Cats in crisis

An intimate portrait of the world’s largest feline and conservationists’ desperate attempts to save it

Even for the most eco-conscious among us, it is surprisingly easy to become immune to pleas for assistance with conservation causes. We see so many, for species of all shapes and sizes, that the messages begin to lose their power. Particularly susceptible to this ‘dilution effect’ are charismatic megafauna, whose images have long been used not just for species-specific campaigns, but also those targeting whole ecosystems.

A prime example is the tiger (Panthera tigris), the subject of a new book called Tigers Forever. Authored by Steve Winter and Sharon Guynup, and published jointly by National Geographic and Panthera, the volume seems, at first glance, to be yet another ‘coffee table’ book that will offer lovely images but not much else. However, this misconception is quickly dispelled.

In their forewords, conservationists J Michal Cline and Alan Rabinowitz admit that tiger conservation has been “a spectacular failure”, and that “the tiger is in desperate straits.” These ideas are further explored in the introduction, where George Schaller provides some of the depressing statistics associated with the ongoing decline of Panthera tigris throughout its range.

However, the authors of Tigers Forever clearly do not feel that the tiger’s permanent disappearance is inevitable. The overwhelming message of the book is that conditions are dire, but can be improved—though this needs to happen soon or the cause will be lost. There is, therefore, an urgency to the tone of the book, which makes it all the more compelling. Each chapter looks at a different tiger habitat—Myanmar, India, Sumatra, Thailand—and investigates both the threats that resident tigers face, and the efforts being made to protect the animals.

One strength of the book is its unflinchingly accurate descriptions of unsavory things such as widespread habitat destruction and brutal poaching events. Another is its focus not just on tigers, but also the human element. Each chapter contains at least two sidebars featuring short biographies of the biologists, veterinarians, and environmentalists who have devoted their lives to ensuring the longevity of the tiger. Particularly striking are the portraits of the guards who literally risk life and limb to preserve these endangered cats. Many are away from their families for months at a time, living in remote areas with few amenities—all to protect an animal that may injure or kill them at any time.

Probably the greatest strength of the book, though, is its photographs; after all, the author’s day job is photographing wildlife for National Geographic. His photos have been painstakingly collected over the course of several years, and offer views of tigers that readers may not have previously seen. This was partly made possible by Winter’s use of camera traps as well as handheld cameras; the resulting images provide an up-close-and-personal introduction to the life of a tiger. In addition to the obligate images of cute cubs, there are also photographs of tigers engaged in everyday activities such as hunting, stretching, fighting, bathing, frolicking with littermates, and interacting with humans (for better or worse). There are even images that show no tigers at all, but instead capture the habitat in which these animals live, and the threats they face there. The only drawback to the quality of the photos is that it is not always matched by the quality of the text. Most of the time, however, the reader is too immersed in the world of the tiger to even notice this disparity.

“Tigers forever” is not just the title of the book, but also the name of a conservation initiative—and, of course, an expression of hope. It is an appropriate appellation for a book that manages to show new sides to such a well-known species, and to renew the reader’s interest in this endangered cat. As Alan Rabinowitz says in the epilogue, “the core model and talent are in place” to save the tiger. Sales of Tigers Forever will help raise some of the financial capital needed “to rapidly and extensively scale up” conservation initiatives. For that reason alone, the book is well worth purchasing.

This article is from issue


2013 Sep