When the man she has loved for five years inexplicably bows out of her life, Ruth Padel takes her badly bruised heart on a long journey. Traveling from the Indian subcontinent to Siberia to Southeast Asia, she immerses herself in the world of tigers, exploring their habitat, their habits, and their tenuous grip on survival.
Padel begins her quest with a literary love of tigers, a few facts, and a longing to learn more about an animal that is often seen through a veil of mythology and misconception. In her first journey to a tiger forest in Kerala, she sees no trace of the creatures that she seeks, but she leaves with the understanding that tigers are an essential part of Asia's environment. Tigers survive only in healthy forests, and these forests, Padel says, "hold Asia together." It says in the Mahabharata (5th century BCE), "The tiger perishes without the forest and the forest perishes without its tigers." This truth resonates with Padel in the twenty-first century and is the underlying theme of her travel through countries that are the homes of wild tigers.
Wherever she goes, Padel finds forests that are for sale, that become diminished as the worldwide hunger for logs increases. The animals and people living among the trees become adversaries, competitors for shrinking territory: tigers kill livestock when natural prey dwindles and people safeguard their property by killing tigers. The argument of how to balance the needs of both groups divides people within nations and within families, including Padel and her own brother.
Tigers also fall prey to the myths and legends that surround them. Their bones, flesh, blood and skin are all valuable commodities in the global marketplace, sold to people who hope to gain a portion of the tiger's strength or beauty. Tiger balm, Padel points out, is a substance based on camphor and eucalyptus that can be safely used by the most fervent environmentalist, but its universal appeal is based "on what people want." In Nepal she is told, "Real tiger balm... cures arthritis, joints, knees, rheumatism. It is here, for those who know."
People are not always the enemies of tigers, and Padel's narrative is filled with stories of men and women who respect (and work to preserve) the natural world. Debby, a British environmental adviser in Indonesia who is "kept sane through black humour and a taste for lunacy"; Yevgeny, a Siberian tiger biologist who writes poetry but has "never dared write one about a tiger"; Ullas in Bangalore, a writer and tiger conservationist whose work "is a beacon" to some and has led others to set fire to his office; and the dukun, the Sumatran shaman, who gives Padel a "guardian spirit-tiger" as a protector—these are only a few who illuminate and give hope in this book.
A poet and a scholar, this descendant of Charles Darwin employs both of these disciplines to enchant and inform her readers. She places facts and images side by side as skillfully as she blends her personal memories with her observations of the tigers' world, a world that, she convincingly argues, must be saved in order to preserve our own. The book ends with a generous collection of poems that Padel has quoted throughout her travels, the names of people who helped her along her way, and the addresses of organizations that accept financial contributions to support the protection of wild tigers.~by Janet Brown (published originally by Waterbridge Review)