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Eye of the tiger

The late Fateh Singh Rathore never supported fancy ‘save the tiger’ campaigns or outdated government policies. Soma Basu was one of the last to interview the ‘Tiger Man’ before he passed away on 1 March

FATEH Singh Rathore’s visit to Kolkata in August 2010 caused quite a flutter among journalists dealing with environment and wildlife issues. He was the topic of discussion for even those scribes who sauntered around in the leaky corridors of the municipal corporation and the labyrinth of Writers’ Buildings. He was in the city to attend a programme organised by WWF-India. I knew about the programme but not the man, so I made all sorts of excuses for not attending because I though it would be just another programme where people would talk of tiger conservation for 20 minutes and then head for the cocktail party. Half an hour after the show started, I got a call from a journalist friend.
“Where are you? Fateh Singh Rathore is here.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s the tiger man of India.”
Nandan was full. I saw my friend squatting on the floor with several others. I trampled several feet to get to where I could see who this man was. A frail figure with alert eyes, it was difficult to tell whether it was a smile or a scorn on his lips. Uniform-clad, weather-beaten body and amused at whatever was happening around him. Finally, he rose to speak. And in five minutes he slammed meetings, conferences, forest departments, government policies and fashionable tiger campaigns. It was then I decided to interview him. Even though I did not know the man.
Only two managed an appointment. One was my friend who impressed him (read amused him) by saying that he was in love with tigers since he was three years old as, on his third birthday, he’d cut a cake that was tiger-shaped. I did not have a story to tell so without taking his permission I informed him I would be interviewing him the next day at Tollygunge Club, were he was putting up. One of the organisers had told me he would be leaving the city at 9 am. He smiled and gave me his mobile number.
I spent the night reading about him and his life in articles available on the Internet till early in the morning. By 6.50 am, standing just near his room, I called him. Dressed in a crisp uniform, a silk scarf around his neck, he welcomed me in. And the interview began.

How did you become a tiger conservator?
Nobody is born with an ambition or passion. When I finished my graduation, I got a job in a private reserve of the Maharana of Udaipur ~ Haridas Ji Ki Magri ~ and worked there for six months. KC Singh, the old hunter working for the Maharana, took me as his assistant. He taught me how to prepare bait. He taught me how to think like a tiger.
In January 1961, I had to organise a tiger shoot for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. I saw a tiger for the first time when the Duke shot it down. I had no special attachment to tigers at that time… celebrations took place when we managed to get tigers for dukes and queens.
I got a chance to apply for a job in the forest department. I worked in Sariska and Ranthambhore. I was later transferred to Mount Abu. It was part of my job in forest service to ensure that foreign VIPs bagged their tigers. The government used to issue hunting permits till 1969. Indira Gandhi and Kailash Sankhala, the erstwhile director of Delhi Zoo, thought tigers needed protection and the practice was stopped.
I was lucky to be part of the first group to train at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun in 1969. Saroj Raj Choudhury, director of the course and my guru, trained me for nine months. I was doing some job when he told me about Project Tiger which was launched in Ranthambhore in 1972. During this time the director, NC Khullar, gave me a free hand.

How difficult was the relocation of villages in Ranthambhore?
To stop grazing was a Herculean task there. It took me one and a half years to show people, who were to be uprooted from their ancestral homes so that an area could be created for tigers which would remain inviolate from human disturbance, their future. Thirteen villages from inside the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve had to be relocated to a new village called Kailashpuri outside (named after Kailash Sankhala, the first director of Project Tiger). The people were compensated with land and money and given facilities such as health care and education, which they had never enjoyed up until then. By 1976, we had moved all the villages out and tigers began to move in.

When did you get the first indication of the tiger count rising?
I began to see pugmarks on morning drives. Then, slowly, I began to see tigers roaming in front of me even during the day. I never expected that since I’d heard tigers were nocturnal and elusive. On 7 June 1976, I saw the tigress I had named Padmini, after my daughter, with four cubs. I followed this family day and night. The tigress eventually started trusting me and seemed to treat me as a friend.

