Wednesday, February 29, 2012

a tribute to Fatji

i couldn't do it...write a tribute to Fatji...this is a feeble attempt to try and explain this wonderful, delightful, committed to tigers. A friend, mentor, guide, guru.

Those who say, ‘what difference can I make, I am only one person’, haven’t had the good fortune to know Fateh Singh Rathore: who created Ranthambhore, put it and its tigers on the world map, gave the tigers space, and the star status they enjoy today… and most importantly inspired and nurtured an army of tiger aficionados who fight for its cause today.

Fateh Singh Rathore embodied the Power of One. He changed the world of the tiger... if the tiger lives today, in Ranthambhore, and in our hearts, we owe it to him.

It is a task impossible to encapsulate a man’s life in limited wordage… how do you quantify his contribution, or capture his joie de vivre, his work, his commitment, his passion?

Let’s get the basics first: TigerMan Fateh was a man of modest education and feudal upbringing and went through a series of jobs—all ending in a bit of disaster (“I was the disaster”, he would chortle) before he was appointed as a ranger in the forest department. In the early days, it wasn’t the forests or its denizens that held his interest, it was his Royal Enfield motorbike, and he recalls the time when he scampered—trembling—up a tree when a tiger, curious about the roar of the bike, came investigating!

That changed. And the fear… turned to love.

Perhaps, the first indication of Fateh’s change of heart was his growing resentment of shikar (those were pre-protection days). When he spotted yet another pair of shkar's tying a machan he decided to act. As the hunters waited at night, ght, bait in place, rifles in hand for the ‘doomed’ tiger, Fateh spoiled the party, leading a loud procession beating drums, singing bhajans. The Americans went, disgruntled, and the tiger, was spared. This was vintage Fateh, always game for a gag, and fiercely protective of his tigers, and Ranthambhore… a passion and commitment that continued to his dying day. It never wavered-even when he was beaten up, almost to death, in 1981 when trying to protect the forest from grazing; or when, post retirement, he was barred from entering his beloved park by the state, for speaking out the truth that Ranthambhore, and its tigers were dying.

'Mr Ranthambhore'devoted his life to the park: he walked the forest with his band of men, laid out the network of dirt roads to facilitate protection, took on poachers, bureaucrats and politicians, patiently won the trust of villagers, persuading and coaxing them to relocate from the park. He cried with the people, sharing their grief as they walked away from their ancestral home. Months later, he brought in the headman, who delighted in seeing the tiger walk across what was once their village. The tiger..had come home.

Under his vigilant, caring eye, the tigers flourished, and shed their fear of man… opening their world, sharing their secrets giving the park the fame and stature it enjoys today. Ranthambhore today is a hub around the tiger—with NGOs, a school, a multi-specialty hospital, a thriving tourism industry, the famous Ranthambhore school of Art that has trained local artists, a hostel for the poachers' children to educate them, owing largely to the vision of one man.

But for Fateh it was not what he did for the tiger, but what the tiger did for him. "I owe the tiger everything", he would say, “they made me world-famous.”

Fateh loved tigers, he had an instinct--almost a spiritual connection. He could feel their presence. ‘Tigers,’ he announced on my first visit to the park with him, as I peered at a landscape devoid of cat... and sure enough within minutes, our Gypsy was surrounded by four tigers. A mother, and three sub-adults, who arranged themselves around the vehicle, effectively blocking our path for over an hour. No, I did not know fear. I had another tiger in the Gypsy with me!

Fatji–as many of us knew him, was larger than life, full of exuberance, warm, childlike, generous to a fault and took to heart all who loved his forest.

On March 1, 'Mr Ranthambhore' left us, losing the battle to cancer. The tigers knew they had lost their friend-and champion. At 4 am the next day, hours before the funeral, a tiger appeared behind his house, roaring thrice-maybe in final farewell, maybe to pay his last respects but I like to think, to reassure that the spirit of the tiger rested within him, forever.

There cannot be Ranthambhore without Fatji, but there must, for it is there that he lives on. There will always be a Ranthambhore flush with tigers, it is the only way we can serve the memory of the man who lived for it.

Published in The Sunday Guardian, March 13, 2011

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Unprepared for the Cheetah's arrival

Author: Prerna Singh Bindra

Inviting this big cat to stay is a project that needs long-term commitment. We're ill-equipped for that

So, the stage is set for the return of the cheetah in India, though it is unclear if it can be called a ‘reintroduction’ as it is being touted, given that we are bringing in an exotic species from Namibia. Actually, the Asiatic cheetah, of which barely about 100 survive in Iran, is a distinct subspecies from the north-east Africa cheetah (Carruau, P et al,. ‘Phytogeography, genetic structure and population divergence time of cheetah in Africa and Asia: Evidence for long-term geographic isolates’, 2011. Molecular Ecology). This is a worry, and one wonders how this grand move has circumvented the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, but there is a graver concern, primarily: Are we really committed to giving the cheetah a secure home, and a future?

