Gone... But Not Forgotten
Photograph by Amitabh Chaturvedi.
India’s conservation canvas has been painted with a palette of naturalists, activists,journalists, volunteers and environmentalists. Yet, some shades manage to stand out brighter than others – those who have worked at the grassroots gathering valuable information, implementing vital policies and fighting the poachers, miners, and developers who are unconcerned with sustainability.
Over the past 14 years, Sanctuary has been honouring these green warriors at its annual Sanctuary Wildlife Awards ceremony and has been following and supporting many such efforts down the years. Some of these heroes are no longer with us. But their work lives on. They are gone, but will never be forgotten.
J. C. Daniel: July 9, 1927 – August 23, 2011
Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award Winner, 2000
Courtesy Dr. Asad Rahmani (BNHS).
The recipient of Sanctuary’s Lifetime Service Award in the year 2000, J. C. Daniel was the quintessential naturalist – his love for the environment stemmed neither from fundamentalism, nor conscience, but from the precise compass of academic curiosity. An integral part of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), he was elected an Honorary Member upon his retirement as its Director in 1991.
A decade later, cancer took him from us at the age of 84 and left India’s environmental movement bereft of a classical field biologist, conservationist and mentor, who not only worked tirelessly to protect India’s biodiversity, but also authored several books that are the permanent companions of virtually every wildlifer today. Among these are The Book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians, Cassandra of Conservation, A Week with Elephants and Birds of the Indian Subcontinent – A Field Guide. Daniel’s advice to future generations of Indian conservationists, expressed over a decade ago (Sanctuary, Vol. XX, No. 2, April 2000), rings true even today: “Be active, but base your activism on hard facts; do not be needlessly aggressive and fundamentalist… and please don’t come in search of get-rich-quick opportunities in this field, or you might be forced to compromise both your principles and your science.” Read more about this magnificent man at https://bit.ly/SanctuaryAsiaJCDaniel.
Qasim Wani: January 1933 – January 5, 2010
Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award Winner, 2001
Sanctuary Photo Library.
Born in the Dachigam National Park, forest guard Qasim Wani protected the endangered hangul from poachers for over 50 years, teaching virtually every expert who has written on this amazing wildlife haven. He was awarded the Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award in 2001. His constant refrain to Prime Ministers, government officials, researchers and thousands of children with whom he tramped this wonderland was: “Save these precious hangul, they represent the heritage of generations unborn.” Such deep-rooted love for the wilderness is a rarity today, but remained with Wani throughout his life, exemplified in the simple words he spoke to Bittu Sahgal in an interview (Sanctuary, Vol. XXII, No. 1, February 2002): “This forest has employed us all. It has fed us. I was officially appointed as a forest guard in Dachigam in 1961 and hope I die in Dachigam itself.” His father was a shikari in the employ of the then-Maharaja of Kashmir, Jai Singh, and Wani was exposed to the joys of wild nature from the age of five. In the last years of his life, the senseless bloodshed that shook the ‘Happy Valley’ broke his heart, and he often prayed for a return to peace: “Inshallah, woh din jald hi laut ayenge (By the grace of God those days will soon return)”. But Qasim Wani died before peace returned to the land he loved. Though he is lost to us, the exquisite ecology he protected remains within our reach, in desperate need of a new champion for its cause. Read more about this man who protected Dachigam all his life. Read more about his work at https://bit.ly/SanctuaryAsiaQasimWani.
Gopal Chandra Tanti: 1953 – May 11, 2010
Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award Winner, 2001
Courtesy Sundarban Tiger Reserve.
A man with the heart of a tiger, Gopal Chandra Tanti spent his life in the creeks and mangrove mudflats of the Sundarbans, working as a Laboratory Assistant from 1979. His duty included the artificial hatching and release of endangered species such as the estuarine crocodile and marine and freshwater turtles, but his true calling involved the protection of the enigma that is the Sundarbans tiger. Considered an expert in tiger estimation, and a pioneer in tranquillising techniques, he was often called upon to immobilise tigers that came into conflict with humans when the mangroves were flooded at high tide, forcing the carnivores into close proximity with villagers. Dozens of volatile situations were diffused by this daring forester, whose bravery and unorthodox techniques earned him the support of both grateful villagers and a skilled staff. He was awarded a Sanctuary Wildlife Award in 2001.
During the course of his career, Tanti tranquillised as many as 84 tigers, a dozen elephants and several rhinos (in North Bengal), risking his life repeatedly in his determination to return them unharmed to the jungle. In later years, Tanti trained countless shooters who now carry on the work he used to do. A neurological disorder left him crippled in 2004 and a year before he died he told the Times of India: “All my tranquillising expeditions now seem like a happy dream, but I can recall each of them and I miss the forest and the tiger.” A man of exemplary courage and unending passion for conservation, the legend of Tanti lives on.
S. Rangaswami: 1920 – January 10, 2012
Sanctuary Green Teacher Award, 2001
Courtesy Rishi Valley School.
S. Rangaswami was once described as living proof of Sálim Ali’s pithy observation: “Those who watch birds need not age.” Rangaswami’s tryst with Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh started in 1973 when he began listing avian species, in the process of organising water conservation programmes, planting trees and in 1990, trying to create a bird sanctuary in and around the school campus. The publication of his book, Birds of Rishi Valley and Renewal of their Habitats was followed up by the establishment of the Department of Bird Studies at the Rishi Valley School, which was later upgraded to the Institute of Bird Studies and Natural History.
