Think Out Loud

Tiger documentary raises issues of habitat loss and human intrusion

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Aug. 16, 2022 11:10 p.m. Updated: Aug. 17, 2022 9:22 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Aug. 17

Documentary "Tiger 24" highlights conservation issues imbedded in the story of a tiger dubbed a "man-eater."

Documentary "Tiger 24" highlights conservation issues imbedded in the story of a tiger dubbed a "man-eater."

Warren Pereira

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Tiger populations have shrunk over the last century. And though their numbers are increasing, there are only about 6,000 individuals globally. Their overall decline has been caused by habitat loss from deforestation and climate change but also poaching of the animal and its prey. Filmmaker Warren Pereira graduated from Lewis & Clark College with a biology degree and later began a quest to document the species’ plight in his home country of India.

He would ultimately find a male tiger dubbed T-24 or Tiger 24, an animal suspected of killing multiple men and drawing the name “man-eater.” After what was widely considered compelling evidence that T-24 had killed a parks worker, the “man-eater” was ultimately captured and contained in a zoo. The film plays in Eugene’s Metro theater this weekend, with a wider release set for the fall. Pereira joins us to talk about the issues the film raises about wildlife and human activity, the national interest T-24 sparked, and the court case about the tiger that reached India’s highest court.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. Warren Pereira graduated from Lewis and Clark College with a Biology Degree, but then he swerved and began a career as a filmmaker. His first feature length documentary is out now. It’s called Tiger 24. It focuses on one particular tiger in a national park in Northern India, an animal suspected of killing four men over the course of about five years. But the story Pereira ended up telling is bigger than that of a single animal. It’s about wildness, conservation and competing pressures on the same piece of land. Warren Pereira, welcome.

Warren Pereira: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Miller: Why did you want to make a film about tigers in the first place?

Pereira: Well the truth is I was not doing that. I was doing a narrative script, couldn’t get it going. And I’m from India and I thought about maybe I should do a tiger doc. And then the idea of doing something that had some kind of conservation meaning behind it, it was really important to me. And in the beginning I looked around different tiger reserves to try to find a subject and I was told to follow a female with cubs because that’s traditionally how you get the best footage for these nature docs. But I ended up seeing T-24, also known as Assad, in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve [https://www.ranthamborenationalpark.com] in 2012 and he looked right at me in my lens and I asked about him and people said he killed a couple of people by then, and it was hard to follow, but it didn’t treat me. And at the time, it was my time, my money, and I said, ‘Let’s just go follow him once or twice a year and see what happens.’ And the story ended up being a lot bigger than anticipated.

Miller: What is Ranthambore like – the place that you ended up focusing on, in the place where Tiger-24, Assad, lived?

Pereira: Well, I mean it’s in Northwest India, it’s a dry, deciduous forest, so it’s not really green, but it’s really beautiful to me compared to the other tiger reserves. It has a unique golden like quality, and we tried to portray that in the film. But also, in the film, as you’ve seen, you know, there’s a lot of human population just outside and sometimes even entering the national park and that’s something that this film required me to portray, which I think in most traditional nature docs, you try to show this as this inviolate, expansive, wild space that’s truly wild. And this film shows the reality that these tiger reserves are not perfect. They’re trying to be perfect. But because of lack of habitat and you know, human invasion, they’re just holding on to the little spots that they are now.

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Miller: Right. I mean, you let us know that people cross into the core area for tigers to get firewood or to use the bathroom or as pilgrims walking through to get to a temple. But it’s also the territory of potentially deadly animals. This is not the way tiger sanctuaries are supposed to be managed under Indian laws. How is it allowed?

Pereira: Well, I mean way back there used to be villagers living inside what is now called core areas. So the government has spent a lot of money to give them incentives to move outside the core area now that they are for the most part. But the pilgrimage, you know, it’s really important to them, and I understand that, and these tiger reserves have a certain cultural value. So that’s the reason for the pilgrimage. As far as the firewood and hanging out or using the bathroom, it’s because they’re poor, and when you’re over there, you start to understand it… like if you know… for you and I, maybe it’s a bit alien now, but if we actually lived there and you’re at home and maybe your wife or your family’s using the tiny bathroom you have, and you want to go out and smoke a cigarette and read the newspapers and use the bathroom, then maybe that’s where you go. And most days you never even see a tiger let alone and have some kind of deadly encounter. So it’s just a way of life and tiger attacks are very rare. But when they happen, it’s sensational because of all this man eater stuff. So that’s why they invade. It’s just a matter of lack of habitat and also because they’re poor.

Miller: When you got there, as you noted, you saw this beautiful and visually charismatic tiger, T-24, and you were told, as you noted, that he had already been implicated in the deaths of three people. How close did you get to him when you were filming?