One appreciates the genuine distress at having lost this magnificent cat, the ‘only large mammal to go extinct in India in the past century’, that prompted this proposal; and the sincere-if foolish-belief that getting the cheetah back will act as a catalyst to save its habitat, India’s fast disappearing grasslands. But let not emotion rule the fray. Let’s clinically examine the issue, before we pour tax-payers’ money into this grand venture.

Since the last cheetahs were shot in 1947, India’s population has exploded from 350 million to over 1.2 billion. Lakhs of acres of forests have been gutted to accommodate the growing need for food and other resources. India’s growth ambitions with its consequent need for coal, power, industry, roads are destroying and fragmenting its wilderness. The discerning reader is aware of the bitter battle to protect every last inch of India’s tigerland from mines, highways and industry. It’s a losing battle, and if we cannot take the concerns of the national animal on board, what hope is there for an exotic cat flown in from foreign shores?

The idea that the cheetah will ‘save’ grasslands by serving as its flagship species is utopian. Consider the plight of the Great Indian Bustard, the ambassador of grasslands. With barely 300 remaining, they may well be the next species to slip into oblivion, unless drastic measures are taken. Now, significantly, one of the habitats considered as a potential area for the cheetah was the Desert National Park in Rajasthan. The then Union Minister of Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, explained that this had to be ruled out because the State was not interested in protecting grasslands but oil interests in the region. And even as this is being written, the process to denotify a large chunk of the park is underway. Why?

The habitat earmarked for the cheetah is now Kuno National Park in Madhya Pradesh where ecologists fear that grassy patches are diminishing gradually with the growth of woodlands. This succession does not bode well for the cheetah or its prey. Incidentally, Kuno has fragmented connectivity to the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, the only protected area where transient or ‘spill over’ tigers from the Reserve can take sanctuary. Since the tigers were unaware of the grand plan, two of them have taken up residence in Kuno.

Also waiting in line for admission into Kuno are the world’s last Asiatic lions, which Gujarat is refusing to part with. It is critical that the lions get a second home given that it’s a classic case of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket with the risks attendant with that strategy. This will give Gujarat yet another ready excuse to not part with their pride, but if they do come to Kuno, as they must, it will be quite a cat party, with lions, tigers, leopards and cheetahs rubbing shoulders with one another. The ecological consequences of this are something that must be very carefully considered.

The prime concern is how committed are we — the Government and the people of India — to protect the cheetah in perpetuity after the hoopla is over, and the realities of conservation kick in, after Governments and Ministers have changed?

Have we shown a commitment, in word and in deed, to other big cats, and to our indigenous wildlife? Despite the focus on Project Tiger, is it not true that we are struggling to protect every inch of tiger habitat, and in fact have lost no less than 12,000 sq km in the short span of four years? What is the status of the leopard today? Battered, beaten, burnt to death in conflict situations and poached heavily.

When we are desperately grappling to protect habitats for species like the tiger, the elephant and the leopard, why then are we planning to bring in this fragile cat without first securing habitats? We are planning to buy the cheetahs — apparently at some Rs 2 crore each — and have set aside Rs 300 crore for the project, when we grant a mere Rs 80 crore (apart from the Project Tiger budget) annually for our 600-odd Protected Areas and critically endangered indigenous species like the bustard, Gangetic Dolphin, Great One-Horned Rhinocerous. Shouldn’t the funds, and the focus, go into their protection?

Another very important aspect is voluntary relocation of tribals and communities living within sanctuaries and tiger reserves. Many of these people are eager to move out, to enter mainstream society and avail of the opportunities of education, employment, healthcare, denied to them living in remote regions and in Protected Areas. Shouldn’t the priority be to give them the choice of opportunity and a better life and also thus create inviolate areas for wildlife?

Is it wise to introduce a predator, when the issue of man-animal conflict gets graver by the day? With natural prey being scarce, won’t the cheetah take to livestock, leading to a face-off with local communities? Are we ready to face this backlash?

Inviting a big cat to stay is a project that requires long-term commitment, financial investment, political will, support of the people, and local communities. In the current scenario, do we have this? Frankly, no.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Operation Cheetah: A self-serving excercise

So we will buy the Cheetah, and introduce it in India. The big cat will be flown to india anytime, no doubt accompanied by a media blitz and lot of fanfare.
Did someone pause to think: are we doing it for the good of the cheetah? Or simply because we want to say, feel good, we got the dead back to life? And bask in the excitement and thrill that it will initially provide, before the crisis of conservation and all that it entails hits here too?
Because it appears to be a conservation success to have this large cat back, after we hunted and drove it to extinction?
We invite it here, even as we, the people, refuse to give sanctuary to other wild cats. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about the leopard, and how we beat, bludgeon and burn it to death.
What home are we going to give our guest, the cheetah? Do we have the grasslands to sustain him?
Will we, the government and people of India commit to its protection...not for three months or an year or till the current government lasts, or till we like this flight of fancy, but for perpetuity?
And give this a thought too: our indigenous wildlife, critically endangered species like the rhino, hangul, elephant, dolphins, bustards have a budget of Rs 80 crore (am not including the budget of Project Tiger) --while we budget Rs 300 crore for the cheetah?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Unsung heroes of our Green Army

