Why Ranthambhore owes it to the Tiger Man
Fateh Singh Rathore was no ordinary conservationist. Almost single-handedly, he wielded a persistent, all-round battle to victory, to put Rajasthan's Ranthambhore National Park on the world tiger map. Biographer, friend and animal lover, Soonoo Taraporewala's biography charts his fascinating life, from close range
What are your memories of the first meeting with Fateh Singh Rathore?
The first time I visited Ranthambhore with my father was in February 1983. Fateh Singh Rathore, the Field Director, was away, attending an International Crane Conference at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park in Bharatpur. We had heard about him through articles in Sanctuary Magazine written by Valmik Thapar, but had never met him. He returned to Ranthambhore after we had been in the park for three days. My first sight of him was watching him interact with his forest guards near the park gates, as we drove up to leave for the day, having just seen our first wild tiger in Ranthambhore. Soon, he turned his attention to us, and he asked us about our accommodation. In those days, Ranthambhore was barely known, and there were few stay options. We had hoped to be allowed to stay at Jogi Mahal, an idyllic rest house on the banks of Padam Talao, near the park’s entrance. But in his absence, his staff didn’t oblige. So, we had to stay at an unhygienic lodge in the bazaar. Although we were strangers, Fateh told us to bring our bags over the next morning, to live at Jogi Mahal. From then on, he drove us around the park in his vehicle, introducing us to his forest with pride. We had five more days, and by the end of that week, he declared that we were part of his Ranthambhore family, and so we continued to be forever, afterwards.
What caused a turnaround for Fateh Singh Rathore from being indifferent to the tiger to being called the Tiger Man?
Until he joined the forest service, Fateh had no reason to love tigers. He had tried various occupations without much success. As the last resort, his uncle got him a junior posting in the forest service in Sariska, and Fateh was immediately attracted to his life there. He was moved to Ranthambhore, then a sanctuary, because the vacancy at Sariska was for a senior post. Ironically, his first task in Ranthambhore was to organise a tiger hunt for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh during their India visit in January 1961. His main concern was to ensure a successful hunt. He was never been in favour of hunting; Ranthambhore was the hunting preserve of the Maharaja of Jaipur, and up until the early 1970s, when Indira Gandhi banned the hunting of endangered species wildlife tourism consisted mainly of organised hunts. Project Tiger was introduced in 1973, and Ranthambhore was one of the first nine parks selected under this project. At first, Fateh had to concentrate on building roads, and on persuading the inhabitants of 12 villages in the area to shift out. The shift took a few years, but in 1976, three years after the start of Project Tiger, Fateh had his first sighting of a tigress with five cubs. The tigress, whom he named Padmini after his elder daughter, came to accept his presence. His knowledge and expertise came from field study rather than from books. With time, he had countless chances to observe tigers, and grew to love them fiercely, and was determined to protect them.
What was his vision for Ranthambhore?
Fateh was happy, initially, with Ranthambhore’s success. This was India’s only park where village relocation had been effected, smoothly, giving a fair deal to the villagers. The forest, which had become degraded with overgrazing by domestic cattle, regenerated on its own; wild animals, which used to be mainly nocturnal, began to be seen freely throughout the day. The tiger population flourished. National Geographic made a documentary, The Land of the Tiger, set in Kanha and Ranthambhore, declaring that if the tiger were to have a future in India, it would be in these national parks. Books were written. Soon, Fateh would declare with pride that most of the tiger photographs seen around the world were from Ranthambhore. However, with success came problems — mainly bureaucratic ones, and poaching. By 1989-1990, many tigers that were seen regularly were no longer spotted. Fateh, who had been moved out of Ranthambhore by then, raised the alarm, and was met by denial. He was proved right when a poacher was arrested with a tiger skin. Each time Fateh pointed out that something was wrong, he was resented more, and banned from entering the park. In his last years of service, he was posted in a city office, far away. He was keen to guide colleagues in the forest department; the wiser ones took his help with marked success. No wonder his forest staff remained loyal after his retirement in 1996.
Did he have a favourite tiger story?
One of his favourite tiger stories was of his first sighting of Padmini. He would clown around, describing in graphic detail of how he climbed onto a tree branch to wait for her, and how his hands trembled when he tried to take a photo as evidence. And then his voice would soften when, as though describing the actions of a favourite child, he would tell us about her reactions, about how gentle she was, and how she came to accept him.
Tiger days and nights: Tryst with fame Fateh would never forget his first significant sighting of the tiger families of Ranthambhore. On 7 July 1976, during the monsoon, he spotted the pugmarks of a tigress with several tiny pugmarks near them. Understandably, he was very excited. For the next few weeks, he would keep coming across groups of pugmarks which indicated a large family, but had no luck spotting their owners. There was no technology available to help him track the family, and, in any case, since he believed in minimum interference with nature, the only way to find the tigers was by looking for their pugmarks and listening for alarm calls.
Eventually, one chilly evening in January, at around four, he heard the anguished bellow of a buffalo in the agricultural field of the Lakarda village, which was full of tall grass. A lame buffalo had been left behind by the villagers there, and had grown fat eating the grass; it had been unharmed by any tiger for the past two years. On investigating, Fateh found the buffalo carcass, with several pugmarks leading from it into the grass, and so in his characteristically impulsive way, he drove right in, although in those days he had no idea of how a tiger might react to such rashness. Driving quickly towards the spot, Fateh saw a beautiful tigress head on. As she snarled at him, five cubs ran across the road in a flash and disappeared into the grass.
Fateh knew that he had to take pictures to prove that he had indeed seen the tigress and her cubs. He knew that he was likely to find her at the spot where she had killed the buffalo, because she would have to guard her kill from rival predators and scavengers. Accordingly, he was back at the spot early the next morning, on a cloudy day, ready with the little camera that Diana had given him. He had no experience at all with tigers, let alone a tigress with young cubs, and stories of man-eaters kept running through his mind. He told his driver Prahlad Singh to wait some distance away, saying that he would whistle when he wanted him to come and fetch him. Then he climbed one of the spindly dhok trees from where he could see the tigress clearly. He felt that here he would be safe from the tigress, who was sleeping behind the carcass.
As soon as the camera clicked with the first picture taken, the tigress charged, wide awake, rushing towards the tree with her teeth bared in a snarl. Understandably enough, Fateh was terrified, thinking that he had made a terrible mistake, and that his end was near. But the tigress remained true to her kind — it was a mock charge, to fend off a perceived threat, and she soon went back to her kill and settled down to sleep once more. Excited and at the same time very nervous, Fateh lifted the camera once more for a picture. This time, the tigress merely lifted her head to indicate that she was aware of him, and slept once more. Fateh took some more pictures, his hands trembling, even as all kinds of conflicting emotions were flashing through his mind — of elation, trepidation, fear; he wished that the cubs would appear so that he could photograph them as well. Some instinct made him look right below the tree, and to his shock and amazement, he found that four of the cubs were right there, below his feet, too close for him to photograph. The tigress lifted her head and apparently sent a telepathic message to the cubs that they may be in danger from this strange human being, and they melted away out of sight. Fateh could hear jackals howling in the distance-there were many more of them in the park at that time — an indication that the cubs had moved away. The tigress came back and lay down once more to guard her kill. Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India