Tigers are very rarely audacious beings, but Broken Tail, the tiger that Colin Stafford-Johnson loved and upon whose death decided to retrace its final steps, was especially so.
The Irishman spent some 600 days in the company of the cub and its mother, documenting their baby steps, their first kill and the family’s various antics.
The wildlife and natural-history cinematographer along with partner, naturalist Salim Ali were in for a shock when they discovered that Broken Tail had been found dead on rail tracks in Ramgarh which is a little away from Ranthambore National Park where the tiger grew up.
The quest to find out what really happened and fit pieces of the puzzle together, Stafford-Johnson and Ali travel on horseback all the way to Ramgarh.
On their way, they meet village poachers who have for long hunted beasts of the jungle.
Stafford-Johnson infuses a sense of humanity into his documentary Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey.
He is not judgmental.
He realises that the poacher who makes around Rs6,000 per kill was not doing it out of greed but to feed a large family.
Looking at the children and the looks of poverty they wore, Stafford-Johnson tells the camera, “I would never let my children starve. I would do anything to keep them alive.”
It is this sense of empathy that sets the documentary apart from all others made on the same subject.
Stafford-Johnson shares the same compassion he feels towards his lost tiger with all human beings he encounters.
The most moving aspect of the documentary is how he talks of his journey as a quest to bring back a prodigal son.
Here, his son is lost forever but Stafford-Johnson is looking for answers to larger problems- that of the fate of Broken Tail’s 1,411 brothers who are scattered all over India.
Upon reaching the outskirts of the nature reserve, they see illegal mining activity taking place and Stafford-Johnson mentions how rumours that Ranthambore is owned by foreigners are fed to villagers to make them distrust the park management.
He rues the fact that in India, people think that attention must be given to human problems rather than towards wildlife concerns.
“What people don’t realise is that the tiger is a human problem,” he says.
The landscape across which they travel looks like something out of a western movie and the men on horseback like sheriffs on a mission to right the wrongs, except they’re perhaps the gentlest sheriffs you’ll meet.
They meet Aditya Singh, a tiger conservationist who works with Project Tiger, the conservation movement instituted in the 70s by the Indira Gandhi administration to save big cats.
“An India without tigers will be an India sitting on the brink of an environmental disaster,” he tells them, sitting huddled around a bonfire, on a cold dry Rajasthani night.
“India will go from poor to very poor within five years of the tiger’s disappearance. As far as evolution goes, tigers would reach a dead end,” Singh says.
Back on the tiger trail, Stafford-Johnson wonders aloud what would have compelled the tiger to leave the safe environs of Ranthambore to journey into the unknown.
He has the answer- he was looking for girls.
“Broken Tail never got that moment because there was no one else out there...there was no one else of his kind in the area,” he says looking at the vast empty wilderness in front of him.
They later chance upon cave paintings of tigers which Ali says are some thousands of years old.
“And to allow the tiger to disappear on our watch, you just couldn’t,” Stafford-Johnson says with genuine anguish.
From 40,000 tigers at the turn of the last century to less than the 2,000 population we have left of them, the big cats have evolved from being the hunting treasures of maharajas to a species teetering on the verge of oblivion.
The decline in numbers, Stafford-Johnson puts down to the poor training given to forest guards.
“The training of staff is abysmal. They have no idea what they’re doing. They know nothing about tigers...nothing about ecology. They don’t know the number of tigers in the country and they guard the last remaining population,” he says sadly.
The tragedy, he says lies not in the ignorance of the forest guards but the officals’ attitude of aloofness and superiority.
“These people (forest guards) are not seen as important enough to be told these things.”
He however, doesn’t judge the people of India as unsympathetic to wildlife.
He meets people on the way who tell him that they saw a big tiger drinking water or crossing a bridge, which Stafford-Johnson infers to be places were Broken Tiger made a stop.
“People have respect for living things in India. Imagine telling people that a great predator is running loose in Europe. Wouldn’t happen,” he chuckles.
They finally reach Ramgarh where they discover vast grasslands and an ancient fort where Stafford-Johnson assumes Broken Tail would have roamed free.
They journey outward towards the outskirts of the reserve and meet a woman who was the last to see the tiger before he was run over by a speeding Rajdhani Express.
“He didn’t know the sound of the train. He didn’t learn that.”
The journey they made was crucial, Stafford-Johnson says because Broken Tail had shown the way his brethren should be conserved.
They don’t like being confined to a single natural park- they need legroom to move about to find a mate, to hunt prey.
Broken Tail was on a mission to find his freedom but got killed in the journey.
The solution Stafford-Johnson proposes is that all the bits of greenery in India be linked to make a thoroughfare for the tiger’s easy mobility.
“We need entire zones for tigers. We all will benefit. The people of India will benefit.”
His journey comes to a completion when he reaches the rail tracks where the tiger lost its life.
Laying flowers and incense sticks on the spot, he says, “To have made it this far, it must have been some tiger. It really must have been some tiger.”