Tigers in Red Weather by Ruth Padel

Cannabis? We save it for the pigs
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Her journey unlocks a passion for the tiger, a symbol of survival which sustains her through the dark days, although the people she meets are often not optimistic. One of them describes conservation to her as "the oncology of biology", a science where "all your patients are dying." But Padel presses onwards, forging friendships and absorbing knowledge from an ever-widening network of tiger experts across the globe.

Inevitably, her voyage is as much about the human animal as the feline: the villagers who live alongside the tigers, competing for the same resources; the forest rangers and conservationists who are fighting against the villagers, the poachers, the governments, to save wildlife and its habitats. Most of the book is spent not seeing tigers - a brief encounter in the opening pages with a young male in Kanha, India, is not the first of many. The closest Padel gets is often a pugmark, or tiger track, laid across the earth "like a love-token" left for its followers.

Padel's poet's eye brings the landscape and its inhabitants - whether on two legs or four - to vivid life. A heron lands "with a flapping like someone hanging out washing"; baby golden langur monkeys are "bitter-orange dolls... nibbling buds like children eating sweetcorn". And however desperate the situation, Padel finds humour in it. A trip to Bhutan - home to the world's only yeti reserve, where the national costume is a knee-length dressing-gown and where victory in the national sport (archery) is celebrated by doing the black-necked crane dance - takes in a trek through fields full of cannabis. Do people smoke it here, she asks. Her guide is horrified. "Isn't that very bad for your mind? They give it to pigs, it makes them sleepy."

Given the poverty and corruption she encounters, despite the enduring commitment and courage of those who work to oppose it, it would be easy for Padel to fall into despair. And yet this very personal travelogue ends on a note of hope. Padel returns to her beginning and finds, in visiting India once more, a proof of nature's resilience and renewal. And what of the man she began this journey to forget? "Let him, in the words of an old film, go bingle his bongle."