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Bengal tigers in India conserved by Bournemouth family
Sue Paz, BBC Dorset
By Sue Paz
BBC Dorset

An Indian tiger. Copyright of Geoff Whittle.

The Whittle family from Bournemouth emigrated from Dorset to India in 1997, to set up a tiger sanctuary.

Geoff Whittle, his wife Cherrie, and sons, Olly and Jamie, had fallen on hard times.

During the recession, their business was experiencing a "trough", and their property was in negative equity.

They decided to reassess their lives and opted for an adventure that suited their "love of the outdoors", and enabled them to "give something back".

Geoff said: "Jamie was nine and Olly was 11 at the time.

"Jamie was quite happy to stay with me and Cherrie and do what we thought was best - not that we really knew what that was - but, Olly was miffed by whole idea.

"He had just got a paper round and was thinking about girlfriends. His initial reaction was 'what have I done wrong?'

"Reluctantly, he packed up his things like the rest of us and we ended up at Delhi airport with a suitcase each, and no real plan of what we were going to do next."

In the jungle

Geoff Whittle's children, playing with two Indian boys. Copyright of Geoff Whittle.
While their children were away at school, Geoff and Cherrie learnt Hindi

The family travelled around India for the first year, home schooling their boys, and trying to find a suitable location for their sanctuary for Bengal tigers.

Geoff said: "It needed to be in unspoilt, tiger-inhabited jungle, with no commercial pressures and very little tourism.

"If you were to draw a line from north to south, east to west - through the diamond shape of India - that's where we finally settled, in the jungles of Satpura.

"It was at that stage we realised there was no proper schooling for Olly and Jamie.

"The only UK curriculum, residential school was in the extreme south of India, and a three day train journey away.

"We didn't have a choice!

"Our youngest settled in straight away, and after trying to get expelled a few times, our eldest went on to become one of the 'leading lights' at the school - he even captained the football team."

'Isolated'

Meanwhile, Geoff and Cherrie say they became the only resident, European couple, in an area inhabited by 25 million people.

Geoff said: "We were quite isolated.

There are now only 3,000 tigers worldwide (Geoff Whittle)
Tigers are the largest of all the 'big cats' (BBC Nature)
Three of the eight subspecies of tiger are now extinct (BBC Nature)

"We cooked on an open fire, had interrupted power facilities and a poor water supply.

"We slept on wooden framed beds with webbing, in a dilapidated, brick bungalow that leaked during the monsoon season.

"Surprisingly, we were exceptionally fortunate with our health, even though we travelled in some of the most infested areas, for diseases such as malaria.

"The locals were suspicious of us at first.

"Eventually though, we learnt to speak Hindi, which created a greater empathy with them and this rapport helped us to set up our tiger conservation charity, LifeForce .

"Inevitably though there were a number of humorous incidents when we were still learning the language.

"For example, we were staying in a tribal village and I announced to the caretaker we were going on a trek, and would be back in four hours for dinner.

"In fact, what I had actually said was we would be back in four flowerpots (because the two Hindi words are similar) - I wondered why we didn't get any food!"

A 'critical situation'

Geoff Whittle and wife, Cherrie, with a local villager. Copyright of Geoff Whittle.
Geoff and Cherrie helped locals to generate their own income

In the early 1900s there was an estimated population of 100,000 tigers globally. Now there are only 3,000 - up to half of which are in India.

Although hunting is banned in India, tigers are poached for Chinese medicine.

Geoff said: "One tiger is worth about £27,000. It's a highly organised crime."

Their other threat is deforestation [the clearance of naturally-occurring forests by logging and burning], which destroys their habitat.

Geoff added: "They are in a critical situation."

"All the tigers we support are wild. In fact, we've never actually touched a tiger, we just protect their environment.

"The best way to preserve them is to leave them alone.

"We've devised ways of removing the dangers, like providing villagers with the means of independent income - irrigation systems, dams, bio gas for fuel, feeds for crops.

"This way they can generate money, without having to ravage the forests."

Moving back

Geoff and Cherrie formed associations with US Fish and Wildlife Service and Born Free Foundation .

An Indian tiger. Copyright of Geoff Whittle.
The Whittle family still return to India to check on the tiger sanctuary

Geoff said: "We identified projects that needed doing and acted as directors 'on the ground'

"Our only income was an eco-lodge [accommodation supporting local communities and the environment] we created.

"We invited supporters of the charities to come and stay, and charged them for doing so.

"The events of 9/11 meant that no foreign visitor came to the lodge - this more or less happened overnight.

"This lack of income, together with a threatened nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, plus the fact we missed our friends and family, is what ultimately brought us back to Dorset about three years ago [in 2007]."

LifeForce the tiger conservation sanctuary still exists, together with the other charity the Whittle family set up, Patchwork Kids which provides education for marginalised children.

Geoff said: "None of our work has been interrupted and we still return to India to check on ongoing projects and the property which we retained the rent on.

"Plus, we made some great friends over there and still correspond with them regularly."

'Culture shock'

Geoff admits that it was more of a 'culture shock' returning to life in Dorset, than moving to India.

He said: "We certainly appreciate our family more and the much smaller, seemingly insignificant things in life that we used to take for granted, mainly because we had so little when we lived in the jungle.

"I don't regret a day of it though.

"We were provided with an opportunity, and we siezed it!"

Geoff and Cherrie Whittle have written about their experiences in India in their book, No Worry, Chicken Curry




SEE ALSO
Earning their stripes
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Tiger skin trade in China exposed
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Bengal tigers set for Noah's Ark
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S Asia rivals 'to rebuild trust'
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Country profile: India
31 Mar 11 |  Country profiles
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24 Feb 10 |  Nature & Outdoors

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