Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival: Heartbreaking Broken Tail packs powerful message about tigers and conservation
A documentary by Colin Stafford-Johnson. Unrated. Plays Tuesday, February 14, at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, Pacific Cinematheque
As the year 1899 cranked over into the 1900s, there were an estimated 100,000 wild tigers in the world. As of two years ago, there remained just about 4,000. Of those, only about 1,400 are left in scattered preserves in India, home of the Bengal tiger.
Broken Tail, a documentary about one of those Indian cats, manages to deliver a serious message about conservation while still prompting the waterworks (or at least a lumpy throat), and all without descending into the syrupy depths of a Disney-style anthropomorphic cute fest.
The hour-long film, shot, directed, cowritten, and narrated by Irishman Colin Stafford-Johnson, picked up three awards at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival (more prestigious than it sounds) and a best-wildlife-film trophy at the Banff Mountain Film Festival.
Stafford-Johnson spent almost 600 days obsessively filming a female tiger and her two male cubs (including Broken Tail, so named because of an obvious physical defect since birth) in India’s Ranthambhore National Park, which has been a tiger preserve in the north of that country since 1973, seven years before it gained park status.
Broken Tail, a curious, confident, playful, and mischievous (all the filmmaker’s words) young tiger, quickly became the obvious star of Stafford-Johnson’s cameras, accustomed as he—along with his sibling and mother--was to the small crew’s constant presence. (The director wasn’t entirely taken in by the animal’s charms: he acknowledges that no matter how much it appeared you could step up and play with the cat, if you did “you would be quickly killed”.)
The strong bonds within this particular feline family are conveyed more by simple revelation than by treacly sentimentalization. Few viewers will remain unmoved, though, by the scene (never witnessed before with Bengals) where the two male cubs, both bigger than their mother by then, jump out of the bush when summoned and attempt to suckle even though her milk had run dry a year previous. A brief sequence where the mother sends a larger roving, and dangerous, male tiger packing will make some want to cheer.
When Broken Tail was about two, still sticking to his mother like glue, he disappeared from the family’s haunts in Ranthambhore. There were no more tracks or sightings.
Months later came the news that he had been killed by a train at night outside a village near the Darra Forest, almost 200 kilometres away.
Stafford-Johnson, mystified by whatever it was that prompted the young tiger to desert the relatively safe confines of the large park to wander through farmlands and villages, decided to retrace, on horseback, whatever he could reasonably determine was Broken Tail’s route to the site of his eventual demise.
“We felt that in doing it, we could ultimately help…tiger conservation,” he says, explaining that shedding any light on motivation and travels could, for instance, assist in supporting the development of protected corridors between the isolated “island reserves” that are the sole remaining domains of the big cats.
The film boasts some gorgeous scenery of the mountains and hills that make up the Rajasthan region. The bigger environmental picture behind the steady slide toward extinction of these magnificent mammals, however, is the fact that, in Stafford-Johnson’s view, the termination of wild tigers will also mean the end to forests in India.
The constant international spotlight on the endangered species, he says, is the main reason any tracts of forest are saved today. Once the animal justification for preservation is removed—and the killings by poachers still proceed apace—the forests will vanish. Looking at the denuded landscapes right up to the borders of the park, it is hard to argue with his reasoning.
One tiger conservationist who visits Stafford-Johnson during his trek estimates that wild Indian tigers only have about five years left.
As the director says, passionately, of this impending extinction: "To allow it to happen on our watch, with that knowledge, how could you possibly explain that to people in the future?
"How could you sit down a classroom full of kids in 50 years' time and explain to them: 'Oh, yes, we knew that tigers were on the edge. Oh, but we let them go.'
"How could you possibly, rationally explain that to anyone in 50 years' time?
"You just couldn't."
Broken Tail will show as part of the VIMFF's "Tiger Night", which will lead off with guest speaker and author John Vaillant (The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival). The documentary (Conflict Tiger [UK/Sweden]) that inspired Vaillant's book will follow.
Start time, 7:30 p.m.; doors open at 7. For ticket and other information, please go to www.vimff.org/.