You were once attacked?
In August 1981, a group of disgruntled men from Uliyana village attacked me and left me to die with multiple fractures and a head injury. The villagers were angry as they could not take their cattle for grazing or cut firewood from the protected area of the forest.

How easy was it to replicate this in Sariska?
In 1987, I was transferred as Field Director to Sariska at the request of Rajiv Gandhi, who wanted me to replicate his success story in Ranthambhore. Just two years later, the collector all of a sudden allowed villagers to take their cattle into the park for grazing. More than 20,000 cattle entered the park, threatening the wild animals there. I resigned my job as a mark of protest. Soon I came to know that 16 tigers were missing. I became an eyesore for the forest department. I could understand their follies. I spoke the truth and was quite outspoken. They had every reason to hate me.

(We were interrupted by the state director of WWF-India, Saswati Sen, who told me to wrap up in the next two minutes since I had not taken her permission before doing the the interview. I told her that Rathore permitted me to come. She was furious and told me that she was the one who needed to be asked, not Rathore. And that the newspapers she had promised time with Fateh Singh were waiting. I lost my cool and offered to leave. The tiger man told me to sit and continued as though nothing had happened. Ignored, Sen left.)

The tigers were poached?
There is a high possibility that they were poached. And it was my fault that the tigers had become so trusting that they did not fear humans any more. I once got a poacher arrested who confessed to killing eight tigers. Later the man was released. He was found poaching again. Nomadic hunter tribes like the Moghiyas used to poach animals but they were merely used by dealers in big cities. They needed to be rehabilitated by teaching them new skills that could enable them to earn a livelihood.

What do you think about the number of tigers in the Sunderbans?
The 250 number could not be true. It’s an eyewash. The Sunderbans is terrain where counting the number of tigers is extremely difficult. One cannot count tigers by just following pugmarks. It’s a very unreliable way. Also, one must be transparent about the numbers. Every forest officer should acknowledge the problems so that they can be helped. Then there are squabbles about whether a tiger, always moving from one place to another, in the Sunderbans belongs to India or Bangladesh. How would an animal know of political boundaries?

What about radio collars?
It depends on the kind of radio collars we use. Our radio collars are technologically poor. Tigers try to detach them all the time. It is also unhealthy for them. During mating, a tiger would catch the tigress by her neck. Now if there a radio collar it would either tear off or there would be no mating. Both the results are undesired.

West Bengal’s chief conservator of forests has been trying to create a prey base in the Sunderbans by sending deer, which multiply fast, from other parks to the mangrove forest.
I have not heard of this ever. Even if this is done, one needs to ensure the deer can adapt to the terrain otherwise they would die even before being hunted by the tigers. The animals also need to be tested for disease.

Recently, a tigress strayed into the forest department guesthouse in the Sunderbans. She was followed by three tigers. Forest officials said that this indicated that the ecology was perfectly normal and the mating process among tigers was such that several males would chase a female and she would chose a mate.
(Laughs out loud.) That’s a joke. Unlike tigresses, tigers can never stay together in an area. They always have fights over their area. The actual process is just the opposite.

It was 8.15 am. The car waited to take him to the airport. I thanked him and he gave me a knowing and generous smile. I left Tollygunge Club. I told my friends about the man I’d just interviewed. I waited to write a nice article and the day never came. I arranged notebooks in my cupboard. I found the book where I’d scribbled what Fateh Singh Rathore told me during the interview. I made up my mind to write the article the next day. I went to bed. The next morning’s newspapers informed me that Fateh Singh Rathore had breathed his last at his residence on the outskirts of Ranthambhore National Park on 1 March. I finally wrote about the brief exchange with the man, about whom I never did get to learn enough.

Soma Basu

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