India 2008: Saving the Tigers

We stare at the drag marks for a few seconds before Fateh Singh Rathore steps out of the Jeep to examine bloodstained mud. Signaling me to join, he heads off into the scrub, following the trail. We walk barely 50 yards when a low growl stops us in our tracks. Not 60 feet from us, a tigress crouches, breathing heavily, muzzle red, one paw over the shoulder of a large sambar. We’re relieved to find her safe, as the area had been hit by poachers recently. “Let’s go,” Fateh whispers. “She is not going anywhere for a couple of days.”

Here in the heart of India’s Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve such sightings were rare when the park was created 35 years ago and Fateh was given charge of it as a junior officer. Back then Ranthambhore had rice and millet fields, was home to thousands of buffalo, cows, and goats, and its skies were routinely black with smoke from forest fires. But with an annual budget of less than $25,000, Fateh and his staff of around 40 nurtured 100 square miles of habitat and expanded the tiger population dramatically. Now Fateh is officially retired, though he lives on a farm at the edge of the reserve and continues to fight for the tiger’s survival using a strategy he sums up this way: “Keep humans out and protect the habitat from fire, livestock grazing, and poaching. Let nature do the rest.”

Ranthambhore is an unusual success story in India, where tiger populations have declined from around 4,000 in 1990 to fewer than 1,400 today. While poaching remains a major threat (demand for tiger bones, penises, and pelts—which can fetch more than $10,000—is especially strong among wealthy Chinese), the loss of territory from human infringement and industrialization is an even greater danger. Quarries, mines, dams, power plants, highways, and other by-products of India’s fast-growing economy threaten virtually every tiger habitat.

But preserving areas such as Ranthambhore, which is also home to leopards, sloth bears, and other species, has taken on a new urgency with rising concerns over climate change. Experts are now exploring strategies to mitigate global warming through the regeneration of forests, and Ranthambhore is being meticulously documented as a case study. By combating climate change through forest renewal, India would reap additional benefits in water security, drought and flood control, soil fertility, and biodiversity, not to mention tourism revenues. As the country’s most famous tiger nursery, Ranthambhore attracts almost 150,000 paying visitors each year.

In many ways all this is because of the vision of the late prime minister Indira Gandhi, the tiger’s white knight. She banned tiger hunting and ordered the creation of a network of Project Tiger reserves. Today there are 36, up from just nine in 1973.

Not that it has come easy. In fact, Fateh nearly lost his life when a mob of angry villagers ambushed him and left him for dead in retaliation for his refusal to allow them to graze domestic animals in the park or gather firewood to sell. When reminded of the incident a quarter-century later, Fateh shrugs it off. “Threats come with the territory,” he says. “I only wish that we did not have to work so hard to protect an irreplaceable heritage.”

Bittu Sahgal is the editor of Sanctuary magazine in Mumbai. For more information on tiger conservation, visit sanctuaryasia.com.