Book review: The Secret Life of Tigers by Valmik Thapar

About the author (WikiPedia):
Valmik Thapar (1952 -) is an Indian natural historian and foremost among Tiger conservationists. He is the author of 14 books and several articles, and has produced a range of programs for television. Today he is one of the India’s most respected wildlife experts and conservationists, having produced and narrated documentaries on India’s natural habitat for such media as the BBC, Animal Planet, Discovery and National Geographic.

I have got a copy of Secret Life of Tigers from the public library of Zürich. It is the 1999 edition, first published in 1989.

Valmik Thapar writes about his breathtaking observations in the Ranthambhore National Park from 1986 to 1988, together with the legendary tiger guru and park manager Fateh Singh. During this time period, they could observe three tigresses with their cubs; in several occasions sitting, sleeping and even eating together with the father of the family. They could also take incredible photographs documenting these unexpected family gatherings with the father of the cubs.

Until Thapar’s observations, there was not much information about the family life of tigers. Generally, male tigers were known to be totally indifferent fathers, sometimes even a serious threat for their own cubs. There have been many hunters reporting about male tigers killing and eating cubs. Valmik Thapar’s observations in Ranthambhore tell the opposite. In a more or less stable natural environment, without the constant persecution by hunters and poachers, male tigers meet their family occasionally for eating, resting, and sometimes even for playing. Male tigers also protect their families by keeping other male tigers away from their territory which can encompass one or more tigresses, each with her own cubs.

Infanticide happens probably when a rival male tiger drives the resident father away, or when the father is killed by poachers. An alien male can kill the cubs to make the tigress receptive again, just like lions. The selective forces of evolution tell adult males that they should raise as many young as possible during the limited and much stressful time of their domination over the territory.

The first family Valmik Thapar could observe was the tigress Laxmi with her three cubs, probably 2.5-3 months old. Very much excited, he made plans with Fateh Singh about closely following this family. Luckily, they could make many photographs easily because Laxmi was not bothered by their jeep’s presence. The cubs became even bold enough to approach the jeep within a meter.

One day, Valmik Thapar found the pug marks of the large resident Bakaula male close to the pug marks of Laxmi and her cubs. What had the male tiger done to the cubs? He was very much worried, and looked desperately for Laxmi, but couldn’t find her on that day.

tiger family resting in a small pool; mother, cubs and fatherIn another occasion, at the end of April in 1986, Fateh Singh and Valmik Thapar observe another family, tigress Nalghati, adult male Kublai and two small cubs, probably 3-4 months old, all bathing together in a small pool. They couldn’t believe their eyes. A photograph in the book shows four tigers, father mother and two cubs in such a close proximity. For this photograph alone this book is worth to buy!

If you want to have an idea about this photograph, open the google eBook The Land of Tigers and go to page 258.

But the surprise was more than that. Let’s read how Valmik Thapar tells this unique episode:

After a while, tigress Nalghati leaves water and disappears into the forest. The cubs continue to play with each other under the protective eye of Kublai. At dusk, Kublai heaves himself out of the water and moves towards the cubs. The cubs rush to him. He licks one of them.

When we leave, Kublai is sitting a meter or so from the two cubs. We have witnessed what must be one of the most closely kept secrets of tiger’s life. It is the first photographic record of a resident male associating with a tigress and her cubs in his range.

On the 1st of May in 1986, Fateh Singh finds the tigress Laxmi and the Bakaula male feeding together on a sambar antelope which was hunted down by Bakaula in front of Fateh’s eyes a minute ago. After a while, Laxmi went to her den and fetched her three cubs to feed on the carcass. What an episode again! Father, mother and the cubs eating together a sambar which was hunted by the father…

From 1986 to 1988 Fateh Singh and Valmik Thapar could observe three tiger families, mother father and cubs, resting, eating and playing together. Some of the cubs could survive into sub-adulthood within two years, but even then, there were no signs of any conflict with the resident father.

With The Secret Life of Tigers Valmik Thapar tells the story of three tiger families from 1986 to 1988 in his fluent and eloquent style. I enjoyed reading this book from the beginning to the end, and finished it within a single day. It is a very informative story too.
Tunç Ali Kütükçüoglu
Zürich, 28. February 2012

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