Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt
The tiger finally reached the open spot and stopped directly under my tree. Just a dozen feet up the tree, I was becoming a nervous wreck. My heart pounded faster and I felt the sudden rush of adrenaline flow through my body. Palms sweating, I leaned hard against the tree trunk. I zeroed the dart gun toward my target, took a deep breath, and slowly squeezed the trigger.
-- from Bones of the Tiger
The challenges of studying dangerous and endangered tigers in the jungle lowlands of Nepal, sometimes darting them with sedatives, are at the heart of this exciting book by Nepalese wildlife conservation expert Hemanta Mishra. This is the second of Mishra's memoirs. His first, The Soul of the Rhino (Lyons Press), was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 2008. Bones of the Tiger is bound to win equally high praise.
Full of romping good tales about tracking man-eaters, those rare killer tigers that create so much fear among villagers and occasional fuss in the press, Bones of the Tiger is also a book about "the plight of the tiger" (as Jane Goodall puts it in a blurb on the cover), a species tragically teetering on the verge of extinction. Furthermore, it presents one of the best overviews of the world's tigers in general and of South Asia's Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) in particular.
The natural habitat of the Bengal is the lowlands of Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, though they have also been spotted as high as 12,000 feet in the high, cold forests of eastern Bhutan. In 1939 there were approximately 100,000 tigers in the wild. Today, fewer than 3,000 remain, precariously. Despite concentrated efforts to save them, Nepal's tiger population is as close to disappearing now as it was four decades ago, when the World Wildlife Fund launched its energetic "Operation Tiger" to rescue them from the brink of extinction.
In fourteen thrill-charged chapters, Mishra tells stories that highlight the fate of this large carnivorous species, describing many encounters tracking, filming, and darting them for further study and radio collaring. It was exotic, exciting, and at times extremely dangerous work. In addition to his own research, Mishra often assisted other tiger specialists in the task of learning all there is to know about them. Along the way, he sometimes guided international television film crews, and was occasionally joined in his adventures by VIPs visiting Nepal's Chitwan National Park. One chapter, for example, is devoted to the time he was assigned to host President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Dr. Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski, in the park while directing an intense hunt for a man-eater.
Humans are not the natural prey of tigers, and Mishra reminds us that man-eating behavior among tigers is remarkably abnormal. Far more people are gored by rhinos in Nepal, and more die from snakebite in India, than are killed and eaten by tigers, Mishra says. Man-eating is the upshot of conflict between humans and tigers, and is at the root of their endangerment. That conflict is the result of a combination of human population growth (which leads to encroachment on the tiger's range and eliminates its natural prey, the smaller jungle wildlife) and poverty (which encourages tiger poaching and illegal trafficking of tiger body parts for profit).
In the last three chapters of the book, Mishra analyzes and critiques various contradictory arguments among scientists and conservationists about how to save these noble beasts. There is one especially insightful discussion about the highly questionable practice of tiger farming/harvesting, mainly in China. Mishra's sharp analyses and perspectives as a world renowned "Tiger-wallah" who confronts controversial political, economic, and conservationist theories are almost as exciting as his confrontations with tigers up close in the wild. His well-founded opinions will surely be cited widely, pro and con, in future discussions about their dilemma.
Bones of the Tiger is a treasure trove of personal anecdotes, scientific information, and international conservation controversy. The book includes historical accounts of great tiger hunts of the past, and of the ongoing debate over how to save them. It's an exciting memoir that caps a great career in wildlife science, focused on the most exotic, intriguing, feared, and misunderstood of our planet's wild beasts.
Books mentioned in this post