The Tiger Pioneers
Photo Courtesy: Prosenjit Das Gupta.
In this fast-paced world of instant news, Prosenjit Das Gupta takes us on a very personal memory trip to the earliest days of tiger conservation in India when he met with some of the pioneers who had a hand in winning acclaim for Project Tiger, which came to be accepted as the most successful conservation project in the world.
It was the accepted practice in the 19th and early 20th century for officers of the British administration, the landed gentry, and royalty in India to go out on tiger shoots. G.P. Sanderson, Charles Ingles, R.A. Sterndale, E.C.S. Baker, and the Maharaja of Cooch Behar are just a smattering of shikaris who wrote volumes on the subject. Admittedly, tigers were numerous then – some suggest there could have been 40,000 at the turn of the 20th century. But by the 1930s, things began to change. This is when the famous F.W. Champion wrote his seminal work With a Camera in Tigerland, and Jim Corbett took to carrying cine cameras along with his rifles. This was also when the first wildlife sanctuaries such as the Hailey National Park (later renamed Corbett Tiger Reserve, in which both E.A. Smythies and Corbett had a hand), and the Kaziranga Wildlife Sanctuary championed by the late Mohi Chandra Miri were created. Some princely states such as Mysore, Mayurbhanj and Rewa maintained shooting reserves that later turned into wildlife sanctuaries.
Photo Courtesy: Kailash sankhala.
The 1930s and 1940s also saw a progressive decline in wildlife numbers. Some of this decline can be attributed to World War II, when many new army cantonments, and airfields were built, and large numbers of guns were licensed for crop protection. Forested areas and wildlife were adversely affected following the Partition of India in 1947, with large numbers of refugees resettled in the wildernesses of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. Much of the terai and many forests virtually vanished. Then came the border conflict with China in 1962 and this time it was the pristine wildlife habitats of eastern and Northeastern India that came under pressure with new airfields and more army cantonment areas being built.
Dawn of a new era in tiger conservation
The situation continued to decline until the Government of India introduced the Wild Life Protection Act in 1972 and launched Project Tiger in April 1973. At the helm of affairs was Kailash Sankhala, a big man with a big heart. As the first Director of Project Tiger, he did the initial planning together with his Forest Department colleagues in the respective state-level tiger reserves. The majority of Sankhala’s field experience with tiger conservation was from his time at what was then the Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary (which later became a tiger reserve and then infamously lost all its tigers to poachers in 2004). At the same time the first Field Directors of the original nine tiger reserves, each of them a colleague of Sankhala handpicked by him for the job, had 20 to 25 years of experience and knew the forests and forest creatures (human beings included) under their charge well. While they understood silviculture and ‘working plans’ for forest management, they had little or no theoretical background or training for wildlife management. But they were field men and were pragmatic. They used plain common sense and many went on to contribute materially to research on wildlife, which provided the foundation for scores of subsequent studies. Now that Project Tiger is nearing its 44th anniversary, a new generation of wildlife protectors would do well to remember the pioneers of yore, before they fade entirely from public – and my personal – memory.
The following are among the unsung heroes who turned the tide for the tiger. The late Saroj Raj Choudhury, first Field Director of the Similipal Tiger Reserve, was a true pioneer. I first met him in January 1974 at Jashipur and he did not quite strike me as a ‘forest officer’… he was more like an ‘uncle’ if you know what I mean! Not tall or robust, but somewhat stout, he sported a small neat moustache, large spectacles, and was always soft-spoken, thoughtful, and helpful. On my request, he made available his personal jeep and driver (Goura) and wrote out a chit to the Chahala Range Forest Officer to offer me, an unknown person, accommodation. That was it: no application in triplicate supported by a gazetted officer’s letter of introduction… nothing. Through the four-day trip, Goura regaled me with stories of his boss and his exceptional courage in confronting tuskers in Similipal. But it was on my second visit to Similipal in May 1976 that I properly met S. R. Choudhury. By then he was deeply involved with Khairi, the tigress, who was a year old. It seems some tribals handed over a month-old cub to Choudhury, who, with his cousin sister, Nihar, nurtured her to maturity. He simultaneously documented her every physical and behavioural development. Khairi was left free to roam the three-acre compound and always had a forest guard in attendance as she explored the mango and sal tree groves that had become her home. Her movements, the hours in a day she rested, her defecation and urine-marking habits… all were meticulously recorded. With Dr. R. L. Brahmachari of the Indian Statistical Institute, Choudhury began testing Khairi’s urine samples and they published papers on the efficacy of pheromones as indicators (markers) of the condition of a relatively free-ranging tiger.
Photo Courtesy: Prosenjit Das Gupta.
Those were different days. Other wild animals, such as Bhaina, the hyaena (also found as a cub) and Manika, a chausingha antelope, had the run of the campus… until Khairi grabbed the antelope by the neck and ended its life.
S.R. Choudhury was totally taken up by Khairi. He wanted to introduce her to wild tigers, who he felt might actually mate with her. There was a large male tiger nearby Chahala then and Choudhury let Khairi free there, then like a protective father, he would venture out into the forests on foot with just a torch, to locate ‘his’ Khairi if she did not return to the rest house by sundown (or, in later months, to the camp near Kairakacha). Mr. Choudhury had become familiar with the sounds a free-roaming tigress would make, especially the prusten or purring sound of a happy and satisfied tiger. There was a degree of ambivalence in Choudhury’s approach to Khairi. At one level, he loved her as a child of nature and at another he wanted to scientifically study her. I recall him giving me detailed lessons on how to behave in her presence, but often he had to come to my rescue when the free-roaming, subadult Khairi got a bit too much for me to handle. Amazingly, she would respond respectfully to his brandishing a bamboo switch just two millimetres thick to discipline her. Occasionally Khairi would grab Choudhury’s arm in her jaws, but gently, so her canines barely left an impression on the skin. As I said, those were early days and ethology was at its infancy. This is when S. R. Choudhury also devised his ‘tiger tracer’ (a sheet of glass mounted on a wooden frame to trace out the pug-mark of a tiger). The rough and ready practice, now discredited, was followed diligently for around three decades, before being replaced by the much more reliable camera trap-based stripe identification technology.
Photo: Count Hans von Koenigsmarck/public domain.
More good men
Anyone who has read A. Dunbar Brander’s Wild Animals of Central India will know about Mandla and the famous Banjar Valley Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. H. S. Panwar was the first Field Director of Kanha Tiger Reserve when Project Tiger came into being in April 1973. He was not big-built, but his lithe, hard frame clearly indicated many years in the field. He would personally deal with requests from visitors, as he did with mine, in April 1975, when I wanted to spend a few days at the Kanha Forest Rest House (FRH), from where one could hear the rutting calls of barasingha resounding in the meadows. He took care to reply personally when I asked after a lactating tigress I had seen at Kisli in April 1975. He oversaw steps to relocate forest villages and carefully manage the grass-burning in the Kanha meadows so crucial to the breeding success of the highly-endangered barasingha. He also initiated some of the earliest studies on the territorial behaviour of tigers. Panwar was a methodical man. He set up a fine field laboratory adjoining the Kanha FRH (as did B. R. Koppikar in Melghat – among the first in India). Panwar went on to become the founder-director of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun in 1985.
They were all good men. J.P. Sinha, the first Field Director of the Palamau Tiger Reserve, helped shape it into one of India’s most popular tiger reserves through to the 1990s. If S. R. Choudhury was private, Sinha was gregarious, with a typical ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ attitude, that belied his astute ability to measure peoples’ intent and capabilities. When the idea of tranquillisation of free-ranging animals and radio-collaring them was introduced, Sinha was among the first to try it out in Betla. This was in April 1976 and his first experiment was on a large billy-goat, which he tranquillised using a gun and dart in ‘proper form’ from the veranda of the Betla Forest Rest House. The goat did not stir for three or four hours and a panicked Sinha called the local veterinary doctor who revived it with an intravenous dose of glucose-saline solution! The next evening, after protracted confabulations about body weight, dosage and such like, an attempt to tranquillise a female sambar in the field was tried out. The dart hit a sapling midway and veered off course, and the sambar scampered away. But the learnings eventually happened. Soon he honed in on and successfully tranquillised a resident tigress at Betla, deploying a forest guard and tracker to keep a watch on her movements. Today, such experiments might seem rudimentary, but no one in India had undertaken such steps before and these were truly pioneers. Sinha was also taken up with wildlife photography and, followed in the wake of S. P. Shahi, (Chief Conservator of Forests, Bihar, and one of the earliest to obtain decent images of wild tigers). In the days that followed, Sinha managed to take some wonderful shots of wild elephants, sambar and gaur, which adorned the walls of the Betla Tourist Lodge for years. Sinha also added to our knowledge of wild tiger littering behaviour by discovering that tigresses had begun to deliver their young under the cover of lantana bushes, instead of the rocky hollows in which most people presumed the young were born.
Photo Courtesy: Raza Kazmi.
And then we have Manas – a forest of immense beauty with a mystique of its own. In the early 1980s, it was little-known outside of Assam, in spite of its great beauty and diverse wildlife. Sanjoy Debroy was the first Field Director of the Manas Tiger Reserve, where he served from 1973 to 1985, a length of tenure unheard of nowadays. A tough, hardy man, he was an athlete and footballer in his youth and a born outdoorsman. He was courageous and bold and instilled both fear and respect in those who crossed him. But to those who knew him well, he was soft of speech, with twinkling eyes that said he was having fun. Above all, he was a generous host, willingly sharing his spare ration of rice and fish curry with me, a casual visitor from Calcutta, at the exquisite Mothanguri Rest House on the banks of the Manas river. In those days, game fishing was legally permissible in national parks and Debroy would think nothing of taking a visitor who shared his passion for angling for mahseer
down the Manas river in a boat for an entire morning.
Those who are involved with wildlife today would do well to read up on the heroes of yesteryears, for it is on their shoulders they stand. These early pioneers not only had to deal with ruthless poachers and antagonism from villagers who saw wildlife conservation as an intrusion into their age old way of life, but also with developers who hated the fact that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi supported such visionaries who pointed out that natural forests and their biodiversity, as represented by the tiger were far more valuable than the revenue earned from timber, which is virtually all that the British foresters of yore had taught foresters for centuries.
Photo Courtesy: Prosenjit Das Gupta.
Author: Prosenjit Das Gupta, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 6, June 2017.