Oscar-winning filmmaker Ross Kauffman’s documentary Tigerland is about two pioneering conservationists: Kailash Sankhala, the former director of India’s Project Tiger, and Pavel Fomenko, a tiger expert in Russia. The two-hour film follows Fomenko’s good fight in real time and revisits the late Kailash Sankhala’s work through archival footage, animation and anecdotes from his grandson, Amit Sankhala.

Written and directed by Kauffman, whose Born Into Brothels, a documentary he co-directed about the children of Kolkata’s sex workers, won an Oscar in 2005, Tigerland will be aired on Animal Planet on July 29.

Tigerland adds heart and soul to the wildlife documentary format, third-generation environmentalist Amit Sankhala told Scroll.in. “The tiger is, of course, the focus of the documentary, but they [the filmmaking team] wanted to portray passion, and people who want to save the tiger,” Amit said. “That was a different twist to the usual let us cover the tiger and its story angle. This was an artsy take.”

Ross Kauffman, director of Tigerland.

Through Sankhala and Fomenko, Tigerland examines the importance of the big cat in India and Russia, the countries with the largest tiger populations in the world. While the activists are 50 years apart and worked in different time periods, both played key roles in reviving the tiger population in their countries.

Fomenko works closely with endangered wild cats at the World Wildlife Fund in Russia. Kailash Sankhala was the founding director of Project Tiger, the conservation programme launched by the government in 1973 to save the Bengal Tiger from extinction. Sankhala’s mission began during his time as an officer in the Indian Forest Service in the 1950s, when he campaigned to make tiger poaching illegal.

“The idea of Project Tiger was to take the community outside the national parks,” Amit revealed. “It was created to start a habitat for tigers. He came, he did his job honestly and did it till he could. And luckily it resulted in him being the first director of Project Tiger, which was ground-breaking.”

Conveying the scale and scope of the Padma Shri awardee’s momentous efforts in the documentary was a challenge. “Grandfather died many years ago in 1994, and he was sort of a shy personality in front of the media and did not have a lot of footage,” Amit added. “I know a lot about him and have spent my childhood with him. But beyond that, I do not have videos of him. How do we tell stories? They did a pretty fascinating job telling his story through animation.”

Tigerland (2019). Courtesy Discovery Communications.

Kauffman’s documentary also led Amit Sankhala to make interesting discoveries about his grandfather, including a trip he took to Venezuela. “You would not expect someone to travel to Venezuela in the ’60s and ’70s for a tiger conference,” Amit said. “He visited many places to learn new techniques and voice his paper about the tiger population. I also learnt how political backing was very important for these projects. There were many people behind this core movement. Something like this is very hard to achieve today.”

Thanks to the groundwork laid by environmentalists over decades, there is a lot more awareness about the importance of tiger conservation today. “In the 1970s, it was about making killing tigers illegal and building national parks,” Amit added. “It took years to get the laws implemented. But today, everybody is following a community page of a tiger and is in some sort of a social media forum. If a tiger goes missing, 10,000 people take a vigil to India Gate. That is what has changed.”

However, the equation between development and the environment remains uneasy. “Unfortunately, we [conservation efforts] will always battle mining, infrastructure and highways,” he said. “It is something that we cannot stop. If you do that, you will lose people’s votes and lose people’s willingness to support.”

Amit Sankhala.