Beauty burns bright in our minds

Tiger Forest
February 13, 2004

India first got a grip on me through the books of Jim Corbett, that great hunter-conservationist of the British Raj whose name is preserved in the Corbett National Park by independent India. I still have a 1950s Oxford illustrated edition of Corbett's classic, The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag , given to me aged 12; and I can still feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise when I think of the story in Man-eaters of Kumaon in which Corbett, now nearly an old man, discovers from a tiger's pug-marks that the man-eater had been closely tracking him on a jungle path while he thought he was tracking it.

Chris Brunskill's Tiger Forest , the first book of a 26-year-old photographer, is a love letter to tigers and what remains of the Indian jungle that is as moving as Corbett's writings. So intimate are his photographs that they make you feel you almost know what it is like to be a tiger. I can only agree with the BBC cinematographer of films quoted on the book's jacket: "It contains the finest photographs of wild tigers I have ever seen."

They were all taken in India's most famous tiger sanctuary, Ranthambhore National Park, not far from Jaipur in a hilly part of Rajasthan. This is a magical place that surrounds an ancient Rajput fort originally built in 944 and conquered by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1569, which until recent times was the private tiger reserve of the maharaja of Jaipur. "The forest around the three lakes in the centre of the park contains spectacular landscapes; dotted here and there with crumbling ruins, summer palaces, guard posts and temples," writes Brunskill. "It is these remnants of conflict and royalty, surrounded by wild date palms and banyan trees, that create the area's exotic charm and lie, alongside the tiger, at the heart of Ranthambhore's mystique." On a photograph of one small summer palace seen across a lake, he notes that Machali, the tigress who is the undoubted star of the book, often used the crumbling building as a hiding place for her cubs during the first few months of their life.

Tiger Forest does not claim to be a scientific study of tigers and the other wildlife of Ranthambhore (also magnificently captured in the photographs), nor is it an environmentalist tract. Inevitably, though, Brunskill feels extremely strongly about the continuing threat to the tiger's very existence, wherever in the world it clings on; and the book includes a statement from Global Tiger Patrol, which estimates fewer than 5,000 wild tigers worldwide (methods of counting are controversial). Even in 1944, Brunskill notes, Corbett had warned of a serious threat to the Indian tiger. In China, one is appalled to read, Mao Zedong encouraged the slaughter of the tiger as vermin by placing a bounty on its head. Hence today's Chinese pressure on the remaining Indian tigers: they are poached for their bones and body parts, abetted by an erroneous modern Chinese belief in their aphrodisiac qualities. Tiger Forest , apart from the sheer beauty of its photographs, is a significant appeal to halt the ravening forces in human nature.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The THES .

Tiger Forest: A Visual Study of Ranthambhore National Park

Author - Chris Brunskill
Publisher - Troubador Publishing
Pages - 119
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 904744 00 1

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