Tigers' friend wins his stripes: No one has done more than Fateh Singh Rathore to alert India to the demise of its big cats, writes Tim McGirk in Ranthambore

MAYBE it's the stetson hat. Or his voice. Or his moustache, long and ivory-coloured, like a miniature pair of horns. But Fateh Singh Rathore is sure that the tigers in Ranthambore park - the few cats not killed by poachers - recognise him.

He knows them, too, by the brushstroke of their stripes, their pug marks and the terrain of dry brushland and forest where the tigers prowl in Rajasthan. 'If you mixed my tigers in with 10,000 other tigers, I could still pick them out,' boasted Mr Rathore, the former chief game warden at Ranthambore and one of India's foremost tiger experts.

Mr Rathore has named the park's tigers after Moghul emperors and empresses and Hindu gods. It was in 1990 that Mr Rathore began to realise how many of his tigers were missing, shot by poachers.

He informed the Delhi authorities that in Ranthambore, India's premier game reserve, 20 out of the 45 tigers had vanished. But by then, nobody listened to Mr Rathore. He had been sacked as warden after bawling out a nobleman caught shooting wild boar. It was Mr Rathore's bad luck that the prince went on to become Rajasthan's state home minister and sought revenge.

Not only do the poachers want tiger skins. Far more valuable now are bones and tiger penises. In China and Taiwan, a bowl of tiger penis soup, a supposed aphrodisiac, sells for pounds 206. Powdered tiger bones, served in wine, can fetch up to pounds 345 per 100g. Acting on a tip-off, police raided several homes in Delhi belonging to Tibetans and found the skeletons of 20 tigers, eight skins, and 54 leopard claws, also considered by the Chinese to be of medicinal value. Tibetans often serve as middlemen, smuggling the illicit cargo over Himalayan passes into China.

The China trade may well finish off India's tigers, which account for two-thirds of the world's known population of around 6,500 tigers. Ashok Kumar, a Worldwide Fund for Nature official, said recently: 'I am being forced to believe that the feline will not be in India beyond the next 10 years.' An Indian forestry census in 1989 counted 4,344 tigers. Today, the population has fallen to between 3,600 and 3,900. Valmik Thapar, a conservationist, said there could be as few as 2,500 tigers.

Many of the tiger bones and skins confiscated from the Tibetan traders are thought to have been killed at Ranthambore. Most of the poachers at Ranthambore, and indeed at all Indian wildlife reserves, belong to a tribe of wandering forest gypsies known as the Mogia. They are fabled marksmen, even though they still use ancient muzzle-loaded rifles. The Mogia also dupe their prey by imitating animal calls to perfection. And, they can make themselves nearly invisible in the forest, as Mohan Singh, a former maharanja and a frequent visitor to Ranthambore, testifies.

'We saw a poacher in the thickest part of the forest, and he just disappeared. There were a dozen of us and we circled around, searching every bush. The Mogia was only two feet away from me, and I nearly didn't see him. He was hidden in dry wood, totally camouflaged. Only his eyes were giving light,' said Mr Singh. 'Before you saw a tiger every 10 minutes at Ranthambore. Now you're lucky if you see one in 10 days.'

Until the Chinese demand for tiger morsels reached India, the Mogia were harmless forest dwellers. They ate porcupine, jackal, peacock and snake and they left the tigers alone. But as recently as 1985, the Mogia hunters were approached by Sansar Chand, a wildlife trafficker still at large, who gave them poison, steel traps and more money than they had ever dreamed of for killing a tiger. But the Mogia earn less than pounds 200 per tiger.

One Mogia poacher caught at Ranthambore's rail station recently with a sack of tiger bones confessed to Mr Rathore: 'I don't know how many tigers I've killed. It's like counting hairs on my head.'

Twice while serving as the park's director, attempts were made on Mr Rathore's life. One was by cattlemen, who resent that the parklands are off- limits to them, and the other was by poachers.

In April, a band of Mogias ambushed and killed two game wardens who were escorting poachers to jail. The settlement of Mogia huts was raided, but the men had fled. The Mogia women urinated in buckets and hurled the contents at the police party. So far, efforts to turn the Mogia poachers into gamekeepers have failed. Their clan ties and illegal profits are a stronger incentive to use their formidable jungle skills for poaching.

Help for India's tigers may come from Washington. The US Congress last month, under the Pelly Amendment, moved to ban imports from countries trading in threatened species. But Mr Thapar, chairman of the Cat Specialist Group in India, said: 'I doubt that the Clinton administration will enforce it against China and Taiwan. The only way we can stop this is to raise a huge public outcry. If we can't save the tiger, we can't save anything.'

Ranthambore's tigers now stand a better chance of surviving. In the last elections, the home minister lost his post, and now Mr Rathore is back at a senior forestry job. New tiger cubs were also discovered in the park. 'I saw these little pug marks. So many of them,' said Mr Rathore. 'After waiting about two hours, I saw four beautiful cubs. Then the tigress came. I was between her and her cubs, not a good place to be. I made little bird-like sounds and moved back, slowly. Then, very relaxed, she played with her cubs just a few feet away from me. Yes, I'm sure she recognised me.'

(Photograph omitted)

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