Director: Ross Kauffman
Runtime: 98 minutes
In the recent past, wild tigers roamed the forest all across the Asian continent. Now, because of deforestation and hunting, the tigers’ range has shrunk to just a few select areas in India and far eastern Russia. The world population of all tigers of any species has dropped from over one hundred thousand down to around four thousand. Academy Award-winning documentarian Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels) begins his new film, Tigerland, with these facts in order to impress upon us the urgency with which conservationists are working to save the tigers.
Tigerland focuses primarily on the work of two groups of conservationists, one in Russia’s far eastern regions and the other in India. Russian scientist Pavel Fomenko works for the World Wildlife Fund and leads a team trying to gather more data on the tigers’ lives and to relocate one who ventures too close to human populations near Russia’s Bikin National Park. In India, four generations of the Sankhala family work in the forest service protecting tiger preserves and educating visitors about the flora and fauna living there. The film cuts back and forth between the two regions somewhat abruptly, but always with an eye toward telling a complete story about conservation in each part of the world.
The Sankhala family inherited their work from their late patriarch, the pioneering Indian conservationist Kailash Sankhala. The continued survival of the tiger in India is due largely to Kailash’s work. When he began with forest service, hunting tigers was the common pastime of the upper class. Leaders bragged of killing hundreds and thousands in their lifetimes. Kailash catalogued the animal’s population decline and lobbied the government to save the animals. He convinced Prime Minister Indira Ghandi, and together, they established the first preserves in the country. In the film we learn of his lifetime of faithful work, that is now carried on by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Pavel Fomenko came of age as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Desperate for any economic resource, Russian citizens turned to exploiting the natural environment for resources to collect and sell. Tiger poaching proved profitable, so armed protection squads had to be formed to fight for the tigers. Those efforts continue. If the Sankhala family’s story is one of cooperation between activists and the government, Fomenko’s is a cautionary tale about what happens when the government is in chaos and is unable to protect its vulnerable lands and peoples.
The inherent brutality of the tiger is never out of focus in Tigerland. The animal’s strength and power is essential to its identity, and conservationists themselves are ever in danger and do fall prey to the beasts from time to time. The tiger’s power deserves our respect, our awe, and when we ascertain the animal in the fullness of its beauty and strength, only then are we able to protect it fully.
Written by- Elijah Davidson