“A Memento of a Lifetime”: An Excerpt from Wildlife Conservationist MK Ranjitsinh’s Autobiographical Account of Wildlife Conservation in India

29 May, 2017

In the history of wildlife conservation in India, MK Ranjitsinh stands out as a prominent figure. He joined the Indian Administrative Services in 1961. In 1967, Ranjitsinh was posted to Mandla, in Madhya Pradesh, where he helped save the central Indian barasingha from extinction. Having served as the collector in Mandla, he was later appointed as the secretary of forest and tourism in the Madhya Pradesh state government. During this appointment, Ranjitsinh established 14 new sanctuaries, eight new national parks, and doubled the area of three existing national parks. He served as the country’s first director of wildlife preservation under the environment ministry from 1973 to 1975, a position that he later held for a second spell as well. He is currently an emeritus member of the board of trustees of the Wildlife Trust of India, a leading conservation organisation in the country, in which he previously occupied the position of chairman. One of his most notable contributions to wildlife conservation in India has been his role as one of the prime architects behind the Wildlife (Protection) Act in 1972—the first and foremost central legislation on wildlife conservation in India.

In his book A Life with Wildlife, Ranjitsinh traces the evolution of wildlife conservation in India from the era of princely states and British colonial rule to the present. He writes about the changing nature of conservation efforts, from the times of shikaris to the various conservation efforts he initiated such as Project Tiger, which identified the first tiger reserves in the country. In the following excerpt, Ranjitsinh recounts an experience from 1960, with the fauna of the Kashmir valley.

In the early years of the twentieth century, an event occurred that changed the faunal history of Kashmir and of India. The city of Srinagar was growing and needed a sufficient supply of potable water, not the polluted plenty from the River Jhelum and the Dal Lake. The nearest perennial stream of adequate size was the Dagwan, debouching from a valley above Harwan, adjacent to the famed Mughal gardens of Shalimar. But the valley had ten villages situated on the stream and hence the name—Dachigam. If the source of drinking water for the capital of Kashmir was to be pollution-free, these villages had to be relocated, and that is what Maharaja Pratap Singh did from 1910 onwards. The last resettlement occurred during the reign of his successor Maharaja Hari Singh in 1934, when Dachigam had already become a royal reserve. These were the first cluster of villages ever to be moved out of a protected area in recent history, and served as a constant inspiration to me when I was attempting to move out the first village from a national park or sanctuary in independent India—the village of Sonph, from Kanha National Park, in 1969.

The shifting of those ten villages not only provided safe water for Srinagar, it also helped secure the survival of the Kashmir stag, the only member of the elaphus family of red deer to now exist in the Indian subcontinent and is today endemic to Kashmir. The barasingh or hangul, like a true montane cervid, requires undisturbed upland pastures to feed, and forests for cover and safety and to bear their young. Unlike other montane mammals that move vertically up and down the slopes of a valley with the changing seasons, the hangul moves diagonally up or down the length of a valley, sometimes from one valley into another. They follow known paths and during the autumn rut, known in Kashmir as the awaz ki wakht (calling time), they make their presence known by their eerie, shrill calls. In winter, they need to go to the lowest valley bottoms, where the snow is the least and temperature the highest, to procure forage, as they neither have the underwool of the wild sheep and goats nor the tubular hollow hair of the musk deer.

Thus, to save the hangul, one must save the ecosystem. How does one achieve that in an insurgency-ridden, heavily populated, democratic set-up where all the available grasslands are grazed by a vote bank of Gujar shepherds, where a deer is the most sought-after wild meat of an almost 100 percent meat-eating populace who have been provided—the cruellest joke of all—weapons to ostensibly safeguard themselves, and the state, from insurgents? Today, only one valley, one ecosystem provides the needs of the hangul, and that too only partially—Dachigam. Around 1940, when the hangul population in Kashmir was between 5,000 and 6,000, Dachigam held about 3,000. Twenty years later, they were down to less than 200 in the rakh. Today, between 140 and 170 survive in Dachigam, with the total population in the Kashmir Valley—indeed in the world—not exceeding 200. This is despite the fact that the hangul is the state animal of Kashmir. The Dachigam ecosystem is this deer’s only hope now. Outside of it, the scattered few would, perhaps, number less than ten. Upper Dachigam, which was their traditional summer breeding ground, is now occupied by the Gujar shepherds and their dogs in the summer.

I have had some memorable wildlife experiences in Kashmir over the past six decades. From the end of November 1960, after writing my IAS entrance examination, I spent five weeks in the Kashmir Valley. The rut of the hangul was nearing its end. In Dachigam, the ochre and gold hues of the broadleaf forests were turning sombre and some trees were already stark and leafless. The exceptions were the groves of English oak planted by Maharaja Hari Singh, which not only provided fodder for the hangul and acorns for the pig and black bear, but also a welcome cover during inclement weather. These two oak groves still flourish, though the pigs have gone and close to one oak patch stands an anachronistic sheep farm. Yet, at the height of the acorn season in September and October, black bears sneak into the oak grove near the sheep farm to gorge themselves the whole night and lay on fat in preparation for the onset of winter. In the autumn of 2013, I saw 16 black bears in a day in these two oak groves.

