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Taking India's Pulse

Elephant in city 

In India, people and animals closely coexist.

Millions of years ago, a collision of epic proportions shook the world: a great chunk of land collided with Asia. The force of the great continental wreck pushed up a wall of mountains six miles high. Today, we call that rim of peaks the Himalayas, and the chunk of land is known as India -- the world's sixth largest country and, with almost a billion inhabitants, one of its most populous. But along with 20 percent of the world's people, India is home to an astounding array of plants and animals. Scientists estimate that at least 13,000 species of flowering plants and more than 65,000 kinds of animals live in its forests, rivers, and seas. Over time, Indians have forged remarkably close relationships with these wild neighbors, incorporating them into their daily rituals and spiritual life in a remarkable array of ways.

INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER -- a special six-hour NATURE program -- offers a compelling portrait of the close, but increasingly uneasy, alliance between the people of the Indian subcontinent and its wildlife. From the high Himalayas, where the elusive snow leopard lives, to the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean, where huge manta rays soar through crystal blue waters, INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER takes viewers on a remarkable journey across the subcontinent. Along the way, it offers sights never before captured on film, from a jackal nipping at the heels of a sloth bear, to a tiger stalking and killing a monkey. There are also swimming elephants, flying lizards, walking fish, singing apes, dancing spiders, and much more.

Peacock 

Indians consider peacocks sacred animals.

INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER "captures the pulse of India's people and wildlife," says Valmik Thapar, a noted Indian tiger expert who serves as host and narrator of the series. In particular, he writes in his companion book to the series, it highlights how India's "wealth of flora and fauna has managed to survive on such an immensely crowded continent. The answer lies, in part at least, in the special relationship that the people of the subcontinent have always had, and continue to have, with the other living creatures that share their land."

That special relationship goes back a long way. When the subcontinent crashed into Asia about 65 million years ago, it brought along many of its own plant and animal populations. Relatively protected from invasions from the rest of Asia by the high Himalayan wall, these animal communities evolved pretty much on their own for millions of years, gaining a secure foothold in the landscape. Over time, however, new organisms crept over the mountains and down into the rich forests and plains. Some failed to find a home, but others carved out a niche for themselves and added to India's wild diversity.

Then, sometime within the last 500,000 years, people made their way into India. They found fertile river valleys and abundant game animals that supported a semi-nomadic lifestyle focused on hunting and gathering food. Slowly, however, these early settlers developed agriculture -- systems for growing bountiful crops that allowed them to build villages and settle down in one place. India's 980 million people speak 17 languages and almost 900 dialects.Today, the tools and implements that these early farmers left behind are treasured by archeologists who find them throughout India, but especially in the Indus River Valley, now considered one of the cradles of civilization. As new immigrants arrived in the new land, they built their own villages and formed their own often colorful cultures, weaving new threads into India's complex tapestry of life.

Today, that tapestry is complex indeed. India's 980 million people speak 17 different languages and almost 900 local dialects. Though more than 80 percent are members of the Hindu religion, there are also major groups of Muslims, Buddhists, and other religious sects. There are more than two dozen political parties. And while India's cities boast a prosperous middle class that has access to modern conveniences, rural life is still marked by daily patterns that have shifted little in centuries. But some things are changing. India's once vast forests have become fragmented into small patches, eroded by farm fields and logging. Rivers have been dammed and become polluted. Sea life -- from turtles to tuna -- is under increasing pressure as a source of food. The question now, Thapar says, is whether the special relationship that has sustained both India's people and wildlife can be maintained into the 21st century. Despite the threats, "the land of the tiger continues to enthrall me," he writes, "providing the greatest pleasure and the sharpest pain. As the years roll by, forests decline, wildlife diminishes and the tragic consequences of careless human actions become more and more visible across the subcontinent. Nonetheless, parts of the area remain unspoiled and afford glimpses of magnificent animals and environments."

His hope is that, through documents such as INDIA: LAND OF THE TIGER, people around the world will come to recognize that India's tigers and wildlife "are not just the natural heritage of India, but the heritage of the entire planet."

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