IN 2017, Academy award-winning documentary director Ross Kauffman (Born in Brothels, 2004) and his team worked through extremes of temperature — -27° Celsius in Far East Russia and 35° C in India — on a very different kind of project. For the first time in his career, Mr. Kauffman was filming a documentary about animals — specifically, tigers — a break from telling stories about people and their struggles. The documentary, Tigerland, is meant to raise awareness of a project to create preserves for the rapidly dwindling population of great cat.
In 2016, the Discovery Channel launched Project C.A.T, a fund-raising initiative to preserve acres of land for tigers in partnership World Wildlife Fund US (WWF-US). Its first phase covered nearly 2 million acres of land in India and Bhutan. The project aims to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022. According to a WWF-led study on tigers published in the Climate Change journal, the population of tigers worldwide has declined by 96% over the last century, with poaching and habitat loss as the main causes of extinction.
Discovery and WWF-US have now set their eyes on Russia’s Bikin National Park. The project aims to preserve the local tiger population in the 3.7 million acre site. According to a press release, “Discovery will match donations received through this campaign up to $250,000 through Dec. 31, 2019.”
Mr. Kauffman’s documentary was done to raise awareness for the cause. Tigerland follows two subjects from Russia and India who have dedicated their lives to caring for tigers.
“I had never made a film about animals. Most of my films have to do with people and usually people in difficult circumstances but also films about hope,” Mr. Kauffman told members of the South East Asian media in a phone interview. He added that he was inspired to challenge himself and pursue the project when he encountered his young son working on paper cutouts of tigers and being told how he was fascinated by the species.
“As an apex predator, if we cut out the tiger from the top of the pyramid, the pyramid collapses. The balance of nature shifts and our ecosystem slowly but surely collapses as well,” Mr. Kauffman said of the importance of tigers in the wildlife and ecosystem.
In the film, Mr. Kauffman focuses on the expertise of Pavel Fomenko who leads conservation efforts for WWF in the Amur Region in Far East Russia. From him the director learned that one Siberian tiger needs hundreds of square kilometers to catch prey. He also focuses on conservationist Kailash Sankhala, known as the “Tiger Man of India,” who headed a government initiative called Project Tiger in 1973 to save endangered Indian tigers.
“I learned about what it takes to help start a conservation movement. It really comes down to the individuals who are fighting and who have put themselves on the frontline of conservation,” Mr. Kauffman said.
“I felt that one of the best ways for us to engage in any topic is to engage with people who are passionate about that topic. If I can get our audience to care about the people who are passionate in this cause about the tiger, then hopefully I can get the people to care about the tiger itself.
“I want my audience to know the people in my film and get to understand and become emotionally attached to these people. If I can create an emotional attachment to the people in the film, then my audience will understand what the people in the film care about,” he said.
Tigerland premieres on the Discovery Channel on March 31 at 10 p.m. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman