How do you begin to introduce the best 35 years of your life? All I know is that since early 1976, my life has been completely entangled with tigers. And it has been fantastic. Sheer magic! It was in 1961 that I saw my first tigers at Corbett National Park but I didn't know then that I would spend all my adult life being mesmerized by them. I was 9 years old and sitting atop an elephant when I saw a snarling tigress and her cub race out of high grass, flushed by a line of elephants. My uncle was then the boss of forests in the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and my first experiences with tigers were in the early 1960s. Believe it or not, on another occasion, while we were on our way to Gangotri, the local forest officer went up a mountain and came back with a rare brown bear. During the next 10 years, both my uncle and he would become Inspector Generals of Forest India in Delhi.
... This is the story of the 35 years that I have spent with Ranthambhore's wild tigers. My tiger diaries. My story. But even more than that, it is also about people, about Fateh Singh, who became my tiger guru and friend. It is about my brother-in-law Tejbir and our efforts to film tigers, and his son Jaisal. And about Fateh's son, Goverdhan. It is about all our ups and downs, the facts of those times, and how we worked and fought to keep tigers alive. I think this is perhaps the first time that such a detailed record is being published of one place, the major events that have occurred there, and the pain and joy of its tigers. I have learnt a lot by travelling back in time, and I think that the experiences described here will be valuable for anyone engaged in the battle to save tigers.
The Early Years
1976 to 1981
The next morning, at about 11 am, a jeep appeared with a driver called Prahlad Singh. I later got to know that this was Fateh Singh's driver. We bought our rations – vegetables, dal, rice and oil, and I got my crate of coke. I was a coca cola addict. We sped away, leaving the one-horse town of Sawai Madhopur in the distant horizon. And then, another world opened up. I quote from my diary of yesteryears, 'Leaving the town, we followed a narrow road running parallel to a range of hills, and after several kilometers, turned off onto a dirt track; but still, there were few indications of what lay ahead, be it forest or wildlife. The road then turned sharply, and suddenly we were skimming along the rim of a deep ravine, bouncing and jolting over the stony track. All of a sudden, the view changed. Below a sheer rocky cliff stood an ancient but massive stone gate that must have once been flanked by fortress walls, which had long since crumbled. It was the royal entrance to Ranthambhore, which had been constructed to protect the domain of kings and is surviving today to protect a treasure of equal if not greater value. Water flowed through the gate through a marble cow's head, forming a pool at the entrance. Beyond the gate, the air cooled down, the vegetation hickened, and the sounds changed. The chatter of birds mixed incongruously with the groan of the jeep. Cresting a rise, we saw the incredible sight of the Ranthambhore Fort, grey and looming,extending upwards from a steep cliff face. The sky was a clear blue, the forest around a dull green. The huge walls glinted in the sunlight, glancing at the world around as if man had decided to chisel a bit of nature, the upper fringe of the rock, rather than disturb or fight it.' I noted in my diary, 'It took my breath away then and takes it away each time I pass it.' My diary entry continues, 'We were close to our destination. I tried to look around me, straining to see through the trees for signs of life, but my eyes were not yet accustomed to seeing in the forest.
It is a skill not easy to come by. I could see old peepal trees and large banyans as we wound our way below the massive fort. As we crossed the last rise, the terrain changed dramatically. The steep hills gave way to a broad valley, dotted with low hills and large expanses of water, the largest of them clothed almost entirely in giant pink and white lotuses. It was the pink of innumerable folk paintings, a pink that I had never before believed possible. It was too much to assimilate all at once, the mix of history, man, and nature. As we branched off the road, I thought that we were plunging straight into the largest banyan tree I had ever seen. Two of its hundreds of roots formed a natural gateway to Jogi Mahal, the forest rest house, which, decades ago, had been the residence of a temple priest. Before Prahlad, the driver, could even stop, I was rushing up the steps across a wide terrace and through a high arched doorway. There, at my feet, lay the lake of lotuses, Padam Talao, with its waters lapping peacefully against the base of the rest house. In the distance, crocodiles lay sunbathing, one with its jaws open, another swimming lazily in the water. Many deer were grazing on the lush grass along the far banks of the lakes – a few big deer were even immersed in the water – sambar, I think. What a sight! Many varieties of birds were pecking in the shallow waters and far across on top of a hill sat an ancient guard post. Turning around, I looked back the way I had come. The vast banyan tree and the backdrop of the Fort filled the horizon with their imposing presence. What beauty! It was a moment of hypnotic intensity.'
... The period 1976 – 77 was a busy one for Fateh Singh. He was in the midst of shifting villages as part of an enormous effort to prevent human disturbance in the core area of the park. My first trips to the park were full of village carts, and people moving from Berda to Lakarda to Ranthambhore, and back right up to Anantpura. Crops grew on the edges of the lake around Jogi Mahal. A village sprawled nearby. Lakarda and Lahpur were full of human activity and there was not the scent of a tiger for miles. Today, all these places are the best locations for wild tigers. Fateh Singh would always say that tigers and people cannot coexist, and that till the villages inside the park were resettled, tigers would never come into their own.
... By 1977 – 78, several villages like Ranthambhore, Lahpur, Anantpura, and Guda were resettled, and Fateh was hrilled at his success. He had to make a village leader his brother-in-law by getting his wife to tie a rakhee to him in order to cajole and persuade the people to move. I remember in village Lahpur in 1978, late in the evening, when the villagers decided to refuse their compensation and to not move. All the district officials were present. The way Fateh managed that miracle was a feat of persuasion that I have never seen again, as the villagers sat huddled around fires talking till midnight, but finally agreed to move. I listened spellbound. It was during these early years that the local people made their greatest sacrifice for the tigers of Ranthambhore. Although many thought that Fateh was harsh and dictatorial in his approach, many locals also knew that they could lean on him in the years to come. And they did. He never let them down. As much as he was a tiger's man, he was also a people's man. That was why by 1980, he had managed to relocate 12 villages. It is this one fact that has put Ranthambhore on the world map.
The Best Years
1982 to 1989
The world of the tiger was changing in Ranthambhore, with the animal becoming a diurnal creature from a nocturnal one. Human disturbance in the reserve was minimal and Fateh had succeeded in bringing peace to the tigers. Tiger cubs were turning into mothers without the fear of man. Our records moved from black and white to colour, and this decade became for me 'the tiger decade' like no other before it. Tigers popped up from everywhere and it was difficult to keep pace with them. Slowly, the tiger was rewriting its own natural history for the world to see.
... The mid-1980s were some of the finest years of tigerwatching that we ever had. Fateh lived on the roof of the gate in Jogi Mahal and this was our home – our listening post. At the sound of an alarm call, we would rush into a jeep and take off. Even while we would be sitting at Jogi Mahal, tigers would slip in and out at night. One night, while we were waiting for dinner to arrive, a tigress passed us with 3 cubs towards the kitchen from where our dinner was coming laden in trays. What chaos ensued as the cook saw the tigers and the dishes flew all over the place, while the tigers ran off!
... It was on a day in 1985 that I saw 16 different tigers in one day. Nobody believes me today when I say so but the photo-records of this period reflect the density of tigers in Ranthambhore.
1990 to 1999
The park was on a decline. Would it ever recover? Of course, the state government never trusted its NGOs or its own people, and a committee was constituted to assess the reality. I remember participating in a pugmark mela, where a huge shed was filled with plaster of Paris pugmarks and for 3 days, a group of experts analysed them. Imagine hundreds of tiger pugmarks piled up with dates behind them and collected from different soil substrates! A total mess and full of possibilities of a lot of fabrication. It was at this moment that I gave up on pugmarks forever. They were coming out of everywhere and the lies that were created around them were astonishing. One forest guard revealed how he had got a trace of a wet tiger's foot on a stone before it dried up! Raghu [Dr. R.S. Chundawat taught wildlife science in the Wildlife Institute of India] was one of the experts, and I think that at that moment, he also gave up on using pugmarks as a tool to determine exact numbers. We would all go Ullas Karanth's way.
The Road to Nowhere
2000 to 2011
I realized that the Ranthambhore Foundation had not done the job that I wanted it to in these 12 years. It couldn't deal with the ups and downs of forest officers, and the local politics among the people prevented any unity of purpose towards the park. In a way, I had failed to deliver because few wanted to receive. The forest sector was a minefield for any independent person to work in. At least I couldn't crack it. I stepped down from an organization that I had founded and an organization that had been my very blood. It was deeply depressing and when I left, I quietly wept. I walked around the land that Goverdhan and I had regreened. Every layer of life was back. The peafowl had finally found their perches in the trees. So had the langurs. The tiger visited once a month, and a once degraded patch of land was today a wildlife oasis. Even jungle cats and caracals had started roaming in the area. Where there is the right will, there is a way. When would we all be able to work together …?
… In 2003, politicians of all hues were shouting from the rooftops that the locals should enter the park and be allowed to use its resources, irrespective of the legality. Luckily, this was recorded on video cameras, and based on the recordings, all the speeches were detailed, and all the local politicians summoned to Delhi in the conference hall of the ministry. They were clearly told that they were encouraging the violation of Supreme Court orders, and that this could be in contempt of the Hon'ble Court. Reddy had initiated this process at the end of his tenure, and each of the politicians, including an MP (Member of Parliament) and several MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly), were threatened with action for inciting people to break the law. I watched the faces of the politicians. They were shocked and one of them was reduced to tears. This case had the desired effect for a few years and grazing was brought under control. The fear of the Supreme Court and its committees still exists in the country.
