The story of India's Bengal tiger is eerily similar to that of the American bison, and equally depressing. What once was a worldwide tiger population of more than 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century has been whittled down via hunting and habitat loss to fewer than 3,000 animalsabout 1,400 of which are in India.
In Broken Tail, we see grainy video and old photographs of hunting expeditions from the early 1900s that make it evident that killing the giant cat was as much about sport as it was nuisance control.
Today, the fact that any wild animal, particularly a predator of this size, still has the ability to roam freely in a country of over 1.1 billion people is somewhat jarring, a fact that this documentary examines with an honest eye and a heart that's in the right place.
Broken Tail is your Best of Festival winner for this year's International Wildlife Film Festival, and despite an occasionally clunky narrative and inconsistent production value, it's a film worth seeing for its original conceit and powerful message. It's not a feel-good nature flick in the traditional sense, but it won't leave you feeling overwhelmingly depressed about the state of tigers, or even humanity in general.
We know within 15 minutes that Broken Tail is an autopsy of sorts for a young male Bengal tiger. In the prologue, we meet Irish filmmaker and tiger conservationist Colin Stafford-Johnson, who spent more than 600 days filming a tiger familyincluding Broken Tail, one of two cubsin India's Ranthambore National Park.
Although the odd tameness of the tigers in early footage from the preserves is never explained, the beauty of the tigers lounging in crumbling Indian ruins within Ranthambore is captivating. Stafford-Johnson, who also narrates the film, spends nearly two years tracking and following Broken Tail as he grows into a young adult tiger, only to suddenly lose all trace of him.
His body is found a year later, more than 100 miles outside the park in the city of Darra. He had been killed by a train.
Devastated by the news, Stafford-Johnson makes it his mission to understand why the tiger traveled so far from home, and what he may have encountered along the way. He sets out on horseback with a companion to make the trip from Ranthambhore to Darra, taking a route that Broken Tail may have followed.
As a storytelling and advocacy device, this set-up works more often than not. Overall, the exploration of the possible various human-tiger interactions, from goat herders to poachers, is illuminative and thoughtful.
Take the issue of tiger poaching in India today. It's far more complex than the lustful sport hunting of bison across the Great Plains in the late 1800s or of Bengal tigers in the early 1900s. At one point in Broken Tail, the narrator speaks with a self-identified poacher who explains that he is not a rich man from the $100 he is paid for a tiger but that his children are fed.
The people who live around the reserves in India are generally impoverished, so for a few, the lure of poaching is great. Unfortunately, as Stafford-Johnson carefully points out, their own fates may be sealed by the extinction of the tigermany of the reserves and associated watersheds where these villagers live are protected from development and urban encroachment because of the presence of the tigers.
That issue is the crux of Broken Tail: It's not just that tigers need more space, it's that they need connected space. Wildlife preserves and national parks are a necessary start, but as this film plainly shows, islands of refuge cannot adequately contain a large predator with roaming instincts. And the problems begin the moment they step outside of their safe havens.
Stafford-Johnson's enthusiasm and passion for the subject occasionally get the best of him, but it's hard to fault him too much. India's Bengal tigers need more advocates like him.
Broken Tail screens this week at the Roxy Theater on Sunday, May 6, at 9 PM. The IWFF runs Sat., May 5, through Sat., May 12. Check wildlifefilms.org for a full schedule.