On January 1, 2010, Billy Arjan Singh passed away quietly and peacefully after spending more then 60 years defending India’s wilderness and its tigers.
Billy, a Padma Bhushan awardee, died at his Jaswant Nagar farmhouse near Pallia on the Indo-Nepal border, nearly 250 km north of Lucknow on Friday night. He was 92. Billy is survived by his nephews Jay Raj Singh, Karan Singh and niece Vrinda Dube.
Amazingly, the day he chose to go was the first day of ‘The year of the Tiger’ in the Chinese calendar and a year in which much is planned to save tigers from their very serious plight.
For many of us, and especially me, his passage signals the end of an era of tigers and conservation as many of us have known. I got involved with tigers in the mid-seventies some 34 years ago and then he was my hero in the field fighting to save Dudhwa and its tigers.
It was a moment of time when his national presence was all-encompassing and people who cared, like Indira Gandhi, showered him with respect. He was the man from the jungle who spoke on the tigers’ behalf. And he spoke loudly and bluntly, so much so that most bureaucrats fled away. But there was always Indira Gandhi who listened and in the 1970s he nearly persuaded her to create an Indian Wildlife Service but at the last minute it was scuttled by the intrigues of a bureaucracy who seldom supported change or reform.
In a way it was Billy’s dream that India’s rich wildlife deserved its specialised service. His dream never came true but today most of us know that what he attempted 30 years ago is the key to better governance and without such a service we are floundering at every step. It would only be a fitting tribute to him if Jairam Ramesh initiates the first step in creating this long overdue and essential service.
Billy in essence was the jungle man, tough, strong and with both tigers and leopards draped on his body, as he became the first to reintroduce the big cats from captivity into the wild. He also survived the endless controversies around the reintroductions and fought his way through the minefield of conservation politics. He made Dudhwa what it is and with so many tiger reserves in a mess Dudhwa’s success is a testimony to this remarkable man’s efforts. Over the years some governments harassed him and others recognised him, but Billy never gave up. He fought for what he considered was the just cause.
I will never forget his last letter to me, which just said, “keep fighting for the tiger — it does not have a vote… enshrine its survival into our constitution”.
Billy was a giant of a man and an integral part of India’s battle to save the tiger. For many of my generation his life embodied hope. We will, in more ways than one, celebrate his incredible life and try to carry some of the torches he left behind.
Valmik Thapar is a wildlife conservationist