There’s more to the tiger tale than meets the eye

Re-living history: The three-year-old tiger which was released into the Sariska Tiger Reserve recently.

Re-living history: The three-year-old tiger which was released into the Sariska Tiger Reserve recently.   | Photo Credit: Photo PTI

Sunny Sebastian

JAIPUR: All-round excitement over re-introduction of a tiger and a tigress into the tiger-less wilderness of Sariska over this past week notwithstanding, the fact remains that the claim made by experts and officials alike on the occasion about it being the first time such a feat has been accomplished can be challenged.

With due apologies to all those who toiled hard to bring the big cat back to Sariska Tiger Reserve by airlifting a male tiger from Ranthambhore, followed by a tigress to give it company, it needs to be put on record that the operation, widely hailed as “the first wild-to-wild re-location,” was not exactly that. It had a parallel in Rajasthan itself a few decades ago.

History repeats itself

It was the late Maharawal Lakshman Singh of Dungarpur who first tried out tiger re-introduction successfully in his princely State of Rajasthan back in the 1930s, informs seasoned conservationist Harsh Vardhan.

Born exactly a century ago in 1908, the Maharawal had to take over the reins of Dungarpur as a minor in 1918. When he returned home to attain powers of the State in 1928 after completing his education at Ajmer’s Mayo College, he was stunned by the fact that no tigers were left in the wild there.

Looking for the culprits, he found the needle of suspicion pointing to Donald Field, the British officer posted in Udaipur as Political Agent. Those who tended to the administrative chores in the absence of the Maharawal were unanimous that the British officer, who enjoyed hunting, must have moved on to Dungarpur after liquidating the tiger population in Mewar. An infuriated Maharawal drew the attention of the Government in New Delhi and sought an explanation from the officer.

Mr. Vardhan says Donald Field was courteous enough to apologise and offer a “feline diplomatic deal” which facilitated Dungarpur receiving a pair of tigers from the jungles of Gwalior. All this happened in 1930. The Maharawal baptised the male as “Bokha” and the female as “Bokhi.”“This was the first instance of re-introduction of the species. The success of the operation could be gauged from the fact that Dungarpur State would hand over 25 tigers to the Forest Department at the time of the country’s Independence in 1947," says Mr. Vardhan.

The Maharawal strictly implemented game laws across Dungarpur. Even his two brothers were not allowed to bag the tiger within the State. One of them was Maharaj Veer Bhadra Singh, who said no to an ICS posting and preferred serving Dungarpur as the Dewan. The second, Nagendra Singh, served as an ICS officer and rose to be Chairman of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. None of the three stalwarts survives to see the tragedy that has befallen the national animal.

What was the software of the tiger re-introduction then? The present Maharawal, Mahipal Singh of Dungarpur, responded over telephone to explain to this correspondent that “protection of wilderness was the key practice” with his late father. While the tigers had disappeared, the prey base had also declined. He had to ensure adequate recruitment of the associate species.

“Loads of chinkaras, wild boars, sambhars, spotted deer and other ungulates came up in a short while. Dungarpur then was known for its four-horned antelopes, which probably are rare in Rajasthan these days… ,” said this gentle son of a great father.

Lakshman Singh had devised a visitor-friendly passage through the thick of jungles -- a long and narrow “grass tunnel” with thatch covering from three sides. All could walk through it for miles, using the vegetation chinks to spot the wildlife roaming on both sides.

As a part of the management plan, water holes were maintained and a census of all animals was carried out with precision, often using cameras.

“He maintained the eco-system approach. That would have been the reason why he attained a prestige in the then British India, toured African jungles to bag the Big Five and converted Udai Vilas Palace in Dungarpur into a veritable treasure trove of African trophies,” points out Mr. Vardhan.

In Memoriam

The Maharawal was pained to find Bokha turning toothless after creating a brave new breed of tigers for Dungarpur State. It could no more hunt on its own. The animal had done its job for long. He offered it eternal peace by mercy-killing. Bokha’s memorial platform stands to this day in the forest behind the Dungarpur Palace. The epitaph reads: “Bokha the hero of Dungarpur: Laid to rest here on 16 December, 1934.”

After Independence, Maharawal Laxman Singh became the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, representing Swatantra Party. He opted for the post of Speaker as Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who would subsequently become India’s Vice-President, won the race to become the State Chief Minister.

Mr. Vardhan notes that the Maharawal’s last major public appearance for conservation advocacy was at the International Symposium on Bustards in 1980 in Jaipur where along with Maharaj Dharamkumarsinhji of Bhavnagar he scripted the “census technique” for the Great Indian Bustard.

“Numerous letters from both these experts decorate my shelves making me proud of what had been attempted then,” recalls Harsh Vardhan, who single-mindedly ousted Arab sheikhs indulging in falconry in the Thar Desert in 1978 and organised that global meet, initiating conservation of this gravely endangered bird species.

The new record for tiger re-introduction apparently has opened up a fresh conservation link -- from former pricely state of Gwalior to Dungarpur via Jaipur’s Civil Lines.

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