Ranthambore: Tigers crawling out of the woods!
Tiger overpopulation in the Ranthambore reserve is leading to aggression, against both fellow tigers and humans
Akash Bisht Ranthambore (Rajasthan)
It’s 5 pm and forest guard Harlal Saini has just returned from a long walk through a dense patch of forest that comprises his beat in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve (RTR) in Rajasthan. Every day, he makes two such trips to the forest to ensure that there is no imminent danger to the habitat or its wild inhabitants. This has been his routine for the past 20 years. He lives in a small tent on a dry patch of forest deep inside the reserve. Next to the tent, a fire burns slowly in a small mud chulhah. Exhausted by the strenuous routine, Saini decides to drink some tea before getting back to work. He puts a kettle on the chulhah and adds milk powder, sugar and tea leaves when the water begins to simmer. After boiling the drink for several minutes, he pours it into small china cups. Sipping it, he remarks that he will have to spend the night alone as his partner, a fellow forest guard, is on leave.
Only 48, Saini has many years left until retirement but he looks much older; his skin is wrinkled and most of his hair has turned grey. “The daily hardship of the work makes us look much older,” he smiles. He has his share of hair-raising stories — and not all of them are tall ones. Thoroughly familiar with the forest, he has seen many tigers from very close quarters. But the one encounter he will never forget is when he was attacked by a tiger.
The fear of death stalks several forest guards who patrol the deep interiors of the reserve. Even the brave ones like Saini fear for their lives. They feel that Ranthambore’s tigers have become strangely aggressive in the past few years
“It was July 8, 2009, when some new forest guards and a forest officer had joined work and they all wanted to see a tiger. I knew that a tiger was camping in the area and took them to the spot where he usually rested. Soon after we reached, while I was looking around, he suddenly pounced on me. When I looked back for help, everyone had run away,” he says.
Saini blames himself for the attack. Had he not disturbed the tiger, the incident would not have happened, he says. “If he wanted to kill me, he would have done that, but he just wanted to warn me.” He then proudly displays the scars on his hand, left by the massive canines of the tiger.
While Saini survived to tell the story, forester Gheesu Singh wasn’t so lucky. On October 25, 2012, Gheesu was walking between two groups of labourers inside the reserve when a tiger attacked him. He had gone to the forest to inspect the progress on the road that was being repaired at Rajbagh naka area of the Kundal Forest region. Forest officials said that most of the labourers and forest guards ran away as soon as they heard Gheesu scream, “Pakad liya (he has caught me).”
A search party followed the drag marks on the ground and reached the spot to find the body lying on the ground with the tiger beside it. “We burst fire crackers but the tiger wouldn’t budge. It was as if he was guarding a kill,” said Dharmendra Khandal of Tiger Watch, a non-profit anti-poaching organisation.
Since that day, the fear of death stalks several forest guards who patrol the deep interiors of the reserve. Even the brave ones like Saini fear for their lives. They feel that Ranthambore’s tigers have become strangely aggressive in the past few years. Forest Ranger Daulet Singh, though unperturbed by several near-death brushes with tigers, has also become sceptical of venturing alone into the forest.
Gheesu’s death was also a personal setback for Daulet as he had been looked after by the former for two months while recuperating from a tiger attack. On August 20, 2010, Daulet was attacked by a tiger when he had gone to tranquilise the animal, which had strayed from the reserve and entered human habitation.
Daulet fired the tranquiliser twice but missed the tiger, which was hiding in the millet crop. When he tried to take up a different position, the tiger pounced on him. The right side of his face was badly mauled. Sitting at the forest office headquarters in Sawai Madhopur, Daulet remembers, “I just saw the tiger jumping towards me and then he bit me on the face. I heard the bones of my skull break like dry twigs. Blood was oozing out of my skull that had been torn apart and my left eye was hanging out. I shoved the eye in and asked them to take me to the nearest hospital. I could feel the blood gushing down my throat. I thought I was going to die.”
He was taken to the nearest government hospital. There was no electricity, so he was operated on with the help of mobile phones that had torches. “Such was the inexperience of the doctors present that they stitched his upper eyelid next to his cheek. They just wanted to patch up everything,” says Khandal.
Daulet was then told that the optic nerve of his left eye had been completely damaged and he would never regain sight. However, after innumerable operations and plastic surgeries, other doctors have been able to somewhat restore his look. “The left side of my face has been numb since the incident. Several metallic plates have been placed beneath the skin to make the face look real. I have no sensation on the left of my face. I also have a fake eye which I take out every night before going to bed,” he says.