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Meet Brijendra Singh

Meet Brijendra Singh

“Brijendra and his wife, Dawn, help cement a memorial plaque installed by the Corbett Park authorities in memory of one of the department's most loved riding elephants, Phoolkali. Both husband and wife have worked ceaselessly over decades not only to protect Corbett's wildlife, but also its staff, including mahouts.” Courtesy:Brijendra Singh.

A pahadi (man of the mountains) Brijendra Singh grew up in the hills of Garhwal and Kumaon where he and his wife Dawn have protected wildlife for decades.  A world-renowned Corbett expert, Member,  National Board of Wildlife and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), he is the recipient of the Sanctuary-RBS Lifetime Service Award, 2009. He walks hundreds of miles, in Corbett each year, has arrested senior bureaucrats caught poaching and routinely takes on renegade industrialists and politicians. Determined and focussed, he normally shuns the spotlight, preferring to tramp, unseen, the mysterious forests he loves. His companions in this, his life’s mission, are the unsung mahouts, forest guards and Gujjars who help him defend wild India. He speaks here to Bittu Sahgal about his life and his mission.

When did Corbett enter your life?

In the spring of 1958, I think, when an old Englishman, R. L. Holdsworth, or ‘Holdy’ to us Doon School kids, took us from Dehradun to Kalagarh. The rich sal, bamboo and rohini forests were elephant country; I fell instantly in love with the Ramganga river, its mahseer fish and gharials and the quiet throb of a forest haven, that seemed created for elephants and tigers.

And Jim Corbett? Was he an influence in your life?

Of course. I have read every book that he wrote. He taught me that you can love wildlife, even when you have to shoot an animal that poses a danger to humans. I recall having to regretfully do just this when Sher Bahadur and Shafi, mahouts who were also my friends, were attacked by an incapacitated tigress in Dhikala. When I first cast my gaze on Corbett the thought occurred to me that this was probably exactly how Jim Corbett would have seen it when he spent time, fishing and hunting here. Down the years I have made it a point to visit as many places as I can that he mentions in his exploits, such as Kanda, where Jim shot a man-eater and had an encounter with a king cobra. I would say he has influenced me deeply.

You are the Honorary Wildlife Warden for Corbett. Why have things become so tough for wildlife these days? What can possibly be done to keep our wildlife from harm?

Everything is a business now. The international wildlife trade is powerful and they use huge amounts of money to induce, bribe and threaten people into supplying them with anything they can sell. Corbett is actually one of India’s best protected reserves and has been since the early 1820s. But it is still vulnerable. Just recently, in September this year, we gathered intelligence and prevented a gang of poachers. We seized four traps from them, which they were in the process of setting up to trap tigers right inside the jungle.

Why can’t we resurrect those days?

We would need also to resurrect legendary forest officers such E. R. Stevens (1916) and his successor, E. A. Smythies who worked hard to create what we now know as the Corbett Tiger Reserve. People like my maternal grandfather, M. K. Mahijit Singh, a hunter himself, who in the early 1930s, as the first Indian Minister for Forests and Agriculture in the United Provinces, helped stop shikar in these forests. The real credit for all this, of course, belongs to the members of the Association for the Preservation of Game in U.P. of which Major Jim Corbett was a member. They got the area declared as the Hailey National Park, which later came to be named after Jim Corbett.

Jairam Ramesh in Corbett with Brijendra Singh soon after Ramesh was appointed India's Environment and Forests Minister. A hands-on Honorary Warden, Singh spends more time patrolling the outskirts of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the company of guards and officials than he does in his New Delhi home.  Courtesy:Brijendra Singh.

Forest officers yes, but the real power always lay with politicians.

Of course. It still does. In 1968, it was our late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who called a meeting of people concerned with the tiger at the India International Centre in New Delhi. Sir Guy Mountford was there and people like him had to take on vociferous tour operators, safari outfitters and shikaris (including yours truly!) who believed they were the sole custodians of the tiger and knew better than anyone else how to save the cat. I attended those meetings and was witness to the manner in which Dr. Karan Singh, Duleep Mathai, M. Krishnan, Dr. Sálim Ali and Anne Wright, amongst others, fought for wildlife protection. Fortunately for us all, Mrs. Gandhi, bless her, listened patiently to everyone and then decisively announced a ban on tiger hunting. Had she not taken this unilateral step, there would be no tigers alive, in India, today.

You have been a family friend of the Gandhis right? Rajiv was particularly close to you.

Yes, he was. Rajiv called me to their home in 1972 and asked me to help a filmmaker called Christen Zuber to shoot a film on tigers to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund’s effort to save the tiger. The image his wife Nadine had taken of a tigress in a gin trap in Dudhwa – eyes reflecting pain and anger – was etched in both our minds. Both of us loved wildlife and I dearly miss him today. India needed him to stay alive.

Project Tiger, once reputed to be the world’s most successful conservation project has loundered. Will it ever be revived? Can the tiger be saved?

You know the answer to that question. The tiger is an accomplished survivor. But it cannot possibly win if humans declare war against it. The conscience of the world was stirred in 1972. If it can be stirred again, I have no doubt the tiger can be saved. I have no doubt that forests like Corbett can expand outwards and that if their livelihoods depend on forest ecosystem restoration, not forest exploitation, the Indian people will bring life back to our forests. This is the mandate given by Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh to the National Tiger Conservation Authority and I believe that individuals such as Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh are going about restoring political support for wildlife with the same spirit that prevailed when Rajiv was alive. This seems to me, to be our last chance, though.

And yet the poaching does not stop, the spread of lodges does not stop.

Bittu, Corbett got a wakeup call when seven elephants were slaughtered between December 2000 and February 2001. The protective mechanisms are much better now than ever before with the Forest Department, police and committed senior bureaucrats working in tandem. But it’s true the illegal trade puts more effort and resources into poaching. And we have not been able to respond by out-witting, or out-matching them. We need more than just government support. Benefactors, supporters and influential people who can mould both policy and public opinion must join the battle to checkmate the poachers. It is a long and arduous exercise. As for the tourism trade, it needs some serious regulation. We want visitors to come and see the fruit of our labour, but if tourism itself becomes a problem, which it is posing today outside Corbett and several other popular wildlife destinations, then, we will just have to clamp down on them.

He is seen here kneeling next to a cage in which he helped the park authorities trap a problem tiger several years ago.
Courtesy:Brijendra Singh.

Like a rubber band, you still keep going back to Corbett. In fact, you are seldom to be seen in New Delhi these days. Are you trying to relive better days for wildlife by turning your back on urbania?

It’s true. After countless trips to Corbett Park – I’m there every month – my attachment to the place and its wildlife grows stronger, as does my distaste for the noise and pollution of the city. Each trip to Corbett provides different experiences and adds new light to my understanding of wild nature. But there is sadness too. I remember the thick forests through which the road ran from Chilla (on the banks of the Ganges, opposite Hardwar) to Kalagarh. They are now gone. Gone, too, is the beautiful pool at Boxar and the rest house and some of the best tiger habitat in the park – Sherbojhi (where I saw my first tiger) and Ringora. All this vanished at the hands of the multi-purpose hydel dam at Kalagarh. It also distresses me that Corbett is literally being ring-barked (a method used to kill trees by stripping bark from the trunk) by mushrooming lodges and resorts.

How did Corbett survive all this?

It survived because nature knows how to heal itself and to adjust to new circumstances. Though a valuable chunk of Corbett’s 521 sq. km. was taken away, we see now that the reservoir attracts migratory waterfowl. While some fish suffered and others flourished, the population of muggers, or marsh crocodiles rose and the gharials that were re-introduced adapted well. Today, Corbett seems to have found its equilibrium. It’s the additional area added during Rajiv’s time which has given the park a new lease of life.

Everyone thinks you are a tiger man, but it is elephants that you truly love right?

I love all wildlife, but yes, elephants have a special place in my heart. I have followed their survival trajectory in Corbett closely. The best places to observe them are Paterpani, Gauj Pani, Jamuna Gwar and Malani, with the grandstand view being the famous Dhikala chaur.

How can we secure this landscape? How can we ensure that Corbett survives us all, as it did Jim Corbett, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv?

By adding areas to the park that are crucial. We did this in the late 1980s, when Rajiv, a great friend of the park, had Sonanadi and other Reserved Forest areas included.  Also by encouraging young officers to emulate the likes of C. B. Singh and Ashok Singh, both former Directors, who protected Corbett as though their lives depended on it. I am working now with politicians across parties to make a dream of Rajiv’s come true and that would really secure Corbett’s future. This is to create a secure corridor that guarantees safe passage for elephants and other wildlife from the Jamuna river in the west, to the Sarda river in the east. All this requires more than just political support. It requires the people of India to want to see wild tigers and elephants thriving.

A dramatic image of Red Ear, an elephant that the author came to know well. Good wildlife photographs are possible only when the photographer places himself in the thick of action. Courtesy:Brijendra Singh.

Despite all the problems, would you say that Corbett is a success story? Will Corbett and the tiger survive? 

Beyond any doubt, the Corbett Tiger Reserve is one of India’s major wildlife success stories, but I worry about tomorrow. Uttarakhand is a relatively new state and its people and its leaders have legitimate aspirations for a better life. Whether the forests that Champion and Corbett helped to protect manage to survive the next 100 years will depend largely on whether the value of forests as water banks, as climate regulators and as a salve for our collective spirit will be recognised by the people of this proud state. But the buffer of the Corbett Tiger Reserve has already begun to be shredded. Downstream of Ramnagar, the Kosi river is highly polluted. Too much construction. Too many new roads. Too many lodges. Too many demands on a fragile forest ecosystem.

Having devoted your life to Corbett, do you have any regrets? Would you do things differently if you had the chance?

My life has been devoted to the park, but it was no sacrifice. I am lucky to have had the support of my wife Dawn and daughter Ambika. I can think of no better way to spend my life than to walk across the sandy beds of rivulets in Paterpani, or track tigers in Gairal, or hunt for and apprehend poachers in the monsoons, or just sit and stare at the dark forest and river and listen to night sounds after sundown. I think I was destined to be here. My greatest pleasure of all, now, is to introduce my grandson, Manavendra to all this.

This Brijendra Singh has done in good measure over the years. He is seen here in his early Corbett years with Christian Zuber at left and Chander Singh Negi (Jolly Uncle) in the center. Courtesy: Brijendra Singh.

First appeared in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXIX No. 6, December 2009.


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