You can’t tell a tiger story without the growls. And when Daulat Singh Shaktawat growls, his audience can tell the difference between aggressive, submissive and playful noises. Because this is a man who has spent a lifetime amidst wild beasts.
“Thirty seven years in different wildlife regions of the country, till my retirement two years ago,” he tells a rapt audience, during an interaction in the city for Tumi by Footprint Holidays and The Glassbox. Besides his years in service, the former Assistant Conservator of Forests at Ranthambore Tiger Reserve has also published two books on the species, is a wildlife photographer, and currently works with WWF. It is in Ranthambore National Park, one of the country’s first and largest, that it all began.
“When I started my career, Ranthambore was very small. Yet, we would see tigers only once or twice in a month, with the pugmark method being the only scientific method to trace tigers at the time. Back then, there were only eight tigers in Ranthambore. Now, there are 70,” and he describes the story of the national park; the relocation of about 150 villages and why it was difficult for the people who had been residing there for hundreds of years.
But that isn’t what the crowd — including a host of children and their equally enthusiastic parents — had gathered to hear. They wanted stories: real stories, from the man who had lost an eye trying to protect a terrified (hence violent) tiger cornered by equally terrified villagers. Though it is Shaktawat who suffered the most in that conflict — he needed four rounds of plastic surgery, the insertion of metal plates, and an artificial eye — he understands the plight of both sides.
“When I’d first joined, I thought I could change everything alone with my stick. Now I realise I couldn’t do anything without the local population. It isn’t just tiger protection. If you protect the forest, you protect the entire ecosystem,” he says. He adds how giving villagers a stake in the tiger’s well-being changed their attitude. “They already knew the forest better than anyone. Now that they are employed as guides, and in the tourist hotels nearby, they help us track the tigers, keep an eye out for pugmarks.”
But keeping track isn’t easy, despite new technology like camera traps being installed in the reserve. Shaktawat recounts an incident: “Once, a tiger moved the 100 plus kilometres to Mukundara all by himself. Which meant he had found the corridor himself, by natural instinct.”
In the field
Years spent with the beast also helped him undo a lot of assumptions that were considered gospel among the wildlife community. Assumptions like grown tigers being loners, grown ones being threats to newborn cubs and tigresses being solely responsible for their litter. He says, “That we still don’t know everything about the tiger and its habits. Unlike in popular belief, I have seen male tigers taking responsibilities for a pack. Sometimes in the absence of mother, the father would go on kills for the cubs.”
There were other realisations he had, through observations from others in the field. “Females,” he suggests, “can abort naturally, if they judge that the current area and location isn’t safe enough for a newborn cub. We have seen a number of couplings which did not result in a litter.”
And then there is the carnivore sign survey, dedicated to collecting all indirect evidences of tigers’ presence in an area. “Pugmarks, scat, skin...” says Shaktawat, gave way to some crucial understandings. Firstly, that scat (faeces) contains valuable information about each tiger. And secondly, that stripe patterns are as unique and identifiable as fingerprints.
But throughout these experiences, as well as through Shaktawat’s work in non-captive rearing of cubs whose mothers had died, there is one cardinal rule that remains unchanged. For tigers to thrive, man should stay away.
“Many tigers like Ranthambore’s Machli (officially named T16, she passed away in 2016) and her daughter, get very acclimatised in tourism areas, to people with vehicles. But if people get down, they will get alert, and there will be problems,” he says, adding that this is how it should be. Getting used to a conservator, or a villager, is akin to getting used to and trusting a potential poacher. Which is why Shaktawat is relieved each time a tiger in his ‘care’ goes towards the wild instead of a village, even if it means it cannot be traced for a while.
Like ST6, the tiger who mauled him in the now-famous incident and fled the scene. It was later discovered that the tiger had trudged from Ranthambore to Mathura, a distance of over 200 kilometres. Sightings were reported from different places, and only in October 2010 were authorities able to zero in on him in Keoladeo National Park. It was an intruder there, and when the Government decided to translocate the beast to Bharatpur, “I requested to join that operation,” says Shaktawat. Why? “I wanted to see the tiger, lay my hand on it,” he explains.
“ST6 is in Sariska now,” he says, “People call him Daulat Singh, but I don’t.”