Secret hand signals, hidden paths, and preciously guarded knowledge. I feel I’ve stumbled upon a medieval guild within the Ranthambhore National Park. My naturalist guide to this unusual world is Balveer Singh. Balveer has been a member of this strange select club for over five years. A father of three, the procession of his life is laid out before him: from cattle guard to forest guard, check post guard to ranger, driver then naturalist, subdivisional officer and divisional forest officer. For a select few, assistant conservator of the forest, conservator of the forest, chief conservator of the forest and principle chief conservator of the forest. A world where strict adherence to the codes and rules of the tiger guild promise status, salary and security.
Balveer wakes at 4:00am each morning, is in the park office by 4:30am to find out which zone and client he has been allocated. By 5:15am he has picked up his clients, and is ready waiting for the park gate to open at 6:00am. Balveer then spends twelve hours in dusty 42 degree heat hunting for tigers before collapsing into bed by 8:00pm. At the height of the season this is a gruelling six-days-a-week regime.
I’m sat in a jeep waiting for the Ranthambhore gate to open for the day. The imposing, 10th century castle gate is a fitting entrance to the theatre of the royal court inside. This is when the show really begins for Balveer. Managing the tension and high expectations of guests, stealing an inch in the jostling queue, sharing snippets of information with allies and a non-committal shrug with others.
The royal princess of Ranthambhore is Noor, which is Arabic for light. She is a beautiful eight year old tigress, identified by markings resembling a ring of jewels on her flank. Noor has three eight month old cubs. Every move of Noor and cubs is tracked and photographed. Her character, changes in appearance, ability to hunt, and parenting skills are the subject of intense interest and gossip. Forest guards check her scat for disease. Rangers ensure her path is clear from over-eager members of her adoring public. Conservators of the forest accompany dignitaries on audiences with Noor, Balveer accompanies us lesser mortals. There are glorious celebrations by all when new cubs are born.
The fate of Balveer and Noor are tightly bound. Without tigers there are no tourists, jobs or security for Balveer. Without the tiger guild there would be environmental degradation, poachers and no tigers. Both their futures are based on a fragile interdependence, which can be easily upended and can melt away in an instant.
For five years Noor’s father, The Supreme-Male, reigned across much of Ranthambhore. This nine feet long tiger had territory across three of the nine zones, and was allegedly father to eighteen cubs. And then suddenly in 2010, when Noor was less than a year old, the Supreme Male was tranquillised and moved to the Sariska Tiger Reserve. This surprising move by the government authorities was an attempt to create a self-sustaining tiger population in the western most reaches of previously populated terrain. This royal coup d’etat caused up-roar amongst the guild and local villagers. Campaigns were started in the local and national press to reverse the decision; all to no avail. Tourist numbers declined because of the unpredictability of sightings as the remaining young male tigers fought to take control over the vacant empire.
The fight for domination after the removal of the Supreme-Male triggered instability and mass migration of tigers from Ranthambhore. Noor’s brother, the one-year-old Sultanpur-Cub, fled for his life using 100 miles of secret natural wildlife corridors, crossing the treacherous Grand Chambal River to the Kuno Palpur tiger reserve. Only to find that when he reached his destination it was a dead, barren world that was tigress-free and full of poachers. It remains to be seen whether this young tiger will survive, move on, or make a triumphant, regal return to Ranthambhore.
During these difficult, unstable times a crazed six year old tiger called Ustad rose to dominance. In 2012, Noor and Ustad had their first cub, Sultan. Ustad was always an unusual tiger. He wasn’t cautious or fearful around people. He would drag his kill onto the highway to eat it in full view rather than hiding amongst the undergrowth like other tigers. He would prowl around villages at night rather than avoid human contact. And then he started to kill.
On July 3, 2010 and then again on March 9, 2012 Ustad allegedly killed villagers Ghamandi Saini and Ashfaq. After this second killing, the National Tiger Conservation Authority issued an advisory notice to the Ranthambhore park authorities that Ustad should be moved to a secluded location away from villagers, guards and tourists. This advisory notice was ignored. Early successes combating poaching had increased tiger numbers in Ranthambhore. By 2012 there were around 65 tigers and 50 vehicles carrying 2,000 tourists a day. This was a time of plenty for the park and the guild, and Ustad was one of the main attractions.
In 2014 two more male cubs, Kullua and Dholya were born to Noor. But Ustad’s past was about to catch up with him.
Early in the morning of May 8 2015, Ustad was sighted very close to the Ranthambhore fort road used by devotees visiting the Ganesha Temple. Later that evening, returning from routine tracking, forest guard Rampal Saini, 56, was stalked, attacked and killed by Ustad barely 100 metres from the main entrance of the park. This time the park authorities had to act quickly. On May 16th, Ustad was moved to the Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur.
Although largely supported by villagers and the guild, the sudden removal of this dominant tiger caused absolute outrage amongst wildlife experts, animal activists and some ex-ministers. There were many protests and huge demonstrations, especially on social media. Candle-lit marches and rallies in support of Ustad were aired by international broadcasters including the BBC and Al Jazeera. Petitions were lodged with the Supreme Court against the Ranthambhore forest officials for relocating Ustad without the approval of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. But the campaigns and challenges had little affect. And, for human safety, this once dominant tiger now paces up and down in solitary confinement. A space of less than a hectare rather than the 5000 hectares he once reigned.
With Ustad removed, Noor was again alone and her two small cubs, Kullua and Dholya, were vulnerable. The fear amongst the guild was that a new dominant male would move into Noor’s territory and kill Noor’s two tiny cubs. In October 2015 Noor left her cubs. The guild was shocked, anxious, tense. Noor moved into another zone and mated with Singhst, a young, naive, five year old tiger. Two weeks later Singhst was seen side-by-side with Noor and cubs. Singhst had been cuckolded: tricked by Noor into protecting Ustad’s cubs. Balveer and the guild were absolutely delighted, reverential at Noor’s cunning and scoffing at the naivety of Singhst. In November 2016 Noor and Singst’s current litter of three healthy, playful cubs were born. Beaming smiles and celebrations were everywhere. These cubs represent security for the sovereign line, and jobs for Balveer and the local communities.
The challenge for the future will be to manage the natural environment in a way that both protects the tiger and provides livelihoods for local communities. Balancing these complex changes in fragile, unstable parts of the world will become the challenge of our time.
But for now, there is a flurry of noise, colour and excitement as the majestic Ranthambhore gate opens on a new day.