When the cover photo is by Raghu Rai, Valmik Thapar writes the foreword and K. Ullas Karanth says on the back cover that the biography of Fateh Singh Rathore, nicknamed Mr. Ranthambhore, is a valuable contribution to the country’s conservation history, there must be something about the man and the book.
In a narrative that resonates like a typewriter in the middle of a lush, silent forest, Ms. Soonoo Taraporewala, a retired librarian and one of the “fortunates” like Thapar to be introduced to Ranthambhore wildlife sanctuary by Fateh, traces the life of the man who made the forest a haven for tigers and put it on the international tourist map without destroying its fabric. Till the time he was denied entry into the same forests late in his life.
In between is the story of the mid-level forest officer from a rural background who rose to the rank of a field director whose water, security and animal management — specific to the park — offering unique insights into conservation techniques and importantly tiger management.
While tracing the origins of his clan and detailing personalities or early influences on him, the book has not much on his childhood till the time he takes to theatre. An aspiring actor, Fateh got posted as a park ranger and his first few encounters in the wild with the striped big cats are pieces of magical realism of the forests.
Ironically, Fateh’s first assignment in Ranthambhore was to organise a tiger shoot in January 1961 for Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh — both shooting down a tiger each! As the chances of spotting tigers are far better in the dry, deciduous forests, Ranthambhore attracted visitors from around the world.
Feteh built approach roads, created ponds, and influenced people. Thapar was one of those who took up the cause under his influence. Thapar and Fateh revealed to the world the secret world of tigers, including the first-ever documented evidence of a male tiger interacting with his family and playing its part in rearing of the cubs or of tigers’ innovative ways to hunt sambar in water where the prey felt safe.
On the ground, the grazing had to be stopped for wildlife to prosper. For protecting the park from cattle, Fateh was attacked in 1981 by the villagers with the intention to kill him.
Perhaps, the most pioneering achievement of Fateh was the relocation of the villagers from within the Ranthambhore forests to an outside location through patient persuasion and by providing alternative, adequate land to sustain their livelihood. And, thereafter, reforesting Ranthambhore.
A field director, on his own, may never succeed in such an arduous task. Kailash Sankhala, the chief of Project Tiger and a significant figure in Fateh’s life, and the co-operation of the district collector and police chief, made the relocation possible. Sadly, the success at Ranthambhore has not been replicated repeatedly.
Fateh’s battle against poaching and his warnings — well in advance before the Sariska debacle — to which his superiors turned a blind eye and the solution to the problem, that of rehabilitation of the Mogiyas tribe, is yet to receive serious attention of the authorities.
For all his fight against corruption and poaching, Fateh had to pay a heavy price as litigations mounted against him and the local administration threatening to take away his land. The most disheartening treatment was that he was denied entry into the forests, once degrading patches of land, reforested and refreshed for the tigers to return and breed within a short span of time.
After retirement, he set up Tiger Watch to expose the tall claims of the forest officials about the numbers of tigers in the Rajasthan forests, trap and get the poachers booked and rehabilitate the younger generation of the tribes involved in poaching. This is a work in progress.
The book is also testimony to the feudal system that exists within the forest departments. As long as tigers continue to roam and breed in Ranthambhore forests, Fateh aka Mr. Ranthambhore, a genius at work, will be remembered for his lifelong commitment to the cause of tiger conservation.