Saturday, March 05, 2011

Tigers were his life's mission

Daily Telegraph March 5, 2011

Fateh Singh Rathore, who died on Tuesday at age 72, fought a valiant battle to save India's dwindling tiger population, becoming in the process one of India's most revered "tiger wallahs."

In 1973, Rathore created a tiger sanctuary at Ranthambhore, about 700 kilometres southeast of New Delhi, in the state of Rajasthan. Once a private hunting ground for maharajas, the forest enclave became India's most famous and visited tiger preserve -and a key battleground in a desperate fight to save the country's national symbol from extinction.

When Rathore arrived at Ranthambhore, there were thought to be just three or four of the animals left. In 1976 he negotiated the resettlement of 13 villages containing 10,000 families from inside the reserve to a new village outside and, four years later, secured bans on baiting the tigers and on night-time driving. Before long, the numbers of tigers began to recover. In 1980, Ranthambhore sanctuary was declared a national park and in 1982 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi presented Rathore with the Project Tiger conservation award.

A striking figure with a large handlebar moustache, Rathore was never seen without an olive-coloured safari hat and tiger-print silk cravat. He knew all the tigers in his reserve by their stripes, their pug marks and their habits, naming them after Mughal emperors and empresses and Hindu gods.

"If you mixed my tigers in with 10,000 other tigers, I could still pick them out," he claimed.

But Rathore's efforts were not popular. In 1981 he was ambushed, beaten unconscious and left for dead by villagers illegally grazing cattle in the reserve. In 1983 he was awarded an International Valour Award for bravery in the field. But by the late 1980s a new threat to the tigers had emerged in the form of poaching, fuelled by demand, mainly from China.

In the early 1990s Rathore informed the Delhi authorities that 20 out of the 45 tigers on the reserve had vanished. But by then nobody seemed to be listening. He had been sacked as warden in 1988 and transferred to an office job.

After retiring from official duties in 1996, Rathore founded Tiger Watch -an internationally-funded group dedicated to offering local people alternative sources of income to poaching, and facilities such as hospitals and schools. "I thought, instead of making villains out of the poachers, let's talk to them and try and reform them," Rathore explained.

But poaching remained a severe problem. In its first five years, Tiger Watch helped police arrest 47 alleged poachers, many in possession of tiger skins and other body parts, guns and traps. By their own admission, the poachers had killed more than 20 tigers. Yet in the same period, park authorities did not record a single case of poaching.

Not long after Rathore revealed that poaching had reduced tiger numbers in Ranthambhore to just 18 in 2004, officials turned up at his office and demolished it. His daughter's shop and their restaurant were also flattened.

Fateh Singh Rathore was born in 1938 in Rajasthan. His father was a police officer. After taking a degree from Rajputana University in 1960 Rathore joined the Rajasthan Forest Service. One of his first jobs was organizing tiger hunts during a visit by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in 1961: "I was not in love with the tiger at the time. We were very happy that we succeeded," he recalled. India would eventually ban tiger hunting in 1970.

Last month he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Rathore is survived by a son and two daughters.

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