Photographs - Salim Ali
It is quite a popular saying in the jungle that “It is fine to mistake a stone for an Elephant and not an Elephant for a stone”. While we seem to laugh thinking about this saying, there are several instances where trained eyes have mistaken an animal for a stone! In the jungle, one such mistake is enough to be either fatal or the chance of spotting something remarkable.
There are hardly few Naturalists whose vision is as strong as a Raptor and their sense of smell as strong as a Predator. Salim Ali is one such Naturalist, whose gaze misses nothing in the forest. We were lucky enough to accompany him in a couple of safaris in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. He shared several insights about his life as a Naturalist and an avid wildlife photographer.
Muzeebur Rahman, popularly known to the entire world as Salim Ali was born in a village called Alanpur, close to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. His father owned a bicycle repair shop and would go hunting for small games inside the forest. Ranthambore, at that time was seeing a world of transformation in its conservation efforts, thanks to Fateh Singh Rathore, known as Fateh Ji. He touched upon many peoples lives and slowly changed poachers to animal lovers. Fateh Ji, called upon Salim's father and asked him to buy a jeep which can take people inside the forest rather than poaching for smaller animals. With the help of Fateh Ji, in the year 1974, Salim's father bought the first jeep in the town and started taking people inside the forest.
It was only natural for young Salim to accompany his father in the newly bought jeep inside the forest. The beautiful forest with the presence of Tigers and other life forms coupled with the newly found freedom with the vehicle, made Salim to be closer to nature. Every weekends Salim used to spend considerable time inside the forest, observing the flora and fauna and eventually in the year 1989, he dropped out from school after completing his tenth grade and became a full time driver for his jeep. Though Salim started off as a driver, he had the ability to understand all that nature had to offer him. It was not long when Fateh Ji approached him in the year 1999, to be part of a documentary film crew from BBC.
Salim spent 600 days inside the park. He would wake up to the sound of nature and sleep with the mysterious alarm calls. Salim reemphasises that those 600 days inside the forest, changed his thought process. He wanted to be a Naturalist. He started observing the behavioural patterns of animals, closely observed the routes taken by most of the predators and how and why they choose a particular route. These 600 days gave him the opportunity to study Tigers at length and evolve to be a naturalist.
The first documentary film that Salim was involved was for BBC production called 'Tiger Fortress' produced by Mike Berkhead. After the success of this movie, the team decided to make a second movie soon and thats when a new phenomena started hitting Ranthambore. Several male Tigers went missing and to find them, Salim Ali spent three years in Panna Tiger Reserve, where he met Scientist, Mr. Raghu Chundavat, to figure the reasons for such missing instances. During this process the production team got remarkable video footage and decided to make the second documentary film called 'Tiger of Emerald Forest'. The third film was titled 'Danger In Tiger Paradise', which won several awards worldwide.
Salim recalled that during the filming of 'Danger In Tiger Paradise', around the year 2003, the first litter of Machali – Broken tail went missing. Subsequently in the year 2005, a newspaper carried an article which stated that a Tiger was killed while crossing a railway track – hit by a train in Dhara National Park. Salim instantly knew that it was Broken Tail that ended up with such tragedy but no one believed it. A Tiger will not travel 300 Kms was the general frame of mind. Salim, kept insisting on the very fact and brought this to the notice of the then Forest Officer Mr. Reddy. Together they matched the pictures and concluded that it was Broken Tail that was killed in the accident. The news ofcourse, was announced in the media, which eventually led to one big questions – why did the Tiger travel that far?
The BBC Team had sufficient footage of Broken Tail when he was alive. The production team, therefore wanted to put together a film which showcased the life and journey of Broken Tail. The biggest challenge was given to Salim, which was to research why and how did Broken Tail do this. Salim was given just six months to do this recce. What was most painful for the entire team was to loose Broken Tail. He was considered as the most magnificent and friendly Tiger among the Tigers filmed. Salim undertook this journey and interacted with several villagers over several weeks. It took a considerable period of time to put the pieces together and to also get the opinion from other Tiger experts. It was found that Broken Tail was succumbed to the pressure of other male Tigers in his territory which forced him to leave his home. He had crossed three National Highways, killed several livestock in few villages and there were also reports of Tiger sightings by few villagers. Broken Tail had to cross two railway lines; while he was successful in the first, he was hit by the second and died immediately. The movie that was made by BBC was titled 'Last Journey of Broken Tail' by Colin Stafford Johnson, which won 26 world acclaimed awards and Best Films.
Salim has also assisted in couple of Japanese documentary films and one more for the BBC on Gujarat, titled 'Walking With The Wolves'. He spent substantial number of days in Pench Tiger Reserve as part of the three part documentary film called ÷Tiger Spy In The Jungle'. One of the most cherishing documentary film, that Salim recalls is the one done on Machali, the legendary Tigress of Ranthambore. Colin and the BBC Team decided to make one final movie on her named 'Queen of Tigers' and sadly that was the last time Colin saw her. Salim states that the most remarkable aspect about being part of such a crew is the experience by itself. He has been a Field Assistant, Tracker, Driver, Camera Man, Assistant Camera Man, Sound Man etc.,
Sitting in the Tiger country, Salim feels ecstatically proud that he gets to live in Ranthambore, while everyone from all over the world come here to see the Tigers at close quarters. When we asked him what drove him from escalating from a Driver inside the forest to a Naturalist, his answer was pretty simple - “Am madly passionate about wildlife. I have never studied anything about wildlife. My experience is my knowledge and i take it very seriously”.
Salim has license to be a Naturalist and his calendar gets blocked six months in advance.”The most beautiful part of being a Naturalist is that, it is not like a guide's job where you get to show the tourists or visitors a historical monument or a landscape. Every time you enter the forest, it is a new experience and you do not know what the jungle is plotting for you”, he said.
Salim gave us few insights about Ranthambore, which would give any reader an in-depth understanding before heading to the jungle.
Ranthambore got its name from the fort that was here centuries back. Started off with 300 Sq. Km as protected area, it is now at 1400 Sq. Kms. Almost 20% of this area is open for tourism divided into various zones. The flora consists of dry deciduous forest, with the presence of Dhok Tree. These trees turn green only during the monsoon time and looks dry most of the year. This helps in better spotting of animals for the vicinity is much better. There are few categories even in tourists – Photographers, Wildlife lovers and Tourists. The photographers essentially come for Tiger and usually are known to take multiple safaris, where some have touched even 30 safaris in one long visit. Wildlife lovers love to see whatever the forest has to offer. They are happy whether they spot wildlife or not. They feel happy observing just the flora alone. Tourists are the most illiterate of the lot. They probably would have read somewhere about Tiger spotting and come with an intention just to see Tigers. The worse is that they get extremely upset and start to curse the forest if they do not spot a Tiger.
When asked about the presence of several commercial establishments around, Salim does agree that these establishments involve local people significantly but had a very valid point in differentiating them. Salim says that there are two kinds of establishments – Wildlife Camps and Commercial Camps. The former spends a lot of time planning and executing on how they would run a business. Right from recycling to the way the safaris are handled is managed. However, Commercial Camps are only interested in making money and are not bothered about adding value addition to the Forest.
Till 1989, there were 44 Tigers in Ranthambore and by 1999 it came down to just 17 of them. This news really knocked the doors of every person in the Forest Department. Many NGO's joined hands in the conservation efforts, with notable efforts from an NGO called Tiger Watch. The entire team figured out that the poaching happened because of a group of tribes called Moghiyas. These are people engaged by the local agriculturists around Ranthambore, to guard their crops. Moghiyas are gypsies who wander around. Every Moghiya parent has a minimum of 8-9 children and are known to be experts handling in catapult right from the age of 5. Eventually the poaching group found a great alliance in Moghiyas and decided to kill Tigers for money. Thankfully most of the tribe members are identified and the Government has offered a rehabilitation program for them. Most of the members of the tribe have a decent job now and the children are given education as well. The great news is that, one of their children has recently passed out his tenth grade, which has never happened in the history of Moghiya Tribe.
Salim Ali is actively involved in several wildlife awareness campaigns in schools around Ranthambore. He organises cleaning campaigns for schools, where the students clean up the forest areas for any litter and earn their safari by learning the importance of keeping the forests clean. Salim has also trained the guides in Sariska Tiger Reserve on how to handle guests and also for spotting and conserving wildlife – in a nutshell it was training on Eco Tourism.
We were extremely fortunate to go for three safaris with Salim. His narrative skill is extremely captivating and hypnotising as well. With his expertise, we spotted three Tigers in three safaris! He could sense the Tigers presence even without an alarm call and by just understanding its routine walking routes. One of the most remarkable efforts by Ranthambore Forest Department is to identify and name the Tigers. So every Tiger has a prefix 'T' followed by a number and a name. In one of the safari, Salim spotted a male Tiger and was shocked that he could not identify it. He kept on toying for its name and we are sure that he would have skipped his meals to figure the name of the Tiger and from which territory he was from. To start with, Salim was sure that the Tiger did not belong to that territory and has not seen him before. Secondly he was worried about the territorial fight that could possibly happen between the already resident tiger and the intruding Tiger and thirdly, he wanted to just know! Series of text messages to Forest Department and archive searching helped Salim to finally identify this new Tiger – he was T74, a Tiger who, as Salim said is not from that territory.
The news that we spotted three Tigers, obviously spread like a wild fire and we were looked upon as a sacred person! Not many knew that it was because of Salim's efforts that we were able to spot not just Tigers but many aspects from the forest.
We requested Salim to write a book on his adventures and days in Ranthambore and also ways and means to conserve it. He agreed to do it sometimes in the future. From The Wild Walk Team, we are quite sure that there would be many publishers waiting to publish his stories!