... By the end of 2003, Raghu was shouting about his tigers going missing in Panna, and so was Fateh in Ranthambhore, but few listened. I knew we were about to slide downhill again, but I still tried and with much pushing and arguing in the CEC with my colleagues, especially the Member Secretary, M.K. Jivrajka, we passed one of the CEC's most important orders on July 2, 2004. It was a direction to all state governments for strict compliance of the Hon'ble Supreme Court's order dated 14-2-2000 in IA No. 548 in civil writ petition No. 202\95. It stated, 'You are aware that the Hon'ble Supreme Court by order … has prohibited removal of dead, dying, diseased trees, etc. from any national parks and sanctuaries … any non-forest activity, felling of trees/bamboo, removal of biomass, miscellaneous construction activities, etc. in the PAs [Protected Areas] are not permissible without prior permission of the Hon'ble Supreme Court. …' It included in a long list such activities as digging of canals, mining, underground mining, collection of sand/boulders, laying of transmission lines, optical fibre cables, and pipelines, cutting of grass, collection of minor forest produce, grazing, widening of roads, etc., all of which had to have the prior permission of the highest court in the land. Most of the states were shocked at the order but looking back, Jivrajka feels that this was a direction that saved large parts of our PA system, and insists that it came from my inspiration.
... The last 5 years in Ranthambhore have also seen a sharp rise in man–tiger conflict. At least 4 people have been attacked, and killed, and even partly eaten. Before this period, during 30 years, there was only one case of accidental death due to a tiger. I cannot pinpoint the single most compelling cause but somewhere we have deeply disturbed tiger society and the impact of this has to be borne by man. Maybe it is connected to moving of tigers to Sariska or to just general mismanagement. Another sphere of total mismanagement has been tourism. It started in 1985, and for 25 years it has raced ahead without policy or direction.
... On October 1, 2010, our Prime Minister wrote in a message like many before him, '… our protected areas and other natural ecosystems offer a wide range of tangible as well as intangible benefits. We are guardians of this treasure and it is our responsibility to protect it for posterity … it is necessary that all Indians recognize this and cooperate towards conserving our irreplaceable wildlife. …' But the sad thing is that he as Prime Minister has never been explained the reason why we can't conserve our wildlife or that our delivery system is defunct and requires urgent mending. The officials who serve him do not have that priority or understanding, so the wildlife of India rots. The richest part of India, Forest India, has one of the most neglected and decaying services to look after it. So, in the end Prime Ministers will come and go, saying the same thing but with little understanding of the problem and the dire need for reform.
... My tiger life has been full of wild tigers, and I am truly privileged to have watched them so closely in Ranthambhore, especially with someone like Fateh Singh. This part of my journey is satiated. Since 1991, I have worked hard for every government of the day, and seen the tragedy of decision-making where so much that is agreed upon never sees the light of day even when the PM orders it. Or when it does, it is a case of too little, too late, which makes it vital to bring about reforms in the entire process. I believe that this is where my journey has failed. Anything that I took up which had to do with the government just failed. And this even when working with Jairam Ramesh. Officialdom finally wins. The first was my huge effort with the Foundation that required the support and active partnership of the government, which I never got. With that, at least 10 years of my life in government committees was a complete waste. And much of the tiger's suffering has to do with the government's failure to act in time. Sariska, Panna, Ranthambhore, and others are examples of this.
... And there are no excuses for neglect, incompetence, and mismanagement. Then, there is a part of the journey which is about challenges and being empowered to take them on. I would have loved to participate in the management of Ranthambhore and its larger landscape with a few of my colleagues and a few hand-picked forest officers. This also would always remain a dream because of the inflexibility of our system. We do not build institutions in this sector. We destroy them. The forest officer runs his forest as if he owns it and does not care about anyone else. There are no challenging, thought-provoking, or inspiring partnerships.
The tiger and the tribal will suffer the most in this weird system we live in. New amendments in all the laws will further weaken governance and we are set to create even more chaos than before. I only hope that a remarkable man like Jairam, who tried so hard when he became Minister of Environment and Forests to put things right, is not remembered by history as the one under whom the seeds of disaster were sown.
... I fear deeply for the future of wild tigers. I think we will end up in a few years with around 500 tigers and in a scenario similar to the Gir lions. Things will only move towards the positive if we radically reform our delivery system, the forest service of India, and amend dangerous laws and strengthen the processes that protect our amazing natural world. Without this, the tiger in India has no hope in hell.
by Valmik Thapar, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 5, October 2011.