On one of her birthdays in the late 1960s, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had an unusual present delivered to her door. It was a basket full of tiger cubs. And turning up with this cuddly package was its sender, the man who went on to become the voice of India’s big cats.
Kailash Sankhala was then the Director of the Delhi Zoological Park and his bold gesture (some might even call it outrageous!) struck a chord with Gandhi, who was herself a lover of nature and wildlife. By then, Sankhala had already been making ripples in wildlife and government circles. An officer with the Indian Forest Service, he had managed wildlife sanctuaries in Rajasthan and had lobbied to ban the shooting of tigers in the state.
Sankhala believed the little things in life mattered as much as the big decisions did. So, during his stint at the Delhi zoo from 1965 to 1970, he stopped animals from performing for the public and renovated the section where the tigers lived to make it mimic their natural habitat.
– He also launched an investigation into the trade in tiger and leopard furs in markets across Delhi.
The turning point came in the 1970s when Sankhala conducted an all-India tiger census and shocked the country with his results – there were only 1,827 tigers left in India’s wilds, compared to 40,000 at the turn of the century.
Hunting was the biggest killer, a practice that went back to the colonial British and the Maharajas of India’s princely states. Poaching was another culprit. It was thus a major victory when Parliament enacted the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. Finally, the bloodletting could end.
That same year, the World Wildlife Find (WWF) initiated Operation Tiger and discussed conservation efforts with Indira Gandhi. She needed no persuasion and, on April 1, 1973, she launched India’s most ambitious tiger conservation effort, Project Tiger. Sankhala, who is affectionately called India’s ‘Tiger Man’, was its first Director.
Sankhala wasn’t just the obvious choice; he was the best choice. He also worked closely with other experts, such as Fateh Singh Rathore, whose path-breaking work in tiger conservation at the Ranthambore National Park is well known. Rathore was, in fact, a part of the first Project Tiger team.
Sankhala felt deeply for the big cats, a passion that surfaced after he had an epiphany in the 1950s.
– Back then, as a forest officer, not only was he responsible for issuing hunting permits, he had also shot and killed a tiger near Sariska.
The incident completely transformed him. Later, Sankhala would write in Tiger! The Story of the Indian Tiger (1977), one of the many books he authored: “Even today, the scene is as fresh as it was that morning, and the open eyes of that tiger have haunted me all my life. To overcome my guilt, I have dedicated my life to the cause of tiger preservation.”
Sankhala helmed Project Tiger until 1976 but he continued to root for India’s majestic cats long after that. He continued his research and spoke up every chance he got against policies and efforts that he believed were counterproductive to the survival and well-being of India’s wildlife.
Sankhala often said he wanted to “do nothing and not let anybody do anything”, that is, eliminate human activity from tiger habitat. There is just one universal truth: Allow the tiger to be the king of the jungle if it is to survive.
Cover Image Courtesy: Amit Sankhala
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