For INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER host Valmik Thapar, a conservationist and one of the world's leading experts on Indian tigers, making this six-hour documentary was a pleasure -- and a challenge. The pleasure derived from the chance to share his knowledge and love of India's people and wildlife with the world. Thapar has spent more than 25 years studying tigers and campaigning for their protection. This calling came early in life: he saw his first tiger from atop an elephant at age nine, in 1961. "I still remember that tiger and her cubs looking up at me," he says.
Fifteen years later, he began a quest to learn more about the remarkable animals, tracking them through the forests and wetlands of India's Ranthambhore National Park, a tiger stronghold in the northern part of the country. That work led to a series of books that provided new glimpses into the animal's largely hidden world.
Today, Thapar directs the Ranthambhore Foundation, which works to protect the park by educating nearby communities about the value of its priceless wildlife. "Tigers are always teaching us something new," Thapar says, touching on one argument he uses to convince villagers and politicians to take up the tiger's cause. But his work is "tough," he admits, and he is especially frustrated that India's politicians have been slow to realize that the country's population growth demands new approaches to conservation. Still, he believes his work in local communities is paying off. "Even if you just change the minds of five people in one village, the respect for nature will grow," he says. "But if you ignore people, that respect will vanish, and so will the tigers." Hosting INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER provided Thapar with an extraordinary opportunity to bring that message to millions of people around the world.
Capturing that beauty, however, required a monumental effort. It took two dozen crews more than three years to film all the remarkable sights in the series -- many never before captured on film. Few people, for instance, had ever witnessed a standoff between a tiger and a water buffalo, or watched a rare bird called a megapode tend its huge nest mound. To get such rare footage, one cameraman even haunted a small patch of forest for more than two years, waiting for a close encounter with a tiger. Much of the time, he was perched on the back of an elephant.
Though tigers are huge, Thapar says they can be difficult to spot. "Visibility in an Indian forest is practically nil," he explains. "So you must look carefully for paw prints and listen for warning calls coming from monkeys in the trees." In the quest for the perfect shot, Thapar and the filmmakers also had to endure charging rhinos, blood-sucking leeches, biting ticks, and India's drenching monsoon rains. In some spots, Thapar remembers, "Wherever I walked, the leeches enveloped me, even though I was wearing my leech socks."
"It was, at times, a most uncomfortable experience," he concludes. "But the discomfort was vastly overshadowed by the thrill of working in this magnificent landscape."