When Star of Mysore Features Editor N. Niranjan Nikam travelled all the way to meet the Sharp-Shooter at his den in the midst of the jungle at the Safari Land Resorts in Masinagudi, Tamil Nadu, Nawab Shafath Ali Khan and his son Asghar Ali Khan, drove this writer in the jungle in their American Jeep M-38 A1, a 1952 model four-wheeler late in the evening and it was a hair-raising experience as the young driver at the wheel negotiated the tough, lovely, Blue Nilgiri Hills range. Both of them are attuned to every sight and sound in the forest even as the Nawab spotted two elephants and a calf at quite a distance instinctively. Later, the Nawab sat in his unique restaurant and for nearly two hours spoke freely in this exclusive interview about royalty, how to manage forests, the officials in the department, man-animal conflict, his views on radio collaring, culling, animal right activists and his anguish about the forest-dwellers and the villagers living in the fringes of the forest.
By N. Niranjan Nikam
Star of Mysore (SOM): How much of preparation goes when you shoot man-eating tigers and rogue elephants?
Nawab Shafath Ali Khan: Bascially physical fitness and mental alertness are the major factors. A hunter is a complete man. He knows how to repair his vehicle, stitch his shoes in the forest, carry out minor repair to his weapons and who could read the forest, pick up the slightest sound and check the direction of the wind. Patience has to be in abundance. I don’t remember how many nights I have spent on a tiny machan on a tree in freezing cold and rainy night.
Tracking rogue elephants one has to walk 10-20 kms a day and this can be quite taxing. Preparing for these operations has become a way of life for me. I live on the most wildlife rich area of the sub-continent where I see wild elephants, tiger, leopard and sloth bear in my morning and evening walk. This keeps my mind alert and greatly helps in dangerous and close encounters with dangerous beasts that I have to tranquillise or eliminate as per government orders.
SOM: There is no scientific basis in culling and it is not very successful in Africa as you claim, criticise a few. How do you react to this?
Shafath Ali Khan: There is no place for sentiment and religious connotation in wildlife management. I have been asked this question in several national workshops that I have attended. But when I ask them for an alternate solution no doable common sense approach has come forth.
I basically don’t like culling or shooting. I am now an authorised tranquilliser and resource person for six States and run an NGO ‘Wild Life Tranqui Force.’
SOM: What do you do here in the NGO?
Shafath Ali Khan: We are training front-line forest staff and veterinarians of six States in the country. I don’t see any alternative to scientific culling as far as our country is concerned. As an advisor and culling officer to Forest Department of Bihar, I have conducted several experiments to arrest the exploding population of blue bulls. Bihar is a fertile State with Ganges and several rivers flowing. The Gangetic plains are rich in crops. Overpopulation of the blue bulls from the forest, which consist of only 5 percent has found its way into agricultural fields causing as much as 35 percent damage to the farmers.
If at all there is a substitute to culling, it would have been adopted long ago and population controlled. Today UP, Jharkhand, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Uttarakhand are reeling under the problem of overpopulation of wild boar and blue bulls and no solution is in sight.
Animal right activists might have a vested interest. These organisations get funds from abroad and with politicians and muscle power they arm-twist the senior forest officers to do what they want them to do rather than what is in the interest of the country. They are often bulldozed to falling in line and let matters drift.
Don’t be surprised if the price of Dal becomes Rs. 600 a kg as blue bulls, antelopes deliver two calves annually and wild boar sow delivers anywhere up to 19 piglets in a span of three months. There are virtually no carnivores to control this population explosion outside the forest. So, what are we heading for is anyone’s guess.
SOM: As a wildlife conservationist, what is your view on radio collaring of tigers and other animals?
Shafath Ali Khan: In my opinion it is an utter failure. The reason why I say this is, it affects the breeding of tigers. Because when the tiger mounts a tigress, he starts biting on the top of her neck and it is a natural instinct. When the radio collar is there, the tiger bites into the radio collar and finds something hard and abnormal and it withdraws. I have seen this phenomenon physically.
In Siriska Tiger Reserve, when they introduced tigers with radio collar there was no breeding at all and I had predicted this 30 years ago.
Each radio collar weighs almost 1.5 Kgs and when a wild tiger is all of a sudden burdened with it then his entire movement and body language changes. This famous tiger Jay, which was tranquillised and radio collared, his home range, which was 38 sq. metres before the radio collaring, increased to 58 sq.mtrs.
SOM: Why is that?
Shafath Ali Khan: When you have something implanted in an animal, then its entire movement changes and it may come closer to human habitation also.
Also, the battery life which is supposed to last one year, never lasts that long. For instance, in this tiger Jay in Umed Sanctuary in Maharashtra, the battery ran out in two months and it disappeared. It was a pretty tiger and later it even died.
Then each radio collar costs about Rs. 3.5 lakh to Rs. 5 lakh and the cost involved in catching a wild tiger is another Rs. 5 lakh. With all this operation, it does not come cheap.
There is my own experience of a leopard that I tranquillised in Gundlupet in Muntipara village. This leopard had a radio collar, which had gone dead long time back. This animal entered a house and but for my early intervention, the girl living in that house would have been dead. It was a problematic leopard which was caught, radio collared and released and it again entered human habitation. The biggest problem of radio collaring is it gives the Forest Department a false sense of temerity to release the animal that should not be released. As a result the lives of villagers and poor forest dwellers are shackled.
SOM: Have you had any near-death-like experiences as a sharp-shooter in all these years?
Shafath Ali Khan: The most memorable day in my life was on Dec.17, 1976, when I was called by Van Ingen and Van Ingen (the famous taxidermists in the country) to shoot a rogue elephant that had killed 12 people. Since, late Uncle Joubert Van Ingen (who, at the age of 100, had written a foreword to the book ‘Man-Eaters And Wildlife Challenges’ by the Nawab