WAYS OF THE WILD

Marwar - - Contents - Text Bev­erly Pereira

In My En­counter with the Big Cat and Other Ad­ven­tures in Ran­thamb­hore, re­tired for­est of­fi­cer Daulat Singh Shak­tawat takes the reader deep into the jun­gles of Ran­thamb­hore Tiger Re­serve, as he re­vis­its his trysts—in­clud­ing a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence—with its tigers.

Thou­sands of brave men and women tire­lessly guard In­dia’s forests to curb wildlife poach­ing and con­serve the habi­tat. In MyEn­coun­ter­with­theBigCatandOtherAd­ven­turesin Ran­thamb­hore, re­tired for­est of­fi­cer Daulat Singh Shak­tawat takes the reader deep into the jun­gles of Ran­thamb­hore Tiger Re­serve, as he re­vis­its his trysts—in­clud­ing a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence—with its tigers.

IN ALL THE 37 YEARS THAT Daulat Singh Shak­tawat served in the wildlife wing of the For­est Depart­ment of Ra­jasthan, specif­i­cally at Ke­o­ladeo Na­tional Park, Sariska Tiger Rerserve and Ran­thamb­hore Tiger Re­serve, no two days were ever alike. A day in the life of a for­est of­fi­cer is un­pre­dictable and tire­some, test­ing even. On some days there may be a wild an­i­mal that needs med­i­cal at­ten­tion; on oth­ers, track­ing and mon­i­tor­ing a bel­li­cose an­i­mal might go on well into the night. The book’s pulse-rac­ing sto­ries high­light the di­verse na­ture of the dan­ger­ous yet sat­is­fy­ing job of man­ning a for­est, with­out ever com­ing across as overly in­ten­tional.

The rugged ter­rain of Ran­thamb­hore, in the Sawai Mad­hopur district, on the east­ern edge of Ra­jasthan, is made up of dry de­cid­u­ous forests, trop­i­cal scrub veg­e­ta­tion, peren­nial wa­ter streams and lakes. Be­sides the tiger, the re­serve is home to leop­ards, hye­nas, jun­gle cats, wild boars, marsh croc­o­diles, sloth bears, nil­gai, var­i­ous species of deer, and over 250 res­i­dent bird species like the ru­fous treepie and pea­cock, among other fauna. Once the hunt­ing ground of erst­while kings, the re­serve is home to the Ran­thamb­hore Fort, and ru­ins of domes, step wells and canopies still dot the land­scape. For those un­ac­quainted with this en­chant­ing

en­vi­ron­ment, the book paints a com­plete pic­ture. Shak­tawat, an avid wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher, sup­ple­ments his vivid words with rare pho­to­graphs that por­tray Ran­thamb­hore’s fa­mous tigers in var­i­ous set­tings.

For ed­u­ca­tors and con­ser­va­tion­ists, this hand­book brims with lessons on con­ser­va­tion ef­forts. In a hair-rais­ing tale about his near-fa­tal ex­pe­ri­ence while di­vert­ing T-7, a tiger who had strayed into a nearby vil­lage, we learn about the del­i­cate sub­ject of the hu­man-wildlife con­flict and the au­thor’s abil­ity to avert cri­sis sit­u­a­tions. The reader gets a taste of the high-pres­sure na­ture of this op­er­a­tion and the un­escapable dan­ger of it all. The for­est of­fi­cer is at his de­scrip­tive best as he re­counts, down to the last gory de­tail, the mo­ment T-7 at­tacked him, crush­ing his bones and leav­ing him with in­juries that would re­quire over two-and-a-half years of re­cov­ery.

We are once again privy to his pas­sion for the striped beauty in a story about a young male tiger called Us­tad, whose story ex­pounds the be­havioural traits of tigers. The nar­ra­tive be­gins on a heart-warm­ing note with Shak­tawat pho­tograph­ing the cub, his two sib­lings and their mother by a wa­ter­hole in 2006. It ends trag­i­cally in 2015, when Us­tad’s er­rant be­hav­iour— al­most com­pa­ra­ble to a maneater—forces the for­est staff to shift him to a zoo. The thrilling twists and turns of­fer glimpses into the life of Us­tad—from his birth, in­juries and at­tempts to mark his own ter­ri­tory, right up to a courtship with ti­gress Noor and his un­usu­ally so­cial be­hav­iour on be­com­ing fa­ther to Sul­tan.

Aside from hous­ing the world-fa­mous tiger re­serve, Sawai Mad­hopur is an im­por­tant place of pil­grim­age. The fa­mous Tri-Ne­tra Ganesh Tem­ple lies at the fringe of the re­serve, and it’s not un­usual for wild an­i­mals to wan­der through its hal­lowed gates. One of the lat­ter sto­ries puts the spot­light on the re­serve’s other big cat, the leop­ard, an an­i­mal more elu­sive than the tiger. The story may not be nearly as thrilling as Shak­tawat’s trysts with tigers, but it un­doubt­edly adds a touch of mys­tery to the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. More im­por­tantly, it is yet another in­stance of how the sea­soned for­est of­fi­cer’s mind is al­ways in tune with the for­est.

Ev­ery wildlife re­serve is de­pen­dent on the for­est depart­ment staff, and Shak­tawat knows this all too well. He ded­i­cates a chap­ter to Ran­thamb­hore’s un­sung he­roes, the cus­to­di­ans of the jun­gle, many of whom gave up their lives, or suf­fered per­ma­nent dis­abil­i­ties in or­der to make it one of the best re­serves in the world.

Fi­nally, one ques­tions the ab­sence of en­tire sto­ries ded­i­cated to Ran­thamb­hore’s celebrity tigers, Machhli and Sun­dari. Surely, in all his years at the re­serve, Shak­tawat must have come face to face with their leg­endary strength and agility. Al­though they do find men­tion in the epi­logue along with other well­doc­u­mented tigers, we’d like to be­lieve that there is another thrilling book in the off­ing.

From top: T-7, the tiger who at­tacked the au­thor and al­most killed him; Book cover Fac­ing page: (Clock­wise from top) Cubs T-36 and T-37 af­ter the death of their mother; Leop­ards are mys­ti­fy­ing crea­tures, of­ten more elu­sive than tigers; Daulat Singh Shak­tawat

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