With the national parks momentarily closed, reading about tigers might be one of the best things to do in order to connect with our favourite animal. Here is my personal and absolutely non-exhaustive list of the best books about tigers. I’ve tried to include both essays and fiction, as both genres are equally important in shaping our knowledge of the majestic cat.
BEST BOOKS ABOUT TIGERS: NON FICTION
THE GREAT SOUL OF SIBERIA by Sooyong Park
Poetic, compelling and utterly, excruciatingly heartbreaking, The Great Soul of Siberia is the recount of a Korean researcher who has devoted twenty years of his life to the on-field study of one the most elusive big cats in the world, the Amur tiger.
Alone for months, years at a time, he spent innumerous hours waiting in hides, in the unforgiving Siberian winter cold, in the hope of an apparition of the striped cat.
In temperatures reaching up to -30°, eating balls of frozen rice to avoid any eventual smell that could tip off the smart cat about an alien presence, Sooyong Park is the ante litteram epitome of social distancing.
Never allowing his focus to be weakened by the harshness of the environment, he very poignantly describes how deeply he is affected by solitude. Every 3 months his assistant used to hike to one of the hides to deliver him provisions. Sooyong recounts how painful it is at that point to interact with a human presence, and how not making eye contact is the only way to avoid longing and despair.
But his sacrifice didn’t go in vain, as he was able to film and photograph a family of tigers, whose matriarch he named Bloody Mary, over three generations.
Bloody Mary, one of the most unforgettable characters in tiger literature, was a smart animal, a formidable huntress and a protective mother.
Poaching, habitat loss and a very harsh environment with a low prey base have been the challenges to tiger conservation in the Russian Far East.
Follow the quest of Sooyong Park if you want to know how successful Bloody Mary and his legacy have been in their struggle to survive.
Great Soul of Siberia also contains some of the most beautiful pictures of Siberian tigers ever taken in their natural habitat. The filming material has been collected in a documentary.
Just one warning : this is not for the faint of heart, as there will be tears.
THE JIM CORBETT OMNIBUS by Jim Corbett
Everybody has heard about Jim Corbett’s legendary recounts of man-eating tigers and leopards.
In this era of wildlife conservation one can wonder whether it is still worth reading the stories of one of the most famous hunters of all times.
The answer is yes.
First of all, we are talking about gripping and compelling adventurous tales written by a natural born storyteller.
But more than that, the honesty and courage of this shikaar turned conservationist, when set on his task, can certainly not be denied.
Alone, on foot, he followed pugmarks, blood trails, pieces of torn cloth or sometimes body parts of an unfortunate victim, in order to confront the animal who had developed a taste for human flesh.
His understanding of a tiger’s behavior is still extremely up to the point. Far from dismissing the tiger as a blood-thirsty creature, he explains with intelligence and compassion what the circumstances are for it to turn into a man-eater.
But his compassion is not only directed to an animal in a condition of stress. Corbett’s description of the rural communities affected by the problem animal is also full of humanity and empathy, but also of reflections on the dangers of animal-human conflict.
The Jim Corbett Omnibus collects a few of Corbett’s most famous stories. Amongst them, Man-Eaters of Kumaon, The Temple Tigers and The Man-Eating Leopards of Rudraprayag.
So prophetic and yet so urgent even in contemporary times, one of Corbett’s most famous quotes is found in this book’s preface :
“A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and when he is exterminated – as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support – India will be the poorer, having lost the finest of her fauna”
LIVING WITH TIGERS by Valmik Thapar
If you are looking for a way to escape the boredom of the current situation and want to daydream, travel within your mind and identify yourself in the people who have shaped the history of tiger tourism in India, look no further. “Living with Tigers” will allow you this, and much more.
Valmik Thapar fondly recounts the years spent in Ranthambhore with Fateh Singh Rathore, wildlife warden of the park, from the late seventies to current days. In this appropriately titled book he recalls how they developed a common vision for the park and he fondly tells the stories of his favourite tigers.
The very enthralling first chapter of the book overviews the history of Ranthambhore and its legacy of fierce Mughal emperors. Through Thapar’s prose you will find yourself walking to the lake palace at Rajbagh, looking up to the Ranthambhore fort, without the loud company of ill-maintained suspensions of canters, dreaming of a striped cat apparition.
In those times, tiger sightings were rare as the cats were mostly nocturnal. Extremely shy and elusive, the animals were not at all used to human presence. How the work of Fateh Singh Rathore changed this scenario is one of the most interesting parts of the book.
Invaluable insights into the history of India’s tiger reserves, interesting remarks about tiger behaviour and above all a strong love for this incredible animal resonate in the work of the author and makes “Living with Tigers” a compelling read.
