Though tightly focused on legendary conservationist Alan Rabinowitz’s quest into the Sundarbans swamplands between India and Bangladeshin search of the elusive and rather dangerous Bengal tiger, this gripping documentary is quite expansive, touching on the value of apex predators, the relationship of man to beast, and the nature of a purposeful life.
There is a very Heart of Darkness feeling to this documentary, of a man going deep into the jungle and himself. Was that intentional?
Yes, very much so. In fact, somewhere on Alan’s desk was an actual copy of Heart of Darkness! From the outset in discussions with Tom Hurwitz, our cinematographer, we made clear that this was not to be a conventional natural-history approach. The Sundarbans is very beautiful, but it has also been called the most dangerous place on Earth and we didn’t want to edit out the menace in the interest of conventional beauty. We also wanted to retain the sense of journey, of moving upriver. In actual fact, we did not know what danger lay around each corner.
Do the Indians treat the tiger with more respect than the Bangladeshis? The people of both countries have the same veneration for the tiger; the shrines were in fact more ubiquitous on the Bangladeshi side than on the Indian.
But in India the tiger is the national animal; and the fact that India is home to about half the world’s remaining wild tigers means huge tourist income. The Indian Sundarbans is a model area in terms of its management and law enforcement and also its many initiatives to help local people from having to go into the forest.
Bangladesh simply doesn’t have the same support from the government to protect the tiger habitat and tigers it does have. But Bangladesh clearly values its Sundarbans, and the proof of that is that the place still exists — for so much land area to be protected in one of the most densely populated areas in the world is pretty remarkable.
Have there been any recent conservation victories in either country?
The situation in India is complicated by the fact that the country is so vast, and conservation efforts in each region are controlled by regional governments. So the success of the Indian Sundarbans must be credited to the West Bengal Forest office as much as the top-down national agency.
In Bangladesh, just this December, an oil tanker ran aground in the Sundarbans, spilling 52,000 gallons of bunker oil into the water. The wreck site was just south of Mongla, a major port, and so not within the heart of the protected area, but the tanker route nonetheless ran right through a dolphin reserve. We’re still following the story to see what the extent of the damage is, but the fervent hope is that this disaster will focus attention on the Sundarbans and on stiffer measures of protection.
Did you know that this would become a profile of Rabinowitz, or was it a tiger movie that evolved into something more meaningful?
We began years back knowing we wanted to make a movie about tigers — the movie was for the tigers and their plight. We looked hard for a “hero,” for someone with the real credentials to speak on the subject and the charisma to hold his audience. Alan was speaking in New York and when I heard and saw him there, I approached him on the spot, as I knew I had found the right man.
We always saw Alan as the guide for the movie, but my first interview with him was so powerful that we immediately started adjusting our view of how to weight the story. We came to believe that the most effective way to make an audience care about tigers was to have it care about Alan and his passion for tigers.
Are governments starting to understand that saving the apex predator’s territory has so many corollary benefits for other species?
Yes, and they also understand that revenue from managed tourism and outside interest will come to the big areas reserved for the apex predators. Also importantly, local villagers, more than governments maybe, on both sides of the border keenly understand the need for the forest to survive for their own livelihood.
To save tigers you need a supportive government, you need money and you also need an intelligent conservation strategy tailored to the particular crisis. Once the core tiger breeding populations are secure, one can afford to spend resources on securing habitats. But time is moving very quickly and this key breeding population could easily be wiped out well within a decade. Then we will have perfect tiger habitats — but no tigers.
What were some unique challenges in making this film?
There were two daunting considerations, the first being safety. I have filmed in Africa and in small boats in the Antarctic and thus have a high regard for the power of natural forces! So the first consideration was to bring everyone back alive from a place which is home to some of the most venomous snakes in the world, to saltwater crocodiles, sharks, and, of course, tigers. We were on small boats all the time and capsizing with all of our gear was a legitimate fear.
The second consideration was how to evoke the tiger when the tiger is hardly ever seen, and this was something the Sundarbans could deliver. In other places in tiger range, even seeing pugmarks (tracks) is something noteworthy; in the Sundarbans we saw them all the time. On one occasion, fresh pugmarks appeared in a location where we had been and returned to after only ten minutes. So we knew tigers were close all the time.
When did you film?
I made three trips before the main shoot. Our first shoot was six weeks long in the spring of 2013 and a second smaller unit returned in December 2013 for a month.
What can people who want to help the tiger do?
The tiger range governments need to know people worldwide really care about the tiger crisis. Reports of tiger deaths and poaching should be met with blasts from social media. Most importantly, law enforcement must be paid for, so if you can afford to please give to an organization that can be counted on to provide what is needed.
We hope to release a version of our film sub-titled in Chinese — if the engine for the tiger trade is driven by China, it is perverse to leave it and particularly its young people out of the dialogue, so any engagement with Chinese voices is desirable. It would be great if western companies doing business in China would bring up the illegal animal parts trade as an issue they care about.