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Friday, January 21, 2022

How They Built a Forest and Other Stories

Behind Ranthambore’s success story, men of extraordinary courage and integrity.

Written by Valmik Thapar |
Updated: January 21, 2018 12:05:15 am
Sayeed, who saved Fateh Singh Rathore’s life (L); Forest guard Rampal, who was killed by a tiger (C); Prahlad. (Photos: Valmik Thapar)

All over India 1,50,000 men and women serve the forests of India day and night, striving to protect the amazing natural world that abounds within. Several lose their lives battling poachers of both wood and animals, many are seriously injured in animal attacks, but they go on with a courage and valour that is inspirational. I have spent 43 years engaging with them all across India and this is the story of some of them in the forests of Ranthambore.

When I first went to Ranthambore in 1976, Laddu was my teacher and guide. A tracker by profession, he frequently walked the forest at night carrying his stick as protection. He interpreted the ways of the forest, from sounds to animal tracks, letting us into the secrets along with him. He was fearless, and though tigers were seldom seen in those days, Laddu was always bumping into them on foot. He walked me through the dry river beds and paths, following the pugmarks of tigers in our never-ending quest to see what was then an invisible predator. I learnt the language of the forest from him, and, once, when he rushed to me and said, “Tigers with cubs…”, I scampered with him on foot in pursuit. As we neared the spot, an earth-shattering roar made us bolt for our lives. Clearly, messing with a new mother is not the best way to go about tiger-spotting.

Badhya was in charge of the baits that were put out to attract tigers and had learnt his field craft from Laddu. He was half my size and would walk out baits each evening to spots where the tiger’s presence was fresh. I accompanied him many times. One day, as we walked in the valley of Nalghati, he whispered to me, “Stop”. My heart pounded as I saw a tiger watching us, and, for a while, we stood motionless, frozen in its thrall, till it moved away. My forays with him led to an amazing understanding of this magnificent predator. One of my best encounters with tigers was thanks to his masterly tracking that led me to nine tigers feeding on a blue bull. Sometimes, he tracked using a bicycle, and, on so many occasions, in the 1980s, had his wheels slapped by a tiger’s paws! Tragically, in the early 1990s, he was found dead near the railway tracks. Nothing was proven, but I believe he was killed by a poaching gang he was about to bust.

Along with Badhya, there was also Gaffar, one of the gutsiest trackers I have known, who was a regular along the lakes of Ranthambore from the mid-1990s to 2015. As he walked the lakes, he tracked Nasty, one of Ranthambhore’s most aggressive tigresses who would charge at both people and jeeps from high grass and without reason. I remember, on one occasion, I was driving a jeep when Nasty charged at him and he raced towards me and flew into my jeep just on time. Nothing broke Gaffar’s spirit — during the course of his career, he was once mauled by a bear across his face. He survived, and when he retires soon, he will take with him secrets of the forest that only he knows.

Valmik Thapar with Badhya in 1977. (Photo: Valmik Thapar)

Prahlad was the chief jeep driver during my first decade in Ranthambore and integral to any search for tigers. Watching animals, picking their alarms over the sound of jeep engines, and forever looking for fresh tiger tracks are essential traits of a good driver in a forest. Back then, Ranthambore was far from the tourist paradise that it is today. Prahlad would forever be on alert, chasing away woodcutters and graziers as he criss-crossed the forest. He has passed on his genes to his children. All his five sons work in one way or another for Ranthambore today. Mahendra, in particular, took over from his father and has zealously pursued both poachers and graziers. He can drive the car across to any corner of Ranthambore’s forests, so well does he know its terrain.

Today, Ranthambore has the highest number of tigers at nearly 70. With tourism footfalls of more than 200,000 and a revenue from ticket entry of nearly Rs 25 crore, the park is a model for the whole country. Many people are responsible for making this area the world’s best destination to see wild tigers but most of the credit goes to some of these foot soldiers.

In the forest, courage and great acts of bravery make the difference. Sayeed was the second driver who became a great inspiration for all, when he saved the life of the park director Fateh Singh Rathore, in the early years of Ranthambore’s rehabilitation. One afternoon, while driving around, Rathore bumped into a hundred graziers all armed with long sticks. He leapt out of the jeep to confront them, but they turned on him instead. In a flash, Sayeed leaped into the crowd and covered Rathore’s body with his, trying to protect him from harm. They were both hospitalised for weeks afterwards, but it was Sayeed’s valour that saved Rathore that day.

There have been others, too; Ramesh and Ramu, both now retired. Ramesh kept the forest resthouse in mint condition in the early days, while Ramu focussed on ensuring wireless communication across the park, vital for better management.

As the years rolled by, these men also set the bar high for others who followed. Phul Chand and Mohan Singh became tiger trackers par excellence following in the tradition of Laddu and Badhya, Ranjit spent many years looking after orphaned cubs and ensuring they were fed. He was fearless and would call them out of the forest, and, they would recognise him. Most of these cubs survived to adulthood. Today, Dharm Singh, also an accomplished birdwatcher, walks the forest patrolling his beat and tracking tigers.

In all these years, at least eight forest guards have been killed by poachers and tigers, many more injured. But, together, they have made Ranthambore what it is today. The foot soldiers of Indian forests have been much ignored and for far too long by our politicians and bureaucrats. Their salaries and living conditions still do not match up to that of police constables, even though they are on duty 24 hours a day. Our senior forest officers have not fought enough for their welfare. The time has come to give them the respect they deserve and we desperately need to usher in reform both in their working and service conditions. The question really is whether anyone is listening?

Valmik Thapar is a conservationist who has spent over four decades serving India’s tigers.

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