WAYS OF THE WILD
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