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Chuck McDougal

Chuck McDougal

Photo: Charlie Varley.

Truly one of the old oaks, Chuck McDougal delved into the secret world of tigers and sculpted ethical wildlife tourism in India and Nepal at a time when shikar was still the norm.

Born an American, this Colorado outdoorsman chose to abjure life as a Marine to become an anthropologist. At the School of Oriental and African Studies, affiliated to the University of London, he met and was mentored by a Rabindranath Tagore admirer, Austrian ethnologist and anthropologist, Dr. Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf. In the most formative years of his life he was equally inspired by hunter-conservationist Jim Corbett.All this propelled Charles 'Chuck' McDougal to arrive in India to study the Juang tribe of Odisha and later the Kulunge Rai of Nepal in the 1950s and early 60s. Initially fascinated by shikar, pastime of the rich, he soon abandoned this in favour of protecting and studying tigers. All of us who today look upon tigers with any degree of pride and concern owe people like Chuck a deep debt of gratitude. Quiet but purposeful, he possessed a steely resolve. He wanted tigers to be protected.

Long before Project Tiger was even a dream for India, this man had assessed the reality that was the Indian subcontinent and had come to the conclusion that for tigers to survive, they had to become the breadwinners for local communities. He therefore worked with the Nepal government and suggested to them that if they would give him a free hand in Chitwan, he could find investors to start a tourism facility focused on tiger, rhino and elephant watching and protection. The idea then was outrageous because it was the age of shikar. In fact it was from two Texas millionaires who had chosen Chitwan as a hunting escape for the rich and famous that Chuck took over the jungle retreat. Soon he demonstrated that dollar revenues for the Nepal government would be higher from tourism than hunting and what was more, hundreds of locals living in forest-edge communities would learn new skills and practice sustainable, dignified livelihoods in perpetuity.

Tourism As A Tool

He and an Englishman A.V. Jim Edwards, a reputed naturalist, pooled strengths and purpose to set up the famous Tiger Tops, a jungle retreat that the elite of the world began to visit to renew themselves in the lap of wild nature. After some initial hiccups, the Nepal government threw their weight behind Chuck’s Tiger Tops enterprise, and thus was born a tourism-conservation idea that people around the world were destined to emulate over the next half century and more.

A key reason for Tiger Tops’ success, Chuck always maintained, was that from day one they wisely partnered with the Tharu tribal community whose knowledge and awareness of their forests dated back centuries. In short order, Chuck managed to do what most wildlife people failed to accomplish… marry hard science and research with traditional knowledge. Soon pictures of tiger behaviour and ecological realities began to emerge and these were the building blocks of a management plan for Chitwan that incorporated every element of the wilderness.

One of the earliest practitioners in the use of modern camera traps, he put Nikon cameras and trip shutters triggered by pressure plates to work. In all probability he was inspired by the success of the famous F.W. Champion (With a Camera in Tiger Land), who achieved remarkable tiger images using remote cameras triggered by very rudimentary equipment.

Chuck (second from left) with his wife Margie McDougal (first from left) and American actor James Coburn (first from right), Chuck insisted that tourism can benefit conservation if it is controlled and used as a positive force with the support of locals. Photo: Lisa Choegyal, Tiger Tops.

Over the decades, he built a catalogue of the wildlife of Chitwan, with tigers being the main stars, followed closely by leopards, sloth bears, rhinos, elephants, gaur and even honey badgers. It was only natural that a book would emerge from all this work. The Face of the Tiger was published in 1977 and because it revealed intimate nuggets on the social life of tigers, it found favour with such world-renowned biologists as Dr. George Schaller who opined that

“Dr. Charles McDougal’s well-documented book… presents the best available account of the tiger’s social life.”

It would be no exaggeration to say that Chuck McDougal was one of the modern world’s earliest media celebrities. By word of mouth his charisma drew the best and most respected filmmakers to Nepal’s Tiger Tops. Admired by millions, the awards eventually followed, starting with one from Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation in 1997 for his lifelong dedication to tiger conservation. Later in 2006, WWF International presented him with the Abraham Conservation Award, and in 2012 Himalayan Nature honoured him with the Brian Hodgson Award in recognition of his service to Nepal by mentoring young conservationists.

Few people know that at the ripe old age of 11, he and a friend decided to walk from the United States to Tibet to meet up with a man he was to admire all life long, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Their plan was to walk from Colorado up to Canada, then negotiate the freezing Bering Straits to Russia, China and then Lhasa. They were gently stopped at Lake Michigan and returned safely to the custody of their much relieved parents. Clearly adventure was in his DNA.

Expectedly, this life-loving man began to be invited to write for the most prestigious scientific journals, and many institutions such as the Smithsonian collaborated with him to reveal the inside truth of the secret world of tigers.

Belinda Wright, Founder and Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, knew him well. In her words: Chuck was a brilliant human being and an important star in tiger conservation circles. I first met him in 1973, when I worked closely with him for nearly a year looking after visitors at Tiger Tops and monitoring wild tigers in Chitwan National Park. That same year it was my dad who introduced Chuck to his soon-to-be wife, Margie. Last September, I spent a delightful evening with them both in Kathmandu. Sipping cold beers, Chuck and I chatted for hours about wild tigers, and also about his fascinating early years studying and hunting in the wilds of Orissa. He was frail, but still had a razor-sharp memory. Apart from his wide circle of friends, Chuck brought knowledge, dignity and sanity to the tiger conservation debate.

He died peacefully in his beloved Nepal. He represented the best traditions of a bygone age when ethics and outdoor adventure were conjoined twins. As Belinda says: “He will be sorely missed.”

Author: Bittu Sahgal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVI No. 6, June 2016.


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