In the forests of India there is mourning. Billy Arjan Singh, an old tiger, is dead. Fortunately, he has gone to his own paradise, an animal heaven where only some humans are allowed entry. And so there he is, reunited finally with his dog Elie, leopards Prince, Harriet and Juliet, tigress Tara, monkeys Elizabeth Taylor and Sister Guptara, his fishing cat Tiffany. With them, Billy will be home.
The two-footed Billy, 92, spoke for the four-footed unheard. He argued on behalf of those who inhabited the jungles and asked only to live. To say he was India’s finest tiger conservationist (winner of the World Wildlife Fund gold medal), sounds silly because it is not a contest. It is a calling, an empathy for the natural world. There is a wonderful photo of him, wearing a cap, with a bird sitting on it. Was the bird tired, disoriented, who knows, but maybe it knew: this man I can trust.
Billy was extraordinary, a writer of books who seemed to emerge from one written by Hemingway. We were distantly related and I went occasionally to Tiger Haven in Uttar Pradesh’s Dudhwa National Park where this fascinating character lived. A bow-legged, badly-dressed, wind-breaking, well-read hero. A committed man with a Charles Atlas handshake, courteous with women, brusque with the ignorant, owner of a humour dryer than London gin, cornering me about boxers and batsmen because he admired
He was strong, in muscle and belief. As the morning mist clung to the trees, you could hear metal clinking. Billy was lifting barbells and this was fitting for he was an unbending man. He once locked poachers into a granary where his python, the harmless Monty, snoozed in the rafters. Animals surrounded him. In the evenings, Tom Dooley the peacock would come twitching by and the elephant, Bhagwan Piari, her eye fixed adoringly on him, would gulp chapatis thicker than dictionaries.
The conservationist’s life is of disappointment. He is going to be defeated, he can only delay some extinctions.
Populations are exploding, man has forgotten his place, he wants the animal’s domain too. Billy’s life was struggle.
He sweated for the revival of the swamp deer, battled to turn Dudhwa into a sanctuary, experimented with rearing leopards and a tigress in an attempt to rehabilitate them into the wild.
His hiccuping typewriter produced wildlife papers, he wrote books, drove to Delhi to pester officials. His persistence won Indira Gandhi’s admiration, and she wrote in 1973 to the UP chief minister: “It is easy to come by armchair conservationists, but rare indeed to find a man with the dedication and perseverance to act in support of a cause he loves.” He was crusty, cantankerous, unwilling to compromise.
It was the only way and the wrong way: to save the tiger required obstinacy, but it hardly helped with officials. He talked of tigers, with deep affection and terrible sadness. He wore a devotion I have never seen. Once a hunter, he put down stakes in a jungle after World War II and never left. Just lived there among the coughing leopards. Studying, tracking, fighting, protecting. Every single, damn day for a lifetime. Sometimes, as he trudged into the forest, I wondered: what are the rewards for such men? Just one fresh tiger pugmark imprinted in the dust to reassure him not all were gone?
Legacy is not easily defined. But we can say of Billy that he was a first and an original, a tiger explorer who built an entire life around a single cause. Like Salim Ali with his birds, he was unique. He saw the tiger as the apex of the food chain, wherein a healthy cat population meant a healthy jungle. To save this species was akin to saving it all.
Billy taught us this, he taught us there was a little of William Blake in him, writing: “... the stentorian bugling of the swamp deer, the urgency in the rutting bray of the cheetal, the lilting crow of the jungle cock, and the clarion call of the peacock, all combine to make up the pulsating rhythm of the great forest”. He taught us this animal was worth fighting for, worth marching against governments for, worth giving to charities for, worth sitting still for an hour to see it for a second.
He taught men that devoting a life to the tiger was worth it, helping to spawn a generation of conservationists. So I give quiet thanks for Billy. And for people like Ulhas Karanth, Fateh Singh Rathore, Valmik Thapar, Bittu Sahgal, Ashok Kumar, Belinda Wright, Raghu Chundawat. All those who fight for the tiger, and fail, and fight more.
I last saw Billy three years ago, sunken into a chair, fading, his spirit tattered but not extinguished. Even to the end, I suspect, he feared not for himself, but for his forest companions. So many whom he saved, so many he could not.
Rohit Brijnath is a Senior Correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore
The views expressed by the author are personal