Pereira: Most of the photography is about, you know, twenty to thirty feet, but sometimes he would come within ten feet if he’s walking towards us, or hanging out by his kill or something. Also, I didn’t really have the budget because I’m an independent filmmaker, to have the kind of long lens you’re supposed to need for this, which goes up to fifteen hundred millimeters. I maxed out at about six hundred millimeters. So to get my close ups, I had to actually go close, which I ended up being a good thing photographically, because when you bring a lens closer to an animal, you actually see truer dimensions. So I think our close ups actually have a nice quality to them. They don’t have that flattened look that you see with a very long lens. Sometimes, really close, but for the most part, you know, twenty to thirty  feet.

Miller: But I imagine, I mean even… could a tiger leap fifteen feet in the air and just land on you?

Pereira: Yeah, they very rarely attack jeeps. It has happened, and certainly T-24 was close enough multiple times to enter the jeep or pull someone out of the jeep. But they’re intelligent enough to know that the jeep is bigger than them, stronger than them, you know, faster than them. And also we’re not doing the tiger any harm. These attacks all occurred when people entered on foot and there’s a big argument as to whether he was stalking them once they entered or whether they surprised him. We don’t really know. So I think for anyone listening, if you’re in a jeep in a tiger reserve, it’s pretty impossible for you to get attacked, unless you start really harassing the animal and sticking your hand right out or something.

Miller: And that seems like it’s an important and lucrative part of these preserves is having people go on tours in Jeeps and get pretty close to tigers. Can you give us a sense for what happened after a forest worker named Rampal Saini was killed in May of 2015?

Pereira: I got a call that my tiger may have killed, so T-24 may have killed Rampal and I actually vaguely knew Rampal because he used to check my film permit ticket as I drove in. I was actually working in the US on a commercial job and I flew to India, I arrived in Mumbai and by the time I arrived he’d already been removed and put in a zoo by the local state government. He was declared a man eater. And there was a big court case, there was activism, nationwide uproar, and as soon as I arrived in Mumbai I took a flight to Jaipur to the high court. As I drove to the high court there was these big billboards of this tiger that I was following. So he had become this big national sensation. Even the BBC was writing about it and I met the activist, I went into the courtroom and it was pretty surreal even for me and it forced me to understand the laws around tiger conservation, you know, the NTCA’s [National Tiger Conservation Authority;  https://ntca.gov] relationship with the state government, the NTCA being the federal body and the state government being Ranthambore, in this case. It just became a lot bigger deal than I’d anticipated and I was like, ‘Okay, I have to really take this seriously now and do the interviews, and go back and start to really understand what makes a tiger reserve work.’

Miller: And, T-24, he was ultimately removed because he was identified as a man eater, as a threat. But as you noted it almost seems like he became a kind of folk hero. Why do you think so many members of the public latched onto him and championed him?

Pereira: Well, he was pretty famous within Ranthambore before this incident of him being removed, because people sort of knew him as the big dominant male, the man eater, the mating partner to Noor, his female. And then when he got removed because of the activism, Chandra Bhal Singh, the lead activist, took this thing to court, I mean he took it to the high court, the Supreme Court, he moved the court system 13 times. It’s the national animal of India and I think he became a symbol for all tigers. Why it took off to the level it did, I still don’t fully understand. I think social media, I also think that if you go to India and you go to any of these tiger reserves, like everyone thinks they’re a tiger expert, they’ll you know, they’ll even tell me, in my my lodge, go here or go there and so there’s a certain amount of ownership that they take. And so everyone has an opinion about, ‘He’s a man eater,’ ‘He’s not a man eater,’ and they all got involved and they thought that the state government removed him harshly that they didn’t take the time to fully investigate, whether it was T-24 or not because there’s a standard operating procedure guideline that says you have to do all these things like forensics and etc to determine if this tiger was actually the tiger that killed the man that you know, that went in, and in this case the state government didn’t have the time to do that. In their minds, they were already thinking about removing him because he’d already killed at least three people before this incident, according to their records. So, they were done, when this happened, they were pretty much decided that night.

Miller: Just briefly, this seems in the end, a lot bigger than the story of one tiger. What lessons did you take about wildness and human development and the interplay between animals like tigers and messy human lives?

Pereira: The documentary really humbled me because, like I said earlier, when you go in as a filmmaker, you have this vanity about your shots and like, ‘okay, I gotta make this look great, and I gotta have this sound perfect,’ and when this documentary became what it became, I had to show the reality, and the reality is that we hardly have any truly wild spaces left. The ones that we do have are really tiny. They’re invaded on the edges. Wildlife is mostly managed. And that’s I think that’s a tragedy because humans have gone everywhere and I think there are some places we just shouldn’t go. That should be a mystique and the preservation of large predators requires the preservation of inviolate habitats that they occupy. And those habitats, whether you’re into the large predator or not, are good for the quality of life for all humans because they are, they provide a lot of ecosystem services like they fight climate change, they maintain other species. They maintain rivers and their tributaries, etcetera. So for me it was, I had to start showing what wildlife really is now, which is, it’s pretty limited to these little spots.

Miller: Warren Pereira thanks very much for joining us. Warren Pereira is the director of the documentary Tiger 24. It should be available for streaming in November, heading to Eugene’s Broadway Metro Theater on Friday. We’ll be back tomorrow.

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