Fateh Singh Rathore was a fierce guardian of Rajasthan’s forests for more than fifty years. But Ranthambhore was always his first love. It was he, more than any other man, who transformed a degraded forest occupied by more than a dozen villages into the most celebrated tiger reserve in India. He was a proud son of the desert, born in a village near Jodhpur, but even after his official connection with the National Park ended, he could not bear to leave the beautiful home he had built on the forest’s western edge, in the shadow of its spectacular escarpment.
He began his career here as a lowly forest ranger in 1960 and two years later helped organize a tiger hunt for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. By the time the Indian government launched Project Tiger in 1973, aimed at saving the last of the endangered great cats that had once roamed much of the subcontinent, he had risen to the rank of wildlife warden and had already introduced crocodile fingerlings into the lakes, transformed a lakeside ruin into the idyllic Jogi Mahal, and begun constructing the network of patrolling roads that visitors now follow in search of wildlife.
Over the next six years as Field Director, employing a distinctive combination of firm resolve and gentle tact, he persuaded the residents of a dozen villages to shift peacefully to new homes beyond the park’s borders, leaving the forest to its original inhabitants and freeing its tigers to multiply. At Ranthambhore, for the first time anywhere, visitors were soon seeing and photographing every aspect of the once-mysterious lives of tigers – hunting, mating, raising cubs and fighting over territory. In 1987, graziers intent on taking their herds into the forest, nearly beat him to death, but when it came to protecting his tigers and his park he refused to retreat an inch. "I am an Indian," he told a friend. "If I die, I die, but we must not let this place die. Ranthambore is like the Taj Mahal. It belongs to us and to our children and grandchildren. I cannot leave it."
A beautiful and completely private infinity pool overlooks the forest. A complimentary breakfast is served daily in the small restaurant named “Jogi Mahal” after the lovely lakeside structure Fateh created within the park that was once Ranthambore’s only place to stay. Home-cooked lunch and dinner can be ordered and served on request or guests can dine at a number of restaurants within easy walking distance. Tigers, leopards, sambar deer and other forms of wildlife still regularly visit the serene grounds of Fateh’s Retreat just as they did when Fateh lived here.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Ranthambhore and named Fateh “Mr. Ranthambore.” When U.S. president Bill Clinton visited the park in 2000, he asked that Fateh personally show him a tiger – and he managed to show him, not one but two. By then, Fateh was no longer in charge of the park he had helped create.
The growing fame of his park -- and of its creator – had sparked open envy within the Forest Department. And twice, when it became clear to him that poachers were taking a terrible toll on the tiger population he had worked so hard to save while the forest department choosing to deny it, he organized undercover operations that proved the truth of his charges and helped launch better tiger protection which today has led to an unprecedented profusion of tigers.
Although Fateh died here in 2011 – a beautiful red sandstone chatri marks the spot of his cremation – his work continues. Before his death, he and a young biologist named Dharmendra Khandal formed an organization called Tiger Watch that has worked to improve monitoring, help close the gap between the forest department and the people living around the park and provide education and alternative livelihoods for people belonging to a tribe of traditional hunters.
Fateh’s son, Dr. Goverdhan Singh Rathore runs another NGO, the Prakratik Society, dedicated to fostering a close relationship between people and conservation around Ranthambhore. It operates a number of bridge-building projects, including the Fateh Public School that encourages attendance by village children and the state of the art Ranthambore Sevaka Hospital in Sawai Madhopur. His wife, Usha, manages a successful nearby jungle resort called Khem Villas.
In the nostalgic era of the Kodachrome and before the advent of the mobile phone, these pictures actually had to be sent to the United States for developing.
These are some digitalized versions of slides taken by Fateh in the 1970’s and eighties. It was era when only film was available and Kodachrome slide film in those days included the processing charges in the cost of the film. However India did not have the processing facilities for Kodacrome. So friends of Fateh from across the world particularly UK would bring film with them and take those already shot back and it would be 6 months to a year before someone else brought the developed slides back. It was a different world where patience was everything. Today in the digital age everything is instant.
These pictures span almost two decades of Fateh’s work and we hope you will enjoy seeing them.