The Tigers of India, and the Man who's Filmed Them
Air Date: Week of November 6, 1998
A new six-part documentary series on the tigers of India will soon be broadcasting on PBS' program, 'Nature.' Laura Knoy spoke with filmmaker Valmick Thapar who is one of the world's leading authorities on tigers. He gained most of his knowledge first-hand, spending twenty years among these increasingly endangered striped felines.
THAPAR, narrating to music: These are the moments I live for, when time stands still. For over 20 years, the sheer beauty and power of this magnificent creature has completely mesmerized me.
KNOY: Valmick Thapar loves tigers. And by the time his series India: Land of the Tiger has its run on public television, he hopes you'll love this majestic beast as well.
THAPAR: Our great journey is about to begin.
KNOY: In a 6-part documentary that kicks off this month, Thapar takes us to India, home to nearly a billion people and half the world's tigers. The elegant cats live among some of the richest wildlife on Earth, but loss of forest habitat threatens the animal along with poaching and poisoning. Valmick Thapar is one of the world's leading authorities on tigers, and he gained most of his knowledge firsthand.
THAPAR: I think one of my rarest moments with tigers was actually one morning sitting in a little forest rest house in the middle of a forest, and having scrambled eggs for breakfast, believe it or not. And a big, huge noise, which is a big bellow of a sambir deer. You know, every deer has an alarm call, and the sambur have a very deep alarm call. The spotted deer shriek. And so, these alarm calls started and I dropped everything, picked up the nearest camera, rushed into a little jeep, and dashed off into the forest. And I discovered a tigress leading her 3 small cubs at 11 in the morning in the middle of the day to a day shelter, a thick, cool bush to shelter in. And I said wow, wonderful site. And I was turning around to come back when suddenly, from the green bush that she was going into, a huge sambir deer raced out. And something you never see with tigers is what I saw. I saw the tigress chase the sambir deer for 100 feet. I ended up 10 feet away from them. She had locked her teeth around his shoulders, but not in a killing grip. So the sambir was standing eye to eye with the tigress with a distance of 6 inches between their eyes, and I was around 10 feet, and they stood for 5 minutes paralyzed like this, and she tried to do everything to bring down this deer because her cubs were desperate to eat. But it survived, and it ran away, and it taught me a huge amount about tiger predation, how difficult it is, how complicated it is for a mother to hunt, how difficult it must be for a cub to learn the art of hunting to survive.
KNOY: How hard is it for a tiger watcher like yourself to track a tiger down?
THAPAR: It depends where you are. If it's Ranthambore where, which is like home to me, and I know pretty much every track and every nuance of the language, it's about how you interpret the language of a forest. And Ranthambore has been phenomenal in that way. I could find tigers in 24 hours to see them. And this you do by interpreting the sounds of animals, like the spotted deer will go boo! in terms of an alarm call. Monkeys make a kind of bark which is [barks], and you interpret all these sounds and bring them together and understand the language. Once you do that, if a tiger's moving, whether it's an animal or a bird, they're all giving their alarm calls and pinpointing the direction of movement.
KNOY: Can you do some tiger sounds for us?
THAPAR: Well, I'll do a sound which is something very few people have heard with wild tigers, and it's like the conversation that takes place between a tigress and her cubs, the communication that takes place. And it's like a bird sound, so that she uses this so it doesn't disturb all the animals. They don't think there's a tiger around. And it's like "ow...ow...ow" These are the cubs and she may go [lower] "ow..." rather than "Aum," which is the much deeper rolling sound that tigers make. And it's these sounds which are very rare to hear. But I think the most unbelievable sound which I could not mimic was 4 14-month-old cubs purring after seeing their mother after a gap of 10 hours. I've never seen such purring, it's like a domestic cat intensified 200 times, and it was like an orchestra of purring. And it will always remain in my mind as being surrounded by 5 tigers who were all purring around me. And I didn't have either a sound recorder or anything to really mimic that. But that's another memorable experience which you've reminded me of.
KNOY: Tell us more about the filming process. What do you do while you're near the wildlife, filming them? Do the animals walk away? Do they get angry or scared?
THAPAR: I think it's a really tough one. I think the camera man and the unit that is in a forest, first of all, treads very slowly and very softly. It respects everything around them. And then gradually you adjust. I know that there was an American camera man called Kenneth Housman, a rather remarkable character, who spent 2 years in one of our finest tiger areas, and he's got some unique footage, like, you know, in the first film that you've seen there's a sequence of a tiger racing after a monkey and killing it. Now this has never been recorded by any natural history film ever, to see tigers killing is the rarest thing.
KNOY: You must have to be awfully patient to get a shot like that of the tiger killing the monkey. You must have to wait sometimes for days to see something like that.
THAPAR: I think he had to wait nearly for a year. It's not really days. I don't think, you know, there are lots of people who go to Indian forests to look at tigers and you're lucky if you get a glimpse of the face of a tiger. But to actually see the tiger in action at that kind of speed that is shown in the film was luck, persistence, patience, and following one tigress for many months, and then she just exploded into action, and the camera man could record this action. So in each film there is something absolutely unique which the world has not seen.
KNOY: Mr. Thapar, is there an environmental political movement in India, such as we have in the United States?
THAPAR: I think over the last 10 years I've had occasion to work very closely with my government, and I dealt with one of the places where I grew up and learned everything about tigers. This is Ranthambore National Park. And in 1992 I realized that things had taken a turn for the worst when suddenly I found tigers missing. And late that year I realized that half the tigers I'd worked with had been slaughtered by a bunch of poachers for their skin, for their bone, for the cash that they provide. And it's been an unbelievably enormous battle to try and preserve and protect.
KNOY: What do you hope your film will accomplish, both here in the US and in India?
THAPAR: You know, when this film was starting, I was very reluctant to be the presenter. I thought to myself that I couldn't deal with a film of such extraordinary beauty when there were so many problems facing the natural world, when tigers were dying at the rate of 1 a day. But somewhere along the line the producer-director of the film, Michael Burkett, pushed and persuaded me to present the series. I'm not a presenter. I write books on tigers, I follow tigers, I deal with government committees, I deal with the bureaucracies of the world that talk more and do very little. But I decided to take on this challenge, and I spent a year and a half, two years of my life with it. If I look at it today, I can't believe the response. I can't believe that some way it struck a pulse. That people reacted to it. They couldn't believe that the Indian subcontinent had such treasures. They couldn't believe, somewhere along the line, that this is what exists and it exists all across our planet. So I hope that the film is a meeting point for different people. That it provides a path to conservation. That it makes certain that some of the treasures we see survive into another century.
KNOY: India: Land of the Tiger airs next week on PBS's Nature. Mr. Thapar is Executive Director of the Ranthambore Foundation and the author of several books on the tiger. Mr. Thapar, thanks a lot for joining us.
THAPAR: You're very welcome.
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