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Tracking the Tiger Guru

Suniti Bhushan Datta, New Delhi

At a time when wildlife and environment issues swamp everyday news with gloom and doom, Soonoo Taraporewala’s Tiger Warrior, is a refreshing story of the success of one man’s decades-long battle to create what is arguably one of India’s finest tiger reserves.

Many would think that the man, who would go on to become one of India’s leading conservationists, would be drawn to the profession from an early age, but this was not the case with Fateh Singh Rathore. Growing up in a typical Rajput family, he was neither inclined towards schoolwork nor a college degree — he eventually obtained a degree on his second attempt. His first choice of career was as an actor and he excelled onstage in school and college. This, however, displeased his family who proposed alternative careers, none of which interested him. But when an uncle who had recently become Rajasthan’s deputy minister for forests, offered the young Rathore a government job as a forest ranger, in the early ’60s, in the then shooting reserve of Sariska, the future wildlifer agreed to try it out.

Sariska was a watershed, where Rathore found his calling. An old forest guard with a predilection for stealing morsels of meat from tiger kills introduced him to the art of tracking animals. The author describes in heart-stopping detail Rathore’s first encounter with a tiger. Shortly afterwards, Rathore was posted to Sawai Madhopur, where ironically his first duty was to organise a tiger-shoot for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Previously unknown details can be found in the book, like the bearing Rathore’s personal life had on him as a conservationist and the significance of his relationship with Diana Wandsworth, the English woman he had met during a diploma course in Wildlife Management from the Forest Research Institute in Dehradun. She took him to England where he visited various wildlife reserves and he returned to India and Ranthambhore, having gained valuable experience in how reserves were established and managed.

Project Tiger was formed soon after his return and Ranthambhore was proposed as one of the first tiger reserves in the country. Under the encouragement of a park director who gave him a free hand, Rathore set about improving patrolling of the park. Kailash Sankhala, the father of tiger conservation in India, and a classmate of Rathore’s uncle, was then the Divisional Forest Officer of Jaipur, under whose ambit the park came. Under Sankhala’s guidance, Rathore relocated and rehabilitated several villages from within the park boundaries, a task he accomplished with compassion, tact and patience. A later attempt to curb grazing inside the park was almost Rathore’s undoing, as he was attacked by a mob and left for dead.

While it is difficult to separate Fateh Singh Rathore from Ranthambhore — that magnificent wilderness that he was instrumental in conserving — in Tiger Warrior, we see how Rathore played a major role in the conservation of other parks like Mount Abu and Keoladeo Ghana (better known as Bharatpur) and in particular, Sariska. This he did against the odds of a burgeoning population in a region with scant water, a political class unsympathetic towards conservation and a vindictive Forest Department with vested interests, which lead to his being suspended and later banned from entering Ranthambhore.

This book is as much a biography of Fateh Singh Rathore as it is about the transformation of Ranthambore from a wilderness inhabited by people to one of India’s premier tiger reserves. It also provides a valuable account of how Rathore became one of India’s leading forest officers and his struggle against all odds to conserve tigers and their habitat. It is the story of a man who was compassionate as he was strict, pragmatic as he was sensitive, who was humorous, generous, honest to a fault, who took immense personal risks to save tigers and their habitat.

Tiger Warrior is a fitting tribute to a great man, a beautiful wilderness and a magnificent animal. The book is a worthy guide to an upcoming cadre of forest officers, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts. It is, above all, a great read.

Suniti Bhushan Datta is a wildlife biologist based in Dehradun

                                                              The Indian Express, New Delhi, 19th January, 2013