Missing an impassioned advocate on this International Tiger Day

International Tiger Day is upon us once again.

In the normal course of affairs, International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Peter Pueschel would have written a blog on tigers.

This would have in detail chronicled the efforts that IFAW has made to stop the killing of tigers in India and Russia and to reduce demand for tiger products in China. He would have also talked of the various international conventions where we had sweated together to change an ‘a’ into a ‘the’, thus substantively changing the intentions of the global community in monitoring and eventually banning trade in this unbelievably charismatic big cat that the world is poised to lose.

But, in tragic circumstances, Peter is no longer with us. So, after two and a half decades of protecting elephants, sharks, tigers, whales and god only knows the number of creatures that make their way into international conventions, with Peter gone, I am left to write this blog.

I will not write in his detailed and all-encompassing style, neither will I deal with all that we have done as an organisation to save the tiger, for if I were to attempt either, it would fall short of Peter’s rather exacting standards.

I will instead write of the time I was with Peter when he saw his first tiger in the wild.

He had come a long way from Europe to the central Indian park of Kanha where we were hosted by the then Director of the Park Mr Himmat Singh Negi. The year before, IFAW and its partner in India, the Wildlife Trust of India had trained and equipped all the frontline forest staff of the park. The year before that we had given an ex gratia compensation when one of the forest guards tragically died on duty in the park. So, there was something to monitor and talk about to the staff of the park about our work in the past.

We were there, however, not to necessarily only talk work. It was to show Peter a tiger. He had just taken over as the lead for tigers in a fast-changing IFAW programmatic world and he was keen to spend some time with the creature he was chosen to save.

We spent three days in the park. We drove around to Sonf, Ronda and Bishanpura and saw the mighty swamp deer rut, the stags bellowing love-lorn to herds of does that seemed complacent in chewing their cud rather than be courted. (“It must be because of the ridiculous headgear that the males wear” said Peter referring to the tangles of grass that males balance on their antlers in a bid to look more attractive.)

A crested serpent eagle flew across the path of the jeep looking for a hidden prey. Large herds of dappled deer ran hither and thither stopping only to pick up leaves thrown down by the langurs that ate hastily in the trees. We drove up Bahminidadar plateau and took in the vista of the entire Kanha range.

As we were coming down past the shrine of Shravan into the central meadows the grass parted and an apparition walked onto the path in front of us.

For those whose lives have never been affected by the presence of a tiger, it is difficult to explain what effect the burnished gold and pitch black stripes do to the human spirit.

Peter took in his breath and held it in.

The tigress walked past the jeep, unconcerned, almost lazily. (She would begin her more hectic moments of the day at dusk when the tourists retreat to their resorts and the park guards leave to the forest posts.)

I was firing away with my hand on the camera trigger. I noted only later that Peter had not taken a single shot of this, his first sight. I did not need to ask him why, for I had been there before. And Peter did not live to rue the day as we saw three other individuals in the short stay at the park, the last a temperamental teenager who snarled mightily at us before walking away.

We lit one of his famous cigarillos an indulgence that I had only with Peter and only on a rare occasion. This was most definitely an occasion, and we made the most of it.

The evening was spent discussing tigers and their fate. Did India have 1471 tigers or less? I said more; he believed less, for he always took a more cautious view of life than I did. Did they have a future in the world? I said yes; he declined to comment. Possibly he was hoping that he did not have to sound clairvoyant. Were governments doing enough to save them? We both agreed that definitely not enough was being done globally. India was the best we had in terms of commitment and results, the country had more than 60% of the global tiger population. But even in India, things could be so much better, he said, if the right people were given more freedom to bring back tiger numbers. I agreed wholeheartedly and we drank a few beers to that thought and the wistful thought of what could be.

Was the Global Tiger Forum strong enough, he wondered. IFAW was a founding NGO member of the GTF, which was the only intergovernmental forum on tigers. We had in tandem for many years supported the struggling forum, building membership (IFAW paid for many years the membership of Cambodia to join the GTF), building opinion and building technical finesse (we outsourced a technical officer to GTF for many years too).

IFAW-WTI had helped the Forum bring out the Global Tiger Action Plans for all range states, three triennia in a row. Were we, as an organisation, doing enough to save the tiger, queried Peter. And we both rued the inability of our team to have captured enough resources to really make the big bang. But we were both satisfied that the organisation was doing what it could and making an impact in all three countries. 

Peter, in his next trip went to Ranthambhor and saw tigers as well. And he had much better pictures of them as this time around he could document with the external lens, his internal ones having been satiated.

I only hope that the tigers saw Peter well too.

For in him they had, and recently lost, a passionate saviour who would have stored the memories of seeing them in the wild only to lean on them in his debates at CITES or CMS, or even internally at an IFAW meeting, to get the most and the best for the animals that he so loved

--VM

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Experts

Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Regional Director, Russia & CIS
Gail A'Brunzo, Manager, Wildlife Rescue
Manager, Wildlife Rescue
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy