A Tiger’s Last Winter

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The oldest caregiver of the Indian tiger just faded into the night. Wildlife saviour Billy Arjan Singh died at 92, on his farm-turned-sanctuary, Tiger Haven, in Uttar Pradesh. He was the first person to ever raise a zoo-born tiger, Tara, whom he freed after teaching her how to hunt and survive in the surrounding sal forests. Juliet, a leopard he’d mothered similarly, returned to his home seeking shelter on a stormy night, holding her cubs in her mouth.  Barasingha are still kicking about in the terai grasslands, after Billy single-handedly drove them from a flood to safety.

All this when wildlife biology wasn’t even born. Recognising his pioneering conservation, PM Indira Gandhi carved out Dudhwa, UP’s only tiger reserve. Eventually, the forest bureaucracy, whose misdeeds he’d exposed, elbowed him out of Dudhwa and took his land. A Padma Bhushan in 2006 was a pathetic reconciliatory gesture.

Right to the end, he battled for India’s beleaguered tigers. We met a few years ago when news came in about a man-eater in Pilibhit. Billy’s eyes flashed angrily, “Male or female,” he asked. The officials don’t know, we said. “Tell them to lift up its tail and look,” he thundered. “Forget me, go save that tiger before they shoot it,” he raged and pushed us out the door.  That was the last time we saw Billy.