By Rachelle Beckner
“That face is still in my mind,” Keshav Varma shared with us as he recounted a tale from his childhood about Old Uncle.
Old Uncle is not a strong male figure in Varma’s family, but, rather, a tiger that visited a river near the Varma family farm every day.
Varma came to tiger advocacy at a young age. As a child, he regularly encountered a wild tiger he named Old Uncle, one that claimed the Varma family farm as its territory. He often stole away to watch the tiger drink from a small stream near his home. They became, if not friends, then certainly acquaintances. On his frequent trips into the forest, the tiger came to accept this curious child who’d watch him from a distance. Varma came to think of Old Uncle as a treasured member of his family, a face that would appear only after his presence was announced by the cacophony of the forest: deer and monkeys and feral pigs and birds, all announcing the king was near.
Now, Varma leads a global effort to save this majestic species. A former executive with the World Bank, Varma is founder and CEO of the Global Tiger Initiative Council. He has decades of experience at the highest levels of the Indian government and in building strategic partnerships around the world. Varma is the keynote speaker in the first installment of the Tiger United University Consortium’s international webinar series on tiger conservation.
In Varma’s youth, tiger hunting was legal, and Old Uncle was a trophy many villagers wanted—not as a friend or family member, but as a hide on their floor. Varma’s father was a district official in those days, and the son urged his father to use whatever influence he had to protect the tiger. That was the first—but certainly not the last—time that Varma fought for a tiger’s life.
“That experience left an impression on me,” Varma said. “There is divinity in a tiger; it exists in a state of meditative repose. So, when you see a tiger, it is an experience that transforms your life. It transformed mine.”
Indeed it has. Varma has dedicated a large part of his career to developing key partnerships around the globe that are dedicated to tiger conservation. A defining moment in those partnerships occurred at the St. Petersburg (Russia) summit in 2010.
“The St. Petersburg Summit was historic in that this was the first time that many heads of government ever came together to save one animal,” Varma said. “The momentum that was started there continues as countries work to implement conservation measures to save this iconic species. To many, the tiger is mystical, a divine force of nature which permeates the wilderness with its divinity.”
A key partnership Varma developed is with Clemson University and the Tigers United University Consortium, a partnership between Auburn University, Clemson, Louisiana State University and University of Missouri – all land-grant universities with a tiger mascot.
When Dr. Brett Wright took over director of the Consortium’s first director in 2018, Varma was one of the first key allies. Their friendship—along with partnerships Dr. Wright continues to form with stakeholders from tiger range countries around the world—is paying dividends in the Consortium’s efforts.
These partnerships will be highlighted in the Consortium’s international webinar series on tiger conservation, “The Road to Vladivostok.” Vladivostok is where global tiger conservation leaders will gather in Summer 2022 – the Year of the Tiger on the Chinese calendar – to assess progress in the last decade and map out future efforts.
The series launches on February 2 with Varma. Varma will share stories like the one about “Old Uncle” while also highlighting the work that lies ahead of us to save our mascot.
“The webinar series is being undertaken to enhance the awareness among students, faculty and alums of each university regarding the plight of surviving populations of tigers in the wild,” Wright said. “This series will start with a review of the historic St. Petersburg Declaration of 2010, which served to bind the 13 Asian countries, home to wild tigers, to a global strategy to save this species. It is delivered by the very person who was an architect of that summit in St. Petersburg and who remains one of the leading voices for tiger conservation worldwide – Mr. Keshav Varma.”
To join us on Feb. 2, register here: https://clemson.zoom.us/webinar/register/3616085662503/WN_e892AiYVTuSVUyxoHbXAlg
You can also mark your calendar to join us for upcoming sessions.