- Nayanika Mahtani
Would you believe me if I said that a tiger and a poacher got together and forced me to write this story? Well, that’s what happened. Almost. Three years ago, I came across an article in the National Geographic about tiger poaching. It had the picture of a tiger and a jailed Moghiya tribal poacher – and the picture stayed rooted in my head. Giving seed to this story.
I started reading up about tigers and this huge international poaching mafia that traded in tiger skins, claws and bones - and I somehow found myself writing a story – and I just couldn’t stop. Until it ended.
Once the story was finished, I had no clue what to do with it. I showed it to my daughters who were then 11 and 9. They read it, and said it was alright, but it could do with more ‘hiccups’ and suspense thrown in - and that I should have another think and try a bit harder. (Hmmm!)
So I did what I do when I really want to try a bit harder. I stared at our fish tank, paced around it (which might have made our goldfish dizzy-ish), went for long walks, tried to make pebbles skip thrice on the water in the little canal nearby (without scaring away the moorhens), and then ‘plunk’! As the pebble hit the water, I got it! I knew what the story was missing. It was a tiger adventure - but I had never seen a wild tiger! That’s what I needed to do.
I’d been to several wildlife reserves before, but had never seen anything but tiger tracks and tails. The only tigers I had seen were at the zoo or on the telly - such as in Valmik Thapar’s ‘Land of the Tiger’. (Incidentally, he agreed to my request to write the Foreword to my book – and wrote a wonderful one, leaving me quite overwhelmed!)
I dug out my copy of the National Geographic and looked at the same article again. It carried an interview with a ‘reluctant tiger hero’ – a conservation biologist called Dr Dharmendra Khandal, who has dedicated his life to saving tigers and heads Tiger Watch, an NGO in Ranthambhore. I’d been so inspired by his story that I had based one of the characters in Ambushed on him. I realized I should ask Dr Khandal’s permission to do this - so I emailed him and requested to meet him – which he kindly consented to.
So, our family – my husband, our two daughters and myself – visited the Ranthambhore forests. And in the three days that we were there, I got to see not one, but eight tigers – in absolutely mesmeric encounters! Including one with a tigress (called Krishna) who had just given birth to four cubs. It was as if the tigers had allowed me into their world. (If you read the book, you will see how Krishna and her cubs find their way into the story. And it's three of Krishna's cubs in the photo at the top.)
We visited Tiger Watch who have set up a school for the kids of ex-poachers (tribal semi-nomadic Moghiyas), to give them a window to alternate livelihoods. All the royalties from Ambushed are going towards this school. Dr Khandal’s equally committed wife Divya runs a craft enterprise called Dhonk, which helps impart skills to the poachers’ families to give them sustainable incomes.
Within the last century, the world has lost 97% of its wild tiger population. Experts say that the tiger will be extinct in 15 years.
However, from all my school visits in India and London, I am so immensely heartened by the children’s engagement with Ambushed’s story and with tiger conservation; I just know that this generation of children will not let the tigers die out. In fact, just recently, the children at a leading school in London read Ambushed and were so moved by the plight of the tigers, they raised over £4000 for Tiger Watch's efforts through a sponsored read!
So, if you’re up for a jungle adventure - read Ambushed and find out how Tara and Satya team up to try and save Bijli, the tigress, and her cubs from ruthless poachers.
And don’t forget to write in to firstname.lastname@example.org with your ideas as to how we can save the majestic tiger! YOU can make it happen.