A poet goes searching for the vanishing tigers of the world.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, November 5, 2006


A Quest for the Last Wild Tigers

By Ruth Padel

Walker. 432 pp. $26.95

Occasionally you open a new book, read a few pages and just know: This is special.

Tigers in Red Weather could have been just a gut-wrenching report on how greed and corruption have been steadily killing off every tiger not kept behind bars in a zoo. Poachers, loggers and land developers are the most obvious culprits, but callous, ignorant and venal government officials are right up there, too. Rich "sportsmen" who want trophies, sick people who demand the traditional cure-all "tiger bone," farmers who poison the starving predator who killed their cow -- all these contribute to the diminishing number of tigers left in the forests and jungles of India, China, Russia, the Southeast Asian mainland and Sumatra.

In virtually every country that Ruth Padel visited, the wild tiger is honored, revered, mythologized -- and almost extinct. The Caspian tiger is already gone, and, outside of zoos, so is the South China tiger. Of the half dozen surviving tiger species, we are down to numbers so small that in some cases it soon may be too late. We are talking about the linchpin to the ecology of entire habitats: "Because wild tigers only flourish if everything else, from ungulates to plants, is OK, they are the sign of a healthy forest." But that's not all. As Padel says, "The tiger is the wild. If it goes, part of us goes with it: our sense that something out there is stronger, more beautiful; something not us." How do we measure such a loss as that?

Padel is best known as one of Britain's most admired poets, so it's hardly surprising that her observations in Tigers in Red Weather are as striking as her title (from Wallace Stevens's "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock"). A caracal -- "a rare, secretive cat" -- displays "the pursed mouth of a disapproving science teacher." "Tigresses," we learn, "gargle to young cubs in birdlike chirrups." A particularly beautiful animal, Padel tells us, places one enormous forepaw over the other, "with a touch, I felt, of golden provocation: how a blonde secret agent in a sixties film might cross silk legs." Padel also relishes interesting facts: In zoos, "elephant keepers have the highest mortality"; "Of the world's twenty most polluted cities, sixteen are in China." She mentions that in the Sundarbans (a forested area of Bangladesh), "men are not allowed to enter the forest without a compulsory insurance policy of fifteen rupees. If a tiger kills them, the widow should get thirty thousand rupees from a Calcutta insurance company." Sometimes Padel even adds a bit of deadpan humor: Sakteng, near the Himalayas, is the world's only reserve for yeti (a.k.a. Abominable Snowmen). "Bhutanese ones can make themselves invisible so there are not many sightings."

With the ear of a playwright, Padel replicates speech patterns so deftly you can distinguish the differing English accents of her Chinese, Indian and Russian guides. She's really terrific at this -- note how her placement of commas suggests a Slavic speaker: "Big, is not important. . . . Strong, is important." Even without the tiger lore, Padel's actual adventures and misadventures, while trekking, kayaking, climbing or riding an elephant, would on their own make for a first-class travel book. Indeed, the chapters on Bhutan and Ussuriland provide superb short introductions to these little-known parts of the world. Still, the tiger lore and the tiger love remain at center stage:

"Tigers naturally hunt secretly. Their technique is all about getting close under cover. It is the art of stillness, geometry, concealment. Tigers have great speed over short distances but are no use in a long chase. Once they get into a race with prey they have lost. . . . Tigers are heavy, and work through long grass, dense bushes, trees. It can take hours. The angle you come from is all. A hunt ends with a burst of explosive power but depends on long preparation. The fifty yards that a jungle-smart man will cover in two minutes, thinking he is quiet, may take a tiger fifteen. The tiger will really be invisible. Rather than risk the faint crackle of a dead leaf, she will slowly crush it to dust."

Throughout Tigers in Red Weather, Padel periodically slips in just the right amount of detail about herself. She's afraid of poisonous snakes, worries about her teenage daughter in England, suffers terribly from the end of a longtime love affair. In fact, her journey to the East is, in the largest sense, as much about recovery as about loss. As months and then years pass, her heart mends, and so she keeps looking for similar signs of hope for the wild tigers. There's still time to save them even now. Her appendix lists organizations, with relevant addresses, guaranteed to help tigers in the field. As a friend reminds Padel, "You are your actions."

Not that progress will be easy:

"It will always be a struggle. In the wild, between tigers and villagers, poachers and wardens. In cities, between people making a lot of money from wild animals and people trying to protect them. In very poor people, deeply and innocently religious . . . for whom it is sin to take life, the battle is between conscience, reverence and sudden economic chance. In every conservationist, living uncomfortably alone in remote places, it is between despair and day-to-day hope." ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com, he welcomes questions or comments about books and reading.

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