'Tigerland'

The documentary "Tigerland" is a character study of two tiger conservationists and their efforts to preserve the species in Russia and India.

If you feel the need for penance, or perhaps want to watch a movie about big cats and not human dysfunction, then allow "Tigerland" to assist you.

In lieu of the bizarre human circus of Netflix's hit, "Tiger King," this featured selection at the International Wildlife Film Festival is deeply concerned with these alpha predators.

Yet like many documentaries, it draws you with a human character study, and boasts two protagonists, one living and one deceased, that ironically enough are outsized people. One is described as crazy by a friend, and the other difficult to deal with by an admiring expert, but their intentions are noble and their intelligence is sharp.

At the beginning, director Ross Kauffman, who won an Academy Award for "Born into Brothels," introduces a deeply committed conservationist named Pavel Fomenko of the Rare Species Conservation World Wildlife Fund. Since joining a tiger study in the remote Bikin National Park, located in far eastern Russia, he has worked to protect tigers, viewed as a deity by the Indigenous people in the area. While he's not religious himself, he says "for me, losing the tiger would be the loss of something divine."

Further into the past, Kauffman intercuts the story of Kailash Sankhala, an Indian conservationist who died in 1994 in his 70s, having founded his country's Tiger Preserves. These parks are dedicated to their habitat and rooted in his belief that the public would save a once-hunted creature if they could observe it in its natural environment. Sankhala's story is related by colleagues and his family, including grandson Amit Sankhala, with archival photographs and his writings.

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With a long nose and stern face, Fomenko resembles a less cantankerous version of Werner Herzog. As a student, he signed up to work on a tiger project in the Bikin park. He and his colleagues were given guns and ammunition to procure their own food while spending months in the woods. A friend says "in this world, crazy people find each other quickly," and soon not long before we see old footage of one of them scrambling up a tree, followed by a tiger. (It was the happiest time of their lives, one says.)

His storyline, and the middle section of the movie, develops into a B plot. A tigress with two cubs has been hunting dogs in a small village located inside the preserve. Fomenko and a team tranquilize the tigress and put it in captivity, for fear that the residents would kill it if it weren't stopped. However, that's left the younglings on their own and a rescue/hunt in the endless fields is initiated.

"Why are people fascinated with the tiger?" Fomenko says. "A symbol of power, first and foremost. It's a beautiful killing machine." 

He explains how the fall of the Soviet Union threatened the tiger on two fronts: poaching and habitat destruction. He works in the field of animal forensics, determining whether an animal was really killed in self-defense or if a poacher is lying.

In an excerpt from Kailash Sankhala's unpublished book, he describes himself a "tiger addict," and describes his manuscript as a project in which "the hero is the tiger, and it is his biography that I wish to write."

Sankhala, unafraid of popularity, angered his friends, colleagues, businessmen and politicians in his quest to protect tigers. "He pleased nobody," a colleague says. Kaufmann uses interviews with descendants and a visit to a contemporary tiger preserve to relate his life story. The tigers, once abundant, were considered a nuisance that deserved to be hunted, either for sport or to protect herds. Sankhala's commitment was such that he embarked on a one-person survey of the country's population. The numbers were startling, enough that they were made into a protected species by 1972. The filmmakers' visits to the preserves offer some lovely shots of the animals quietly moving freely. We also learn how Sankhala viewed tigers as a means to protect the entire ecosystem — he even wished for his body to be left in the woods, part of a cycle, and not even a plank of wood wasted to cremate him.

In contrast, Fomenko's quest to reunite and release the tigress and her cubs has a shocking development that reminds us of how dangerous nature can be, with footage that's not violent but frightening.

In a sign of how deeply Fomenko cares for the animals, he says "I still love them," and that it was fate.