In 1960, artificial salt was still being offered to animals at chosen sites in open fire lines that were then being maintained. These salt licks were areas of deer congregation and for rutting activity. The hinds would first approach the licks with all caution, hesitating and peering around. The stag would then strut up in measured steps; antlers laid back, orbital glands everted. Nuzzling and sniffing the posteriors of the hinds to ascertain their receptivity, it would raise its snout to vent the haunting, long-drawn rutting call, a wail ending in a roar, which would be answered by a rival across the valley. Occasionally, the hinds would raise themselves on their hind legs and flail at each other with their forelegs, even crinkling their noses in a classic grimace of flehmen. Though an adult stag usually has ten to 12 tines and hence the name barasingh, as many as sixteen tines on an antler pair have been recorded.

Around midday, when the deer would be in cover and resting, I would go to the Draphahama hunting lodge of the former maharaja, a wooden hut built on a height, commanding an idyllic view of the valley slopes and grasslands favoured by the hangul. Indira Gandhi loved this hut; and on her visits to Srinagar, she always took the opportunity to stay a day or more in this retreat. On one trip, her efforts to see the hangul having been foiled by the security vehicles piloting her entourage, she resorted to a stratagem. Excusing herself from the front portico of the hut where she sat with her companions, she went to the toilet at the back, slipped out of it through its back door, marched up to one of the jeeps parked at the back, and ordered the driver to take her down the road. When her chief of security, the legendary RN Kao, discovered that she had sneaked off alone with a driver, he jumped into a vehicle and drove frantically down to find her happily watching a herd of hangul at the salt lick below the oak grove. Of course, his approach put the deer to instant flight and Indira Gandhi was livid. “What are you doing here, Mr Kao,” she yelled. “I am doing my duty, madam,” replied Kao. She drove off straight to Srinagar in a huff, never to return, and refused to go to any national parks thereafter. During my first tenure as director of wildlife preservation of India, I requested her to visit Corbett National Park in April 1973, for the inauguration of Project Tiger. “I will never go to a park,” she replied wistfully and then almost under her breath added, “It causes too much disturbance to the animals.”

Lower Dachigam has the highest concentration of Himalayan black bear in the world today. They take their share of the hangul young as do leopards, and used to be culled in earlier times. In that December of 1960, I saw a bear on the premises of the Palace Hotel, above the Dal Lake. This was the former palace of Maharaja Hari Singh, and from the windows of which Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur had shot a hangul in the past.

One late evening in December 1960, close to the Dagwan stream below Rajnari, we heard the typical, measured cawing of ravens. They were perched atop a tree, looking down in one particular direction, giving repeated plaintive calls and inviting attention to an obvious kill. The fact that they were not descending to the ground meant that the “owner” of the kill was in attendance. Accompanied by the forest guard Mir, I went to look for the predator, presuming it to be a leopard, armed with a small stick to part the thorns and brambles. We approached the spot very carefully, and sure enough, there lay a disembowelled hangul yearling, obviously the work of a leopard. Slowly we stepped out into a small opening to secure a better look, when Mir suddenly grabbed my arm and shouted, “Haput” (bear). Barely 15 metres to our right was a huge hulk of a bear, crouched over the viscera of the hangul that had been expertly extricated by the leopard. His broad, white chest sash vividly visible, the bear peered at us with its beady eyes, head thrust belligerently forward. We started inching backwards, which was the best course under the circumstances. Then Mir lost his nerve and yelled at the bear, whereupon it lunged towards us with loud, guttural snarls. Mir bolted in one direction and I in another. Turning back to see whether I was being pursued or Mir, I fell headlong to the ground and cut my lower lip. Trying to raise myself, I found that my leg had been entwined in a creeper. The best course, I then thought, was to lie on my chest and cover my head with my hands to prevent, if possible, the mauling of my face. I could hear the bear snorting and mulling about, but obviously he had lost sight of both of us. After about three or four minutes, which of course seemed like eternity, I got up, peered about and not seeing the bear, decamped forthwith with a bleeding lip. The doctor at Srinagar wanted to put in a couple of stitches, but I refused. The scar is a memento of a lifetime.

This is an excerpt from A Life With Wildlife, by MK Ranjitsinh, published in 2017 by HarperCollins India.

MK Ranjitsinh is a leading wildlife conservationist in India. He played a central role in the drafting of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and is the author of several books on the Indian wildlife, including The Indian Blackbuck (1989), Indian Wildlife (1995), and A Life with Wildlife (2017).