Billy, the Indian Jim Corbett, dies in Tiger Haven

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Billy, the Indian Jim Corbett, dies in Tiger Haven

Tapas Chakraborty

Lucknow, Jan. 2: Stopping others from doing what he himself had done gave Kunwar “Billy” Arjan Singh his place in history.

The hunter turned conservationist, the “Indian Jim Corbett” who metamorphosed into the country’s “Tiger Man”, died last night at his home, Tiger Haven, near the Dudhwa National Park at the age of 92.

“Billy had been ailing for sometime, largely on account of the infirmities of old age. He passed away late last night,” a relative said.

Born into the Ahluwalia royal family of Kapurthala in 1917, Billy, like many aristocrats of his time, enjoyed hunting and by his own admission had killed seven tigers. After Independence, however, he worked to get tiger hunting banned in the country.

But his biggest and most controversial idea was that of artificial restocking the tiger population by releasing captive-bred tigers into the wild — an experiment that would prove the experts of the day wrong.

Billy planned and carried out the project from Tiger Haven, where he had settled down in 1959. It was a farm almost in the middle of a thick forest in Lakhimpur-Kheri district of Uttar Pradesh, 250km from Lucknow. From here, he had almost single-handedly established the Dudhwa National Park, taking the matter up with the Indian government.

At his home, Billy shared his world with leopards — first with Prince and then with the twins, Harriet and Juliette. Eelie, a stray mongrel, walked in one day and stayed for the rest of her life.

Then came Tara, whose story is intertwined with Billy’s.

Billy had quickly spotted a flaw in India’s tiger conservation project: the wildlife reserves were too small and too far apart. That made them, in essence, isolated pockets containing a minimal number of tigers that led to unhealthy inbreeding.

His solution: refreshing dwindling wildlife stocks with zoo-born animals. This had been done with lions and cheetahs in Africa, but never with tigers.

Finding it difficult to procure cubs from Indian zoos, Billy got Tara imported from England in 1976. He wanted to find out if her natural instincts would make her revert to the wild when she became mature. Tara built up a relationship with Harriet and Eelie. After a lot of difficulty, Billy taught her to hunt — her first kill came at the late age of 17 months.

He kept her from getting too familiar with human visitors lest that hamper her in the later jungle life he planned for her. At two years, Tara was released into the forest and slipped into predator life, mating with a tiger and delivering four cubs. She had proved Billy right.

But controversy arose when it was discovered that Tara had partly Siberian genes — a fact that the UK zoo had apparently not made sufficiently clear. Billy was accused of introducing a “genetic cocktail” into the forest, polluting the Bengal tiger gene pool. He was unruffled.

In the 1990s, some tigers were spotted with the typical appearance of Siberian tigers — white complexion, pale fur, large head and wide stripes —in Dudhwa.

“His experiments with re-introducing captive-bred carnivores in the wild — especially the zoo-born tigress Tara, have no parallel in Asia,” said R.K Singh, a conservator in Lucknow.

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