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Tiger, tiger, burning dim

At the rate we are going, I can imagine the horrible feeling of having to either travel to a zoo to see a tiger or, worse still, to Siberia, south China or Sumatra, writes Abhishek Singhvi.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2007 00:06 IST
Candid corner | Abhishek Singhvi
Candid corner | Abhishek Singhvi

Long weekends are precious rarities, especially when spent in the solitude of forests. Ranthambore is one of the finest examples of that solitude and the placid lake at Jogi Mahal truly tells you the meaning of the phrase ‘pin-drop silence’. Unlike several other wildlife parks, Ranthambore is flatter and a large part of it (the core area is 300 km and the total park area is 1,334 km) is motorable. It also has rich diversity, from lush vegetation, dense forest, lakes, swamp, hilly landscape, undulating topography, arid desert undergrowth and (unlike many other wildlife parks) interesting historical monuments.

Having visited the park several times earlier, I decided to check out some facts and figures. What distressed me most was that even optimistic estimates put the entire tiger population of the park at 36. My interaction with locals suggests 25-27 is closer to the truth. In fact, knowledgeable sources indicate that the 1984-85 figure of 41 had come down to about 26 in 2004-05. Happily, these sources put the figure in 2006-07 at 36 (which I have put at 25-27), but no formal census exists.

It is tragic that after decades of hullabaloo about conservation, environmental sustainability, Project Tiger, the apex court’s innumerable orders about forest cover in Godavarman, incessant seminars and colloquia and endless intellectual debates about protecting India’s precious heritage, we are down to a mean figure of 30 at one of our premier national parks. Is my depression misplaced when I am reminded that in the not-too-distant past (i.e. before our maharajahs acquired gunpower and before the British started colonising), the worldwide tiger population was over 100,000! That figure is now estimated to be about 6,000. Of this, the current Indian population is estimated to be approximately 2,000-3,000. Given the imprecisions inherent in any census, given the fact that we still do not tag our tigers with any identification and given the much larger real reach of poaching than imagined, I would not put the figure higher than 2,000 and probably lower.

Since tigers are mainly found at Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Corbett, Manas in the North-east, West Bengal and a few other parts of India and since most, if not all, of these locations can barely boast of double digit tiger population figures, I do not understand how this estimate of 2,000 is derived.

At the rate we are going, I can imagine the horrible feeling of having to either travel to a zoo to see a tiger or, worse still, to Siberia, south China or Sumatra. Since the Chinese are the biggest culprits in the trading of tiger body parts and skins and since the Indonesians have already made the Javan and Balinese tiger species extinct, I suppose we have only the Russians to rely upon. Exactly, how tragic my doomsday scenario is can only be understood by those who have experienced the magic of seeing a tiger in the wild or, if singularly fortunate as I have been in Kanha, seeing one chasing a leopard and fighting over a kill.

Apart from unparalleled beauty, inordinate luxury, gourmet food and access to the wildlife park, the remarkable Oberoi property, Vanvilas, at Ranthambore also has a well stocked library (at least on Shakespeare). Considering just a few — Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet and Merchant of Venice — one is astonished at the depth of human emotion, sheer psychoanalysis, the amazing power of story-telling and attention to detail, apart from the sheer poetry, prose and literature that one man can create.

While browsing through these four works, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s obsession with ghosts — from Hamlet’s father’s ghost guiding the young Hamlet through the tale to Macbeth’s sleepless nights with apparitions or, indeed, the vital role played by witches. Undoubtedly, no one else has given ghosts such dignity and centrality.

Second, his view of women was nasty and brutish. Hamlet’s mother typified fiendish infidelity, to the extent of marrying her former husband’s murderer with near certain knowledge of that murder. Macbeth’s wife was scheming, over-ambitious and the cause of his ruin. The women in Othello were of both kinds — innocent and charming, but also vicious and scheming.

Third, Shakespeare’s deep understanding of law — its sterile word on the one hand and its living spirit on the other, its potential use as an instrument of oppression as opposed to its efficacious deployment as a tool for justice — is brilliantly brought out in Merchant of Venice. None of Shakespeare’s characters are pure villain or complete heroes. Even Shylock has a strong case, despised as he is only for being successful in his vocation. When he asks Antonio for the pound of flesh on the strength of an unconscionable but legal contract, Shakespeare is illustrating a real-life legal problem. Equally, when the climax shows Shylock being allowed to take his pound of flesh but directed to do so without shedding blood, Shakespeare reached the peak of his brilliance in demanding adherence to the strict letter of the law so as to prevent injustice. It also illustrates how that same technicality may be used to practise injustice in another case.

Abhishek Singhvi is MP, Congress National Spokesperson and Senior Advocate

First Published: Jan 31, 2007 00:06 IST