The stories of the cats that have shaped Ranthambhore impressive genealogy are a brilliant treat to evade today’s gloomy times. Padmini tigress and her exemplary qualities of motherhood, Genghis or the shrewd hunter who developed a personal technique to kill deer in the water, the gentle-natured big male Broken Tooth, the world-famous tigress Machli are amongst the protagonists of Thapar’s oeuvre.
As the author says :
“the tigers you will find in the pages of this book are the special ones, the ones that taught me everything I know about tigers, the ones who, by letting me into their lives, made my own life worth living”.
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE EMERALD TIGERS by Raghu Chundawat
Probably the most cerebral one of the list, this book is a valuable recount of the author long-term research on wild tigers in Panna Tiger Reserve.
In his more than 10 years long collection of data, the renowned conservation biologist has been able to give extremely valuable insights in tiger behaviour, such as patterns of movement, reproduction and feeding.
But the tale of the Panna tigers has a history of blood. In 2002-03, after a change in the park management, all the tigers disappeared. Poachers got hold of the cats; amongst those, a few had been radio-collared for scientific purpose.
A disquieting set of hypotheses on the responsibility of this spectacular fail of all conservation efforts and the political implications are amongst the most interesting parts of the book.
The author is giving a warning to the conservation community : this could happen again. Bravely and directly, he doesn’t shy away from stating observations that might be deemed controversial and unsettle more than one ego. For this reason, his work has received mixed reviews, but it remains nonetheless one of the best books about tigers of Central India.
Today, Raghu and his wife Joanna run a well-known eco-resort with a strong focus on conservation activities and local communities in the outskirts of Panna, the Sarai at Toria.
BEST BOOKS ABOUT TIGERS: FICTION
A TIGER FOR MALGUDI by R.K. Narayan
Hardly any introduction is needed for R.K. Narayan, one of India’s finest and well-known authors. Set in the fictional South Indian town of Malgudi, inspired by Mysore, his novels and short stories are full of humour and empathy as the characters evolve in their everyday lives.
In A Tiger for Malgudi R. K. Narayan creates one of his most endearing characters : a tiger who narrates his own story in the first person. This largely justifies the inclusion of this novella in my list of best books about tigers.
From his wild days in the jungle, to being captured by poachers, to being sold to a zoo, to his old toothless age, the tiger entertainingly recalls the various anecdotes and adventures that have unfolded over the years.
It’s a beautiful ride into introspection, because our tiger is a philosophical one, and into this amazing journey that we call life.
THE HUNGRY TIDE by Amitav Ghosh
Technically not a book about tigers, The Hungry Tide is a beautiful recount of belonging, identity, and the personal quest of a woman looking to find her own call in the evocating harshness of the Indian Sunderbans.
Much more than a backdrop in this enticing novel, the “tide country” is a strong presence that shapes and transforms the nature and the destiny of all the characters involved.
“But here, in the tide country, transformation is the rule of life : rivers stray from week to week, and islands are made and unmade in days. In other places forests take centuries, even millennia, to regenerate; but mangroves can recolonize a denuded island in ten to fifteen years. Could it be the very rhythms of the earth were quickened here so that they unfolded at an accelerated pace?”
The tiger, a darkly evocative entity mostly not to be named, is rarely physically present but yet is always there, looming over the collective imaginary and beliefs.
And when it does appear, it is heartbreaking.
TIGERS IN RED WEATHER by Ruth Padel
Probably not a literary chef d’oeuvre, I’ve included Ruth Padel’s journal in my list of best books about tigers because of an undeniable feeling of identification with some parts of the author’s journey.
In this auto-biographic recount, Ruth Padel tells us about her personal exploration of the surviving tiger subspecies and the challenges they face in conservation.
In her several trips to the various tiger countries, the British poet and novelist takes us to India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Russia, Korea, China and Indonesia.
Although I personally found the passages about the end of her last relationship a bit redundant, Ruth’s dedication in wanting to witness by herself the reality of this mesmerizing cat is totally appreciable and endearing.
LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel
More evocative than the movie that was inspired by it, this fantasy novel is a fable about the improbable relationship that forms between a young boy, Pi Patel and a huge Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. Stranded together on a lifeboat after the spectacular sinking of the ship that was carrying them and the boy’s zookeeping family from India to Canada, the boy and the tiger react to the situation in an unprecedented way.
This novel might not have a hint of biologically correct information nor might it enhance our knowledge about tigers, but it’s beautifully written, and many of its quotes will linger in your imaginary for a little while. One of those, might be the description of the boy’s feeling about the sudden disappearance of Richard Parker when they eventually touch land :
“I’ve never forgotten him. Dare I say I miss him? I do. I miss him. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart. I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once. The pain is like an axe that chops my heart.”
What are the best books about tigers that you have read ? Don’t hesitate to write your suggestions in the comments below.