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PRERNA SINGH BINDRA
WILDLIFE

Mr Ranthambore is great loss to Tiger cause

Photo: PRERNA singh BINDRA

hose who say, 'what difference can I make, I am only one person?', did not have the good fortune to know Fateh Singh Rathore, who created Ranthambore, put its tigers on the map, gave the tigers space, and the star status they enjoy today. Most importantly, he inspired and nurtured an army of tiger aficionados who fight for the cause today.

Fateh Singh Rathore embodied the Power of One. He changed the world of the tiger. If the tiger lives today, in Ranthambore and in our hearts, we owe it to him. It is impossible to encapsulate this 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 disaster ("I was the disaster", he would chortle) before he was made 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 fear for the animal 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 shikari's tying a machan he decided to act.  As the hunters waited at night, bait in place, rifles in hand for the doomed tiger, Fateh spoiled the party, leading a loud procession through the area, beating drums and singing bhajans. The Americans left, disgruntled, and the tiger was spared. This was vintage Fateh, always game for a gag, and fiercely protective of his tigers, and Ranthambore, a passion and commitment that continued to his dying day.

t 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 simply for telling the truth: that Ranthambore, and its tigers were dying.

'Mr Ranthambore' 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, tigers flourished, and shed their fear of man, opening their world, sharing their secrets, bestowing on the park the fame and stature it enjoys today. Ranthambore today is a hub around the tiger — with NGOs, a school, a  multi-specialty hospital, a thriving tourism industry, the famous Ranthambore school of Art that has trained local artists, a hostel for the poachers' children to educate them. All owed 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 tigers everything", he would say, "they made me world-famous." Fateh loved tigers, they shared 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. 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.

On March 1, 'Mr Ranthambore' left us, losing his battle with 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 himself that the spirit of the tiger rested within him, forever. There cannot be Ranthambore without Fatji, but there must, for it is there that he lives on. There will always be a Ranthambore flush with tigers, it is the only way we can serve the memory of the man who lived for it.

 
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