Thursday, January 7, 2010


There’s a forest that grows by the banks of the Suheli that is weeping today. If you walk along the river, into the dappled shadows and wait for the wind to settle, for the brown leaves at your feet to stop their noisy rustle, you will hear the trees sigh and see their wooden hearts heave with grief, for the forest is an orphan today… The silence of the forest, punctuated by the moans of a lonely tiger will tell you why this shroud of grief cloaks the forest, for the forest and its denizens are mourning the passing of one of their own, that great tiger amongst men, the brave and beautiful ‘Billy’ Arjan Singh.

On the first day of 2010, I was far from the Suheli, spying on a pair of amorous tigers in Ranthambhore when a friend, a fellow admirer of the man his biographer called – The Honorary Tiger, called to say that ‘Billy’ was no more. I was saddened in an intimate sort of way. Surprising, for I’d only met him once…

Nearly a year ago, I met the 91 year old Billy in his lair. I’d met him earlier though, through his books, and then there were legends I encountered when I reached Palia, the town bordering his forest home in Lakhimpur Kheri. A friend’s uncle, my host in Palia, told me “He is old but his arms are still as strong as steel… in his youth he could heave a tractor’s axle around…” At the bazaar, the doodhwala spoke reverentially, as if talking about a local deity. “Billy sahib toh sher hain… Uu hain toh jungle hain, nahin toh je log kabka katke chulha mein phoonk dethe…” Our driver spoke of the man’s indomitable courage and determination. Apparently, not long ago, Billy was driving into the forest when he came across a truck laden with timber. There were five loggers, armed with axes at the very least, but Billy just strode up, snatched the keys away from the driver and handed them over to the cops. Though Billy was outnumbered, the miscreants were in awe of the man. Billy was fearless in his defense of the forest.

Billy wasn’t always this benign though. Born into the Kapurthala royal family with an Anglo-Bengali twist, he was a hell raiser, a soldier in the great war and by his own admission, a “callous and brutal” hunter. One evening, young Billy saw a gorgeous leopard in the forest, its eyes shining in the fading light, took aim and fired. The bullet hit home. As Billy walked up to his fallen prize, he
saw the animal gasping as it lay dying. The great beauty and strength of the creature now lay rolling in the dust. Life seemed to ebb and fade from its eyes like the setting sun… Soon it was dark and dead.

Something died with it that day. Billy never touched a rifle again, unless he was called upon to remove a man-eater, and even that he did with great reluctance.

Instead, the warrior prince of the forest devoted himself to protecting this great wilderness on the Indo-Nepal border that had given him meaning, and that battle gave him purpose. He fought off poachers and loggers, hand raised tigers and leopards and successfully reintroduced them in the wild and pursued political will until it relented and gave that tract of forest land government sanction. Thus was born the Dudhwa National Park.

Waiting for him in the courtyard of his house at the edge of the forest, I was expecting to meet a proud and battle-weary monarch. But the little bald man with the iron grip who met me was like an endearing grandfather, whose opaque blue eyes lit up like a child’s when he spoke of Tara the tigress, the days of his youth and the works of Wodehouse. Then he spoke of a dysfunctional democracy killing the tiger for it didn’t have a vote; how he was too old to keep fighting… Suddenly, he looked old, vulnerable. I wanted to hold him, comfort him and lend him some of my strength and time, for he seemed to want it so, not for himself but for the forest he loved, but was too proud to ask…

I shook hands and promised to return with a Wodehouse, but alas I took too long… Billy now roams the woods in the heavens. He’d written in one of his books, “As I gaze into the crystal ball, I see green mountainsides… river valleys and limpid waters… but no dolphins frolic in the waterways, no swampdeer churn the shallows into a rainbow mist… I do not hear the ethereal resonance of the tiger’s call… or the metallic trumpet of the sambhar…, for the King is dead.”

Indeed, the King is dead, but in his wake, is it too much to hope that at least what he lived for, and with it all who live in it, around it, off it, will live on, in peace, and one day, in harmony too?



  1. Speaking at the ‘Billy Arjan Singh Memorial Convention’, organised by NGO Tiger and Terrain on the noted wildlife enthusiast’s first death anniversary here, Salman Khurshid, Union Minister for Corporate and Minority Affairs said that opening of core areas to tourists would go a long way in curbing poaching.

  2. Eminent wildlife activist Billy Arjan Singh passed away on January 1, 2010 at Dudhwa National Park based his residence. Sing was 94.

    According to the family sources, he died late Friday night at his home 'Tiger Haven' due to old-age illness.

  3. The Indian government presented Billy Arjan Singh with the Padma Shri in 1995 and the Padma Bhushan in 2006. In 2004, the World Wildlife Fund conferred on him the J Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to international conservation. The Uttar Pradesh government had also conferred the Yash Bharti award on him.

  4. Eminent wildlife activist and author Padma Bhushan Billy Arjan Singh was known for his work on big cats. Singh was born in Gorakhpur district. A scion of the Ahluwalia royal family from Kapurthala, Singh was a second lieutenant with the British Indian Army and fought the Second World War in 1946.

  5. ''Like Corbett National Park is named after Jim Corbett, we suggest Dudhwa be named after Billy Arjan Singh because that man spent his entire life creating it,'' Dr VP Singh, a member of the Uttar Pradesh Wildlife Board said.