To Protect the Tigers, First Take Care of the Needs of the Villagers

Ranthambhore 1in

At the meet and greet fundraiser for the Prakratik Society; left, US Chapter Head Rajiv Singh; emcee Mrs. Bollywood Nina Deasi on the right; Society Founder Dr. Goverdhan Singh Rathore (in safari suit) and event organizers and managers (from left) Piyal Sengupta, Sailaja Bandyopadhyay and Dabaashish Mumu Chowdry of Aalponaa Event Designers.
Photo: Jawahar Malhotra

By Jawahar Malhotra

STAFFORD:  With his grey handlebar moustache, wide-rimmed glasses, brown safari suit with the cargo pants, tan boots and stiff pose for pictures, arms folded behind him, Dr. Goverdhan Singh Rathore looked more like a Park Ranger than the physician that his is. And, in fact, he has spent the majority of his life being raised and later working in the vicinity of the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan, a 1,000 sq km preserve set aside for the protection of tigers.

Rathore was in town this past weekend for a meet and greet with close to 100 people who came to learn about the tigers that roam in the park which is situated 160km south east of Jaipur and further south of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and Sariska Tiger Sanctuary which are stops for tourists on the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur Golden Triangle circuit. Further to its’ east is the Palpur-Kano Wildlife Sanctuary. Since their creation, this area has become a magnet for eco-tourism and safaris.

The fact that Rathore was imbibed in the Ranthambhore National Park by his father, the legendary Tiger Man, Fateh Singh Rathore who went on to become synonymous with the Park, explains the source of his bearing. RNP was established as the Sawai Madhopur Game Sanctuary (after the nearby town of that name) in 1955 by the Government of India and was declared one of the Project Tiger reserves in 1973. It became a national park in 1980 and was expanded in 1991 to include the nearby Sawai Man Singh and Ketadevi sanctuaries.

Fateh Singh joined the Rajasthan Forest Service as a park ranger in 1961, grew to love it and became interested in conservation while he was a game warden in Sariska and Mount Abu Game Reserve. In 1973, when Premier Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect the dwindling numbers of wild tigers, Fateh Singh became the Field Director at Ranthambhore and was noted for his pioneering work in relocating villages from inside the Park, almost losing his life in 1981 in a dispute with villagers who resented losing their ancestral lands. RNP has since become well-known due to the efforts of conservationists Jeffery and Diane Ward, actor Amitabh Bachchan and Bill Clinton.

As Dr. Rathore explained with slides and a video clip, the population of the villagers in and around RNP has grown from 70,000 in 1973 to 250,000 today, putting a lot of stress on the eco-system as the people contest with wildlife for land, firewood and sustenance. Like his father, Rathore and his family have dedicated themselves to educate the villagers in the value of eco-tourism for their livelihoods and many small businesses – tour operators, hotels, restaurants, shops – have sprung up to cater to this need.

Trained as a physician, Rathore started in 1988 by running a mobile clinic visiting 33 villages every week in the park area for eight years. In 1997, he started a 100-bed hospital, the largest in Sawai Madhopur, a close-by small town of 150,000, and now has a staff of 120, including 15 doctors. But, being a small facility, most acute cases are sent by ambulance to the larger hospitals in Jaipur. And it was this lack of facilities and equipment that Rathore was in town to raise money for. As he spoke, a postcard with price tags listed all the items that would benefit the hospital, including, chief among them, $28,000 for a properly equipped ambulance to deliver patients over the two-hour trip to Jaipur. The event raised about $18,000 and a follow-up fundraising gala is planned for next March.

The event was organized by Rathore’s close high-school friend and fellow Rajput, Rajiv Singh, a local businessman in the coffee business who broached the idea of a fundraiser when he visited the park. He was impressed by the $30,000 donation for a neonatal and maternity unit that the hospital got last year from the Carmel-by-the-Sea, California Rotary Club at the Rotary District Convention in Reno, Nevada which Rathore was invited to. Singh felt that the Houston community could do the same and has since become the head of the US chapter of the Prakratik Society, the environmental and social NGO that Rathore founded in 1994 to find solutions to the conflict between people and animals at Ranthambhore and runs the hospital. PS is also engaged in the Tiger Watch program that engages villagers to monitor any poaching activities.

The event opened with the patriotic song “Yeh Bharat Desh Hai Mera” sang with intensity and emotion by Pankaj Kikani and was emceed by the current Mrs. Bollywood, the radiant Nina Desai whose reign comes to an end this weekend at the new contest. It was arranged by Aalponaa Event Designers, whose partners Sailaja Bandyopadhyay, Dabaashish Mumu Chowdhry and Piyal Sengupta were on hand to run the program,  Hors d’eouvres and a buffet style dinner for the guests was catered by the Great W’Kana restaurant whose owner, chef Sunil Srivastava was on hand.