Tiger, tiger, burning out?

A poet's account of the fight for the survival of the wild tiger.

Over the years, there have been some wonderful books on conservation written for general readers. Many have been informative, a few touching, and no small number alarming. But almost none has been penned by a poet. That's what makes Tigers in Red Weather a particular treat.

Ruth Padel happens to be the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Rather than a naturalist, however, she is an academic and acclaimed poet, a more urban and less outdoorsy woman who confesses that "I walk the dog and that's it for sport."

But after she and a lover sever their relationship in a London restaurant on the coldest, darkest day of the year, she seeks refuge in an inexpensive vacation to Malabar on the Indian coast. Not far from there, serendipitously, lies a tiger preserve. And so Padel embarks on a new passion.

Her writing on tigers is lovely. On the first page of the book she tells us, "Whatever artist dreamed up the tiger face exaggerated the eyes. White butterfly patches wing up like higher, bigger eyes above surprisingly small real ones of ochre... Over his right eye is a blurry black triangle with three crescent moons above. Over the left a worm of black flame."

But don't expect too many face-to-face encounters with the beasts. As Padel begins tracking tigers throughout Asia, it becomes clear that, today, any hunt for tigers is more about their absence than their presence.

There are only estimated to be 5,000 wild tigers left in the world. Highly valued on black markets for their fur, meat, and the perceived medicinal properties of their bones, tigers are subject to rampant poaching. Also, even where they are able to escape hunters' guns, the beautiful creatures are being squeezed by the disappearance of the deep forests that were once their natural habitats.

In some ways, this book is about the way Padel replaced one heartbreak with another. As her former lover fades from her consciousness, larger and larger to her looms the fate, not only of the tiger, but of the planet's wilderness itself.

Some of Padel's discoveries are relentlessly bleak. Conservation is "the oncology of biology," one tiger biologist tells her. "All your patients are dying. Your job is to judge where your efforts make most difference."

But this is a book full of intelligence and Padel gives way to neither emotionalism nor despair. Rather, she struggles for glimpses of workable solutions, conservation plans far-reaching enough to take the needs of humans into account as well as those of animals.

This is a book blessed with beauty and brains in equal measures. Padel travels (always in two-week intervals; she will not leave her teenage daughter for longer) to India, Nepal, Bhutan, Russia, Korea, China, Indonesia, and even Burma (Myanmar).

She meets conservationists, photographers, veterinarians, and skilled tiger trackers. They take her from one natural paradise to another, brushing up against storks, dolphins, kingfishers, and even a rhino as they go.

Her descriptions of travel in exotic locales are delightful and evocative. On a trek in Bhutan she observes, "Candy-floss mist tumbled down steep valleys as the one road rose. Then we were in real cloud, with forest at the road edge. Wild magnolias, white butterflies against the brown-green of oak and hemlock coming into leaf. Rhododendrons a hundred feet high breaking into blood-red blossoms."

But wild tiger sightings remain few. Padel must largely be content to love from afar – even as, step by step, she gains distance from her former lover.

"Tigers in Red Weather" could be shorter. Throughout the book, Padel details various postbreakup meetings with the man she loved in which he continually disappoints. As a reader, I was ready to be done with him long before Padel was.

But nonetheless, I got her point. What she's really writing about is the ache of being human, of loving things that are beautiful, fragile, and hard to sustain.

In the end, however, Padel's quest is not without light. "My journey," she tells us, "was about stopping being willfully blind but also about survival and hope. Eyes wide open, you have to go on hoping."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.

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