Varma is a gifted storyteller, a bureaucrat with a poet’s sensibilities. For him, describing a tiger is like composing lines of verse that come from a place of intimate, firsthand knowledge. “A forest comes alive when the tiger is there,” he says. “The trees are more beautiful. The breeze blows more gently.”
And this is where poetry and science intersect. Wright is not a poet, but he explains the tiger’s impact on flora and fauna in much the same way as his friend.
“As an apex species, tigers protect the forest in a way,” Wright says. “When they are no longer there, we have an imbalance in the ecosystem. And that affects everyone — you, me and the world. The presence of a tiger means the forest is healthy.”
It’s a classic illustration of the food chain, or more accurately, the symbiosis of nature. Clean air and water means healthy grasses. Healthy grasses mean large numbers of deer and other foraging herbivores. And when prey species like sambar, swamp or spotted deer are in abundance — as they are in Kanha — apex predators aren’t far behind. And there is no apex predator like a tiger.
Healthy tiger equals healthy ecosystem. Healthy ecosystem equals healthy world.
Himmat Singh Negi spent 14 years at Kanha, the last four of which he served as its director. He said that simple equation has enormous implications for life, not just in India, but halfway around the world, in a southern state in America where tigers have never lived but where people celebrate the species nonetheless.
“It’s the top predator, which explains the survival of human beings, and that is what we really need to understand,” says Negi, one of the members of the Clemson expedition. “If you protect the tiger, you protect yourself.”
Hence the urgency of the U.S. Tiger University Consortium’s mission and Wright’s leadership in finding partners around the world. The Global Tiger Forum, with which Clemson signed a memorandum of agreement to help launch the consortium, is perhaps the most significant of those alliances.
“The fact that we are partnering with the Global Tiger Forum is extremely important,” Wright says. “It is the organization that coordinates all efforts among the 13 tiger range countries. We share resources and ideas while collaborating on research that is having an enormous impact on tiger health worldwide.”
Among those who are central to that process is Mohnish Kapoor, who leads programs and partnerships for the Global Tiger Forum. He is a relentless advocate for tiger conservation and travels the world, building relationships among stakeholders. Kapoor estimates he’s seen hundreds of wild tigers, but “still I get goosebumps.”
“The feeling is there, every time,” he continues. “I just hope future generations can witness them too. It is one of the best gifts of God to this planet. I really hope we can be successful in our work to save this majestic animal.”
That same hope brought the Clemson team to India and brought Kapoor and Varma — at Wright’s invitation — to see other kinds of tigers, specifically, those who play football. Kapoor grins widely when recalling his first college football game: Clemson versus Auburn. Tiger versus tiger.
“There are no wild tigers [in Clemson],” Kapoor says. “But the amount of excitement that I saw when I was there was amazing.”
Amazing, yes. But also sobering. Because, again, how many of the 85,000 people in Death Valley that day know what’s at stake? It’s the mission of the U.S. Tiger University Consortium to help them know.
“Hundreds of times a day, on our campus and across South Carolina, Clemson fans say, ‘Go Tigers,’” Wright says. “But what will we say when they are gone?”