A Tryst with Billy
(Billy Arjan Singh : 15 August 1917 – 1 January 2010)
The Killer-Turned-Savior of Dudhwa
Dudhwa National Park may not be a much-preferred destination in the closed season, but this was where we were driving to on a wet monsoon day seven years back. I was accompanied by Aqeel Faruqi, an old friend and an avid wildlife lover, and we were going to meet Billy Arjan Singh, the internationally acclaimed wildlife conservationist and author. A member of the royal Ahluwalia dynasty of Kapurthala, Billy went to school in Nainital where he met the legendary hunter, conservationist , and author Jim Corbett. Billy heard the marvellous and enchanting tales of Jim Corbett’s encounters with man eating tigers of Kumaon jungles from the man himself and which were later published as The Man Eaters Of Kumaon. Billy in his youth was an avid hunter and had shot his first leopard at the age of twelve and his rst tiger at the age of fourteen. One day having shot a young leopard he felt disgusted with himself and from that day he turned into a conservationist.
Billy served in the British army and saw action in the World War II before he made home in a place near Lakhimpur Kheri which he named as Jasbir Nagar. Some years later he acquired a two hundred and fty acre estate on the border of Dudhwa Reserve Forest and made another home over there which he named as Tiger Haven and there he lived most of his life.
Although Billy was quite a ladies man he never married. His companions at Tiger Haven were a bevy of animals. There was Elie, his beloved mongrel dog and constant companion, Bhagwan Piari his adoring elephant, Tiffany the shing cat, his two monkeys Elizabeth Taylor and Sister Guptara, Monty the python and Tom Dooley the peacock. To these were added the big cats he reared from cubs to adulthood and successfully reintroduced them into the wild.
Billy was largely responsible for persuading the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi to convert 520 sq. km of the reserved forest into Dudhwa National Park. His first major project was to save the majestic Barasingha deer in the Sathiana range of Dudhwa for which he was awarded the World Wildlife Fund Gold Medal in 1976. Billy is also credited for conceiving the Project Tiger program.
Billy acquired fame when he reared an orphaned leopard cub, which he named as Prince. He re-introduced Prince into the wild in 1973. He then acquired two female cubs whose mother had been shot by poachers and named them Harriet and Juliette. Juliette was poisoned by villagers in her early days but Harriet remained his faithful and loving companion. When Harriet was three years old Billy brought a three months old female tiger cub to Tiger Haven and named her Tara. Tara was acquired from an English zoo with the help of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and had Siberian lineage which gave rise to a lot of controversy later when Tara went into the wild and delivered litters. The oldest resident of Tiger Haven Elie the mongrel dog, came first in the pecking order dominating both Harriet and Tara. I have vivid memories of my visits to Tiger Haven as a schoolboy. It was a sight to see Billy wrestling with Harriet and never did she leave a scratch on his body! She also used to pull her punches when sparring with Elie. Billy used to take Tara and Harriet along with Elie for walks into the forest so that the cats could get a sense of the territory they would inhabit later on.
Tara was free to roam about during the day but was conned in the night for fear of wild tigers. As she grew older Billy occasionally allowed her to stay in the jungle overnight. At two years of age Tara returned to the wild where she mated with wild tigers producing at least four litters of cubs.
Harriet mated with Prince in the wild and delivered a litter of two cubs. Billy built a ‘machan’ for Harriet and her cubs and the family stayed there for some time. But Harriet’s wild instincts were taking over and she soon shifted her cubs deeper into the jungle. How Harriet saved her cubs from a ooded Suheli river by bringing them one by one to Billy’s kitchen and then took them back to the jungle after a few days stay is a riveting story recorded on lm by Anglia Survival.
So on that wonderful day, when we embarked on our journey, our thoughts were kindled and aame. The joy of monsoon was in the air and an intermittent drizzle, chasing clouds and vibrant shades of green accompanied us. It was twilight of the evening when we reached Pallia, the small town adjacent to Dudhwa National Park. Here we came to know that Tiger Haven was marooned by oodwater and all hopes of staying there were dashed. Billy assured us on the phone that he would come to Pallia in the morning to meet us. Mr. Maurya, a range officer and a forthright and decisive man, understood our keenness to stay in the forest and booked the Bankati forest rest house for us. Night had settled in when we hit the 40 km stretch from Pallia to Bankati. We sat long into the night, talking nostalgically about Billy, of past adventures and good old days gone by.
We were up at dawn and found that the rain had not lost its determination. The hour of our appointment with Billy was drawing upon us and soon we were on the road to Pallia. We reached the place well in time and soon Billy drove in on his black open top Gypsy. Wearing a red T-shirt, fawn trousers and a cap he looked sprightly. But age had taken its toll and a tough muscular man of yesteryears was now thin and frail. At his age of eighty-eight when most men are tottering around with walking sticks, Billy still had the re in his eyes. He spoke about the ravages civil society was bringing upon the dwindling forests and its wildlife. He spoke with great concern about the future of Dudhwa, about silting of the river that brought about annual flooding in the area and about the illegal felling of trees and poaching of wild animals. He sounded like a man with little time left and with a lot left to do.
Billy presented us with his autographed books, “The Tiger Book” and “Legend of the Man-eater”, which are now our cherished possessions. Our meeting over, we were now ready to leave. Billy invited us to visit him again and drove off in his Gypsy. I felt a twinge of sadness watching him go, with an awareness that an era was fading before my eyes.
We were back on our return journey to Lucknow.
The sun was now out and the road kept reminding us how ironic it was and as our destination approached our thoughts were mundane again.
Dr. S M Tariq
Writer is a orthopaedic surgeon and a wildlife enthusiast
(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 2 Issue 14, Dated 05 May 2015)