Meet Budh Singh. Cowherd from the Ahir community. Fire watcher. Climate Warrior. But first let’s hear how and where this writer met him, perched on a flimsy platform some 50 feet above the ground, on a very tall tree in Madhya Pradesh’s famous Kanha Tiger Reserve. This is where he stays 10-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week through the dry, scorching summer to keep vigil at one of India’s best tiger habitats and alert park authorities in the event of a fire. His job is vital. An uncontrolled fire can reduce Kanha — home to the tiger, the endemic hardground barasingha, and many other rare species — to ashes and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Budh Singh is a daily wager. For his pains he is paid Rs100 a day. He gets no meal allowance, subsidised rations, transport, pension, gratuity, medical benefits, or leave with pay. All that has been granted to him are a thin sheet to protect himself from the blazing sun, a precarious platform fashioned from bamboo to keep from plummeting to the ground, a simple meal that he carries from home and water. With this, he maintains a lonely vigil to prevent the forest from going up in smoke. With this he guards the tiger, and its home. On him, and scores of others like him, rests the tigers’ future.

During years of traversing through remote forests, one has met many such remarkable men who take extraordinary risks against the worst of odds to protect our forests. One such person is Ranjit Mondol, van shramik at Sundarbans, ranked as an ‘expert’ in handling tigers (and crocodiles, for that matter) in conflict situations, in a landscape where man-tiger conflict is rife.

When tigers venture into villages in the delta, Mondol helps in controlling the crowd, manoeuvring the animals into cages, carrying them to a boat and releasing them in the forest. Mondol narrated an incident that highlights the risks people like him take in the course of their work. He had been involved in a particularly stressful conflict situation. He had just succeeded in manoeuvring a captured tiger into the cage when the door slammed shut and Mondol found himself on the wrong side of the bars. It was his presence of mind — and courage — that saved him: “I held the tiger tight in a hug,” he said, leaving little room for the tiger to move or attack.

There are thousands of such Budh Singhs and Mondols. Their compatriots — forest guards, watchers, trackers, mahouts, foresters — spend a lifetime in remote jungles, living a lonely life far away from their homes and families, battling against timber smugglers, poachers and Maoists to protect our natural heritage. They constantly struggle to adjust to their dual, and sometimes conflicting, role as ‘policemen’ to control hunting and illegal grazing, and ‘arbitrators’ in conflict situations. They also try to garner community support for conservation. They are India’s unsung Green Army, the men on the front to whom we owe the tiger — and other rare wildlife — as well as the forests and the rivers that flow through them.

Most of the force — if you can call it that, given that we have failed to empower its members — are daily wagers, working on a contractual basis for years and decades with no job security or the promise of a permanent job. Forest watchers form the bulk of the protection force but are grossly underpaid. Worse, they are rarely paid on time, with wages often delayed for months. They are untrained and under-equipped, and live in chowkis that sometimes lack basic facilities, with no clean water, medical aid, protective rain and winter gear. They don’t have fixed working hours. If they go to buy provisions or collect their wages, or if they are on leave, there’s no back-up. Their beat, or patch of forest, remains unguarded.

Their lives are not insured although their task is risky. Many have been injured, or killed on duty. Even this sacrifice goes unsung. While we rightly honour our soldiers who protect our borders, there is simply no recognition for those who lay down their lives to safeguard our eco-system.

One particular worry is that when forest staff take on poachers and smugglers, they do so at their own risk and personal liability. For example, if they fire during an encounter with timber smugglers — a hardened, powerful mafia — the Government doesn’t take their side in the event of an offender getting injured or dying in the encounter. There are many forest personnel caught in the legal quagmire of court cases and up against a powerful opposition that thrives on the illegal market for timber and wildlife contraband.

At Rajaji National Park, three forest staff are facing the charge of murder under Section 302 for accidentally killing a person when they fired in self-defence against a gang of armed intruders at night. Similarly, at Similipal Tiger Reserve a range officer who fired in desperation when timber smugglers had gheraoed forest staff and were assaulting them, has been fighting — in his personal capacity — a case of murder filed against him.

Why should an officer and his family face such humiliation and harassment for carrying out his duty? Is it any surprise that few are willing to risk their life and limb to implement protection laws? How can we then expect them to save the tiger? How can we demand accountability unless we enable those on the front? If we are to protect our wildlife, we must ensure that their guardians are enabled, equipped, motivated and backed by the country they serve.

It is imperative that we motivate foresters and instil a sense of pride in their task. However, before that we have to learn to take pride in our natural assets. Forests, wetlands, mountains and rivers form the foundation on which our ecological and economic security and development rest.