“Personally Speaking”: Ruth Padel on Life, Poems and Tigers

Published in Sunday Telegraph Magazine, Seven

November 12th 2006

I was born in an attic. My first memory is being held up to look out of its window at a wild creature, which was looking back at me. An owl, roosting in a chimney-top abovce the mews. Only after I’d written ten books did I realize that wildness, and wild animals, lie at the heart of what I feel about writing.

My father taught Greek, my mother worked in cancer research till the children came. I was a shy child, happiest with books or exploring woods with the dog. My grandmother Nora Barlow was Charles Darwin’s grand-daughter: our bookshelves were awash with wildlife. Deep in suburban London, I felt the jungle – where I would naturally, like Bagheera, melt into shadows of the trees – was my proper home.

Wild animals also drew me into poetry. Always by my bed was The Book of a Thousand Poems. The section I liked best, whose poems I knew by heart, was “All Creatures Great and Small”. Wild animals were clearly poetry’s right subject. Blake was a good teacher.

I was baffled, though by adult writing longhand – all those joined-up letters, as arcane as grown-ups themselves. I thought, “’l’ll never understand”. But in poems I saw that words could stalk you, hide, then present themselves as dappled, fugitive, playful. A poem could be both the jungle and the tiger. Then my father taught me the Greek alphabet. But delight turned to despair when he said I only knew the letters, not the language. What I longed for, I think, and this was always linked to writing, was what Darwin called “tangle”. Shadowy, interlinking intricacies with a hidden life within, In words as well as woods.

My first poems were published in the year I gave up teaching university Greek in order to write. Other books followed. About rock music and Greek myth. About Greek tragedy and the mind. Six poetry collections. Then, in India, I walked in tropical forest for the first time and felt alive as never before. The tiger was the meaning of the forest. I expected to see it, as readers expect to see a poem’s meaning.

Well, I didn’t; at first. But there were other entrancements. Deer in silver mist, leopard tracks, a racket-tailed drongo trailing long blobby tail feathers as if pursued by flying lollipops. The magical alphabet of the forest. As in a poem, every detail was mysteriously connected. This was where I’d always longed to be. I’d learned the letters; now I wanted the language. Could I write a book about tigers?

I’d no idea what I was getting into. There are authoritative books on tigers by naturalists, scientists, conservationists. What could I contribute?
Well, maybe how it feels, as a denizen of the easy West, to walk where tigers walk, from thorn-forest to snowy taiga and mangrove swamp: Nepal, Bangladesh, Russia, China, Bhutan, South East Asia. I could bring what I knew about, poetry and myth; could learn the science; and maybe add my personal life so readers would identify with my nervous amateur gaze. I’d just ended a long relationship. I could counterpoint remote Asian forest with the familiar world of relationships: London parties prowled dangerously by your ex.

“Are you going to write about tigers from the conservation viewpoint,” asked a journalist at one of these, ” or will you be more objective?”
What, I asked, did he mean by “objective”? Did he think scientific data was not objectively derived?

I realized how little people know of what is being lost every day; of brilliant field scientists, working from all-too-objective facts, struggling to protect. There is now, says George Schaller, one of the greatest of them, “a great dying”.

Wildlife crime is third biggest, globally, after drugs and arms. I was writing, I found, about the people who generously shared their knowledge with me while protecting tigers. In India, a hundred guards are mutilated or killed every year by poachers, In Bangkok an ex commando, who teaches South East Asian forest guards to fight poachers, said, “We’re the defenders of the wild.”

Every day these frontline defenders struggle with corrupt politicians making money from forests, corrupt forest officers nodding through the building of roads or mines in supposedly protected forest. Everything comes down to corruprion and greed in the end, Defenders risk their lives against armed poachers; face time-wasting lawsuits filed by forest officers trying to cover up poaching by prosecuting for trespass the scientists observing it. Yes, I’d kayacked, terrified, down rapids on Laotian rivers, got stung by scorpions, walked up Sumatran volcanos over fresh tiger pugmarks in cobra-filled equatorial forest, and seen wonderful tigers, while trying to do what both poetry and science demand – say it precisely as you saw it. But I’d also stepped into a worldwide battle for the wild.

Above all, against China. The Environmental Investigation Agency has just published a report on the tigerskin trade. Huge numbers of fresh skins (tigers from India, mainly) are currently sold openly in China and China-controlled Tibet. The Dalai Lama has condemned this, so Tibetans are trying to suppress it. But not China, where denial is the name of the game. Last month in Geneva, at a conference of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a Chinese government delegate who thought he wasn’t being watched was spotted by ab ex-poiceman dumping piles of this appalling report in a fat Swiss skip.

That’s how seriously China takes its responsibility to the wild. Wild tigers everywhere are threatened by poaching driven by Chinese appetite for illegal tigerskin and (for Chinese medicine) tiger bone.

“Enjoy the wild places of the world while they’re around,” an Indian conservationist emailed me recently, in despair at his own government’s forest policy. “They won’t be for long.”

But they could remain, the tigers and their forests. I learned that, too. Awareness makes a difference, pressure makes a difference; I’ve seen it happen. The great dying is not inevitable.

I’m writing on king cobras now. Because snake are creatures of earth and earth is what it’s all about. Because in wilderness, says Thoreau, “is the preservation of the world”.

Prize-winning poet Ruth Padel is Chair of the Poetry Society and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her recent collection The Soho Leopard was shortlsted for the T S Eliot Prize. Her travel-memoir Tigers in Red Weather has just appeared in paperback.


Skinning the Cat: Crime and Politics of the Big Cat Skin Trade is published by the Environmental Investigation Agency, 62 Upper St, London N1 ONY 0207 354 7960,

[email protected]