Rangaswami was presented with the Sanctuary Green Teacher Award in 2001, when he came to Mumbai and won over a legion of fans. He was able to switch seamlessly between the many roles he played as an educator, fundraiser and surveyor. He even started an ornithology course and scholarship scheme for future conservationists. His swan song, a book on natural history that contains a lifetime of geology, evolutionary biology, literature and philosophy, was published barely two months before he passed away. In their tribute to this great man, the Rishi Valley Education Centre perfectly encapsulated his work, writing, “Shri Rangaswami made us aware of a source of beauty that we might otherwise not have seen or heard. His achievements stemmed from his dedication to wisdom, to beauty and to the well being of all living things.” Read more about this incredible green teacher at https://bit.ly/SanctuaryAsiaSRangaswami.
Billy Arjan Singh: August 15, 1917 – January 1, 2010
Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award, 2003
Sanctuary Photo Library.
Billy Arjan Singh, hero and builder of the Dudhwa National Park, lived many lives in one. He was a body-builder, reformed hunter, foster-father to an infamous tigress, the ‘godfather’ of the movement to save the Indian tiger and a thorn in the side of the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department – yet, this living legend wanted to be remembered only as Arjan Singh, a man who loved tigers and fought to protect them from humans. He recognised long ago that the tiger would never be safe unless its forests were protected. This is why he chose to live in Dudhwa and protect a corner of the world he christened ‘Tiger Haven’.
A reformed hunter, he was directly responsible for shutting down 26 shikar companies, and in the course of his rich life he authored several books on India’s big cats, including Tiger, Tiger: Prince of Cats and Eelie and the Big Cats. Convinced that zoos ended up jailing wild tigers, he vowed to return a tigress, Tara, to the wild in his precious Dudhwa. The effort was mired in controversy and left Billy isolated from most conservationists for years, but nevertheless represented one of the first-ever efforts to reintroduce tigers and leopards from captivity into the wild. His legacy, represented by the brilliance of his life, and his track record as one of the world’s greatest conservationists, is unlikely ever to be forgotten. Read more about this unorthodox, brave and extremely dedicated tiger man at https://bit.ly/SanctuaryAsiaBillyArjanSingh.
Manglu Baiga: October 13, 1946 – October 14, 2009
Sanctuary Wildife Service Award, 2004
Sanctuary Photo Library.
A Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award recipient in 2004, Manglu Baiga was, and will always remain, proof that ‘people can make a difference.’ What he lacked in formal education, he more than made up in sheer passion, courage and jungle craft. A master tracker, his intuitive knowledge of the forests and the topography of the famed Kanha Tiger Reserve made him intrinsic to the management of the reserve for the first two decades of its existence in the 1970s and 1980s. During this period and earlier, he helped strategise and implement anti-poaching, fire-fighting and monitoring programmes in the meadows and forests of this tiger jungle. His passing has left a void in more ways than one, for he represented the best of traditional jungle craft, helping many modern-day researchers to shape their own scientific projects.
Born in the jungles of Kanha, Manglu was a Baiga tribal, a group renowned for their close association with the jungles of central India, and often referred to as ‘the children of nature’. As wise as he was skilled, Manglu Baiga found himself being consulted on matters that went way beyond the narrow objectives of wildlife conservation. He served the park faithfully, and fiercely, for a lifetime. He passed away peacefully in 2009 but lives on in the many tales and legends that are told about him.
Fateh Singh Rathore: August 10, 1938 – March 1, 2011
Sanctuary Lifetime Service Award, 2008
Sanctuary Photo Library.
An iconic figure, Fateh Singh Rathore was arguably the man who carried the tiger crisis of the 1980s to the world through his books, the films he helped make, and the hundreds of people he motivated to be of service to tigers. The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve is the legacy for which he will be most remembered. His work in Ranthambhore involved his painstaking dedication to the task of restoring a forest that had been overrun by humans, their rice paddies and marginal farmlands, and their livestock. Within a decade he turned a degraded landscape into a haven for chital, sambar and wild pigs and this, in turn, was the turning point for tigers that had been hunted to near extinction. He also took on poaching gangs virtually single-handedly and set up a network of informers, even as he worked to move 20 villages out of the park. When wood cutting and cattle grazing came to an end, nature responded by springing back to life, a fact best illustrated by the return of scores of permanent water sources that had all but dried. But nothing came easy. He was often ambushed and once even left for dead by angry villagers who wanted the right to graze their cattle inside the tiger reserve. He survived. And so did his precious Ranthambhore. In his own words: “I was only an instrument, nature was the conductor of the symphony.”
Today, Fateh Singh Rathore lives on in every whisper of wind that brushes the leaves of Ranthambhore’s hardy forests. ‘Tiger Watch’, an organisation he founded, and which is now run by his family, continues to offer medical and educational assistance to villagers and looks after the families of apprehended poachers. A pioneer in the establishment of Project Tiger, author, conservation award winner, and above all else, a great teacher and mentor to India’s wildlife youth, Rathore once said: “To my last breath I will fight to secure this park for future generations of tigers and young Indians.” That is precisely what he did. His passing was a severe blow to wildlife conservationists across the globe, yet there is comfort in the knowledge that the legacy of such a man can never be extinguished. Read more about this tiger defender at https://bit.ly/SanctuaryAsiaFatehSingh.
Author: Ayesha Bapasola, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, April 2013