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"My Encounter with the Big Cat and Other Adventures in Ranthambhore" | The Unsung Heroes of Ranthambhore

Here is an excerpt from ‘ My Encounter with the BIG CAT’, written by Daulat Singh Shaktawat, a passionate wildlifer. Read on, to find out what’s in store for tiger-lovers

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The Unsung Heroes of  Ranthambhore

I have spent half of my service tenure in the Forest Department at the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Yet, when I sit back and look at the Reserve today, I am simply amazed at the progress it has made. The credit for this achievement goes, to a large extent, to the continuous efforts of the entire staff members of the Department. Starting from the cattle guards and forest guards to the field directors and chief wildlife wardens, they have all strived during the past four decades to give the Reserve their best. There were some who gave up their lives or suffered permanent disabilities in order to make the Reserve what it is today.

In 1973, when the Ranthambhore forest was selected as one of the first nine Tiger Reserves of India, some restrictions and regulations were imposed on forest resource extraction by the local people around the Park. Thereafter, in December 1980, a part of the Tiger Reserve was notified as the Ranthambhore National Park and a complete ban on various anthropogenic activities such as livestock grazing, tree cutting and lopping, mining and so on was enforced. Such stringent prohibition, however, led to an increase in the incidents of recurrent conflicts between the park management and the local communities. Several of these incidents turned into lethal episodes of bloodshed when some of the forest staff lost their lives, while others became physically incapacitated.

Violent conflicts persisted for a long time in Ranthambhore. Both the Central and the State Governments tried to reduce these clashes by initiating various developmental projects to minimise the rift between the park management and the local communities. Centrally sponsored schemes of village relocation for the forest dwelling communities helped them to rehabilitate to new surroundings. As a result of better management practices, the tiger numbers in Ranthambhore went up, which helped the local tourism industry to develop. A lot of jobs were generated. While the growing number of tigers augmented the local economy of Ranthambhore with the continual growth of the tourism industry, man-animal conflict incidences also increased owing to the same reason.

There have been several incidents that have impacted Ranthambhore’s history considerably. In 1981, the Field Director of the Ranthambhore National Park, Fateh Singh Rathore, was attacked by a crowd of 40 to 50 residents of Uliyana village who were illegally grazing their livestock in the Lakarda forest areas of the National Park. Rathore was on patrolling duty and he suffered severe injuries. His driver, Saiyad Mohammed, tried his best to save him and he, in turn, also got seriously injured. A year later, these two brave men were presented the Fred M Packard International Parks’ Merit Award in New Delhi.

On 1 August 1985, a mob from Sherpur and Khilchipur villages attacked a forest team near Mishr Darra, who had been patrolling to prevent illegal grazing activities. The crowd charged at the team with weapons and a forester, Hari Singh, got seriously injured. He succumbed to his injuries in the Sawai Madhopur Hospital. I was then the Range Officer, along with YK Sahu, ACF. Both of us and several forest staff – Manohar Singh, Mahendra Singh, Kedar Prasad, Bhanwar Singh and Vikram Singh – were critically injured during that incident. We were all given a special certificate of appreciation and a cash reward by the Chief Wildlife Warden. Bhadya was an honest, brave tiger tracker and a hardworking game watcher. The tracking of animals during the monsoons becomes difficult and erratic, but you could always see Bhadya, armed with his long-handled axe and tracking kit, diligently going about his duty. I often saw Bhadya accompany Fateh Singh Rathore when the latter went patrolling. I realised that there had to be something very special about this non-assuming tiger tracker for Rathore to take him along with him all the time.

Whenever I got an opportunity, I would also ask him to come with me on my tracking expeditions. He was a fearless and simple man who performed his duties with total dedication. From his vast repertoire of knowledge and first-hand experience, he gave me some important tiger/leopard tracking tips, which are extremely useful to me even today. Unfortunately, he died under mysterious circumstances in December 1991. In April 1993, when a team of the forest department caught a few poachers and was bringing them in a government vehicle to the Sawai Madhopur headquarters, they were ambushed on the way by accomplices of the nabbed criminals. Armed with guns and other firearms and they opened fired at the team without any warning. Forester Ramgopal Puri and forest guard Kalyan Singh died on the spot, while the driver Devi Singh and home guard Raj Singh Gurjar were grievously injured.

In November 1994, a team from the forest department was patrolling to prevent illegal grazing activities in the Bodal areas of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, when they came upon a large herd of livestock. Somehow, they managed to push and lock the livestock in the cattle pond of the Bodal forest chowki. Upon receiving this information, a large number of people from the nearby villages attacked the forest chowki. Forester Parminder Singh and forest guard Badan Singh were seriously injured. In March 1998, in the Bodal area of Ranthambhore, on the Sawai Madhopur road, the staff of Bodal chowki was carrying out routine checking and patrolling to stop poaching and other illegal activities. Forest guard Sukhvir Singh saw a suspicious truck speeding along. He tried to stop it, when it slowed down, by grabbing the driver through the window. But the truck sped away, dragging Sukhvir Singh for some distance before dumping him on the road. Sukhvir Singh succumbed to his injuries. In 2002, a joint patrolling team of the Police and Forest Departments went to thwart illegal grazing operations. On their way back to Sawai Madhopur with the offenders, an angry mob attacked them in village Uliyana. In that deadly attack, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Prem Singh Chandrawat, was seriously wounded, along with others. Two years later, in August 2004, a forest team was operating to prevent illegal grazing in the Lambi forest area near Lakarda of the Tiger Reserve, when they were suddenly attacked by a mass of villagers who wanted to take away the offenders and the seized livestock. In that deadly attack, forest guard Phool Chand was so gravely wounded that he is now completely paralysed for life.

On 20 August 2010, a sub-adult male tiger killed a buffalo in the agricultural fields of the village Bhuri Pahari, at the periphery of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. Thousands of people gathered at that spot and started pelting stones at the tiger. Forest Department officials and police personnel rushed to the spot. It appeared that chemical immobilisation was the only option for rescuing the tiger from that location. Though the situation at the site was not suitable, yet, I, along with foresters Hukum Chand and Tulsi Ram and forest guard Rajveer Singh, reached the spot to tranquillise the tiger. Continuous disturbance by the mob made the tiger jump on me. Today, I have 40 per cent physical disabilities with the permanent loss of sight in my right eye.

On 25 October 2012, assistant forester Ghishu Singh was supervising forest road repairing work in the Kalapani-Sohan Kachchh areas under the Sawai Madhopur range of the Reserve. During foot patrolling, a male tiger T-24 (Ustad) unexpectedly pounced at him and killed him. Thereafter, the tiger dragged his dead body to the nearby dense undergrowth. When the Forest Department teams arrived at the spot, it took a lot of effort to reach the dead body as the aggressive tiger was very possessive about his kill. The forest personnel somehow managed to acquire the body from that location. In the evening of 8 May 2015, routine patrolling duty was going on by a Forest Department team near the areas between the booking tent barrier and the Mishr Darra gate. Ustad attacked Mali from a forest trail near the main road next to Atal Sagar. With a mighty blow, the tiger killed him instantly. The accompanying forest team somehow managed to free the dead body from the tiger.

I have tried my best to recount all the major incidents of the unsung heroes who have contributed to the conservation of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. 

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