996 to 2006 sharing the ups and downs of his conservation journey in intricate detail, the complexities involved from the right chemical to be given while darting a tiger to the role of communities in conservation. The book takes you on a journey inside the forest; it takes you up-close to the tiger, how it lives, its behavior, social and pair bonding, home range and other predators that co-habit its space. The first eight chapters of the book deal with the science and ecology of tiger conservation.

The Rise and Fall of the Emerald Tigers by Dr. Raghu Chundawat (Speaking Tiger, 2018)

But it is the final chapters of the book that take us to the central plot of the story and how the author who set out to practice his science unintentionally finds himself having to jolt the system to accept a tragedy that was unfolding before his own eyes. The tigers of Panna, like their counterparts in Sariska in Rajasthan, were one by one falling prey to rampant poaching.

Chundawat raises an alarm, he compiles a report titled “Missing tigers of Panna” that lists all the tigers that have died or gone missing. Chundawat is not your average scientist who has come to the forest to juggle a few statistics, publish a few scientific papers and leave. He is also someone who is not afraid to speak up. And Chundawat pays a heavy price for it – his research permits are cancelled and he is denied entry to the Park. Event by event, he lists out how the system turns against him. First he is accused of running a ‘hidden agenda’ by the head of Project Tiger, on another occasion in 2006, he finds he cannot even enter the national park as a tourist and finally, he is stopped by a police officer while driving back to Delhi. The scientist turned whistleblower finds he is now being probed about his possible role in the tiger poaching incidents in Panna. The intimidation and harassment are bone chilling and one government committee after another continues the cover up. It is only much later – in 2009 – that a Special Investigation Team set up by the National Tiger Conservation Authority confirms Chundawat’s worst fears: there are no tigers left in Panna. At its peak, the park had more than 40 tigers.

The sordid drama that plays out with Chundawat could make for a slick Netflix series, except what’s pathetic is its real life. A scientist who should have been awarded for daring to speak up for the tigers of Panna finds himself being systematically intimidated and harassed. Despite the opposition, Chundawat continued the fight to save Panna’s tigers, collecting data and petitioning the government to intervene.

Chundawat presents not just his research, but also an insider’s account of the politics and administrative apathy plaguing Indian wildlife conservation, more importantly he provides possible solutions. The final chapter provides his vision for the future and what needs to be done to change the system to achieve the goals of conservation.

The only small grudge I had with this book is it ends rather abruptly. One wants to know more about the author’s new life, why he decides to give up his career as a scientist to run a tourist lodge on the outskirts of Panna. Has the incident left him bitter? Would he still like to be practicing his craft as a scientist?

Raghu Chundawat tracking tigers in the reserve. Credit: Joanna Van Gruisen

Nonetheless, few scientists can communicate well. Chundawat is willing to challenge the status quo. He wants to move conservation beyond the rhetoric of protected areas, and he knows how to tell a story. Read this book to understand how politics impacts conservation policy more than science. Read it to know about the frustration of a scientist who had his back broken by the system, yet refused to be cowed down by it. This book is as an ode to the tiger, yes, but also to the spirit of a scientist who fought the system to protect the big cat.

Bahar Dutt is an award winning environment journalist who is currently working on her book Rewilding India with Oxford University Press.