The man is not the creature of circumstances. The circumstances are the creature of man (Benjamin Disraeli). This was proved in case of Saroj Raj Choudhury, the first field director of Similipal Project Tiger and foster father of tigress Khairi.
The whole world was glued to deep intimacy between the domesticated tigress and its master. For the first time in the history Royal cats, a tigress from the wild was grown successfully in captivity.
It was late winter of October, 1974. The mother of Khair with three cubs came to the dense abode of Similipal for drinking water from river. The mother was giving training to the children to face various eventualities in wilderness.
Similipal’s total area is 2,200 sq km. It was notified as a sanctuary on December 3, 1979. A fringe part of the Eastern Ghat, the sanctuary is rich in flora and fauna. Tropical deciduous, moist evergreen forests with grass land are abundantly available here. Its climate is very suitable for carnivores, herbivores and lizards. It is very soothing and pleasant. The species of cat family like Royal Tiger, leopard and panther are commonly found in the park. It is a land of breeding potentiality of Royal cats.
It is from the core area of the tiger reserve from where the tiger cub Khairi was recovered. The Khadia tribe is very expert in collection of honey, resin and other minor forest produces. This is their daily source of livelihood. They are very brave. A group Khadia tribe first saw a tigress with three cubs near the Khairi river. The Khadias beat empty metal container they had carried for collection of honey from the forests.
The winter is the period when plenty of honey is collected from Similipal forests with other items like resin. Tamarind and mushrooms too are found during the time. The tigress did not attack the tribals and rather fled the spot with two cubs leaving the third one which was weak and slim, not capable of escaping from the site.
When the mother tigress left the bank of the Khairi river, the Khadias captured the third cub and brought it to a forest camp. It was immediately brought to the notice of the forest officials.
Choudhury was then conservator of forests and was holding the charge of Similipal tiger conservation project. This was the tenure of Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister. Gandhi was the first world leader who advocated in the international seminars for conservation of nature and habitat of wild creatures. Nandini Satpathy was the Chief Minister of Odisha during the time.
Choudhury took the charge of Khairi without least hesitation. He nursed the cub as a foster father. He also named it as Khairi as the cub was recovered from the bank of river Khairi. The cub was a female one. She grew very fast due to proper care and nourishment with proper dieting and medical attainment.
Subsequently, Nihar, cousin of Choudhury, joined him in the rearing of the animal. Nandini Satpathy personally held the tiger pet. The cub helped proper study of the animalist behaviour of a Royal cat. The writer was fortunate to serve during the time in Similipal biosphere and came in close contact with Khairi. Choudhury showered all love on the tigress. The tigress was domesticated so much that she was very much acquainted with the people dressed in Khaki uniform, who came in and out of Choudhury’s residence. Prime Minister Gandhi was personally informed about Khairi and its close association with human beings. The Similipal was famous all over the country and abroad for the human-tiger association. Similipal also drew huge footfalls for its tiger population and natural beauty.
Before Choudhury, the Buddhist monks used to keep tigers as pet in Thailand. Choudhury was an expert on royal tiger. Generally, the female animals are more docile than the male ones. During the eighties, one lioness was grown by an Australian lady in Kenya and had studied the detail biological aspects of the animal. Alsa as she was known, she wrote three books on that lioness.
Chita can be grown under captivity as pet animal but not as zoo animal or circus animal. Similarly the leopard from the group of big cat can be made docile.
In June 1976, the then Advocate General (AG) of Odisha was to visit Similipal to examine the expenses made to rear Khairi by Choudhury. There was a serious allegation against Choudhury that he was playing with the tiger cub and squandering public fund. We were making a camp at Kariakacha which is a place of dense Sal forest within the core area of Similipal.
Khairi had become most unruly then and gone inside the deep forests for search of his male partner. She was tracking her male partner following the urine mark of a male for mating. The writer led the AG from Baripada town to Karikucha in his programme of inspection, where Choudhury was staying with the Khairi tigress. When we reached Kariakacha both Choudhury and Khairi were absent in the camp. This was breeding season of the cat race. It was 8 pm in evening. We stayed in the camp and waited for Choudhury and the tigress. Hours later, Choudhury and his men with lathis and light returned to the camp with the tigress. The camp was a thatched rest house with minimum amenities. When Choudhury returned to the camp, he was wounded due to the nail hits of the tigress. Yet Choudhury was quite agile and holding the tigress. The AG was astonished to see the man-animal love.
The writer was asked to accompany the AG to pass the night in Nahana forest bungalow which was nearly 5 to 6 km from Kariakacha. The night was awesome. It was raining. Choudhury killed a goat from the stock kept for the tigeress and showed a limb to her. The tigress had gone to the hood of the jeep. Immediately she got down from the jeep and accepted the offer. The whole show of Khairi was personally witnessed by the AG. After returning to the State capital he gave a favourable report.
Choudhury was very close to the tigress and the vice versa. The animal was completely at his beck and call. Khairi died in 1981of rabies. Choudhury was shaken with its demise and died the same year.
(The writer is a former senior forest officer and an environmentalist. Tel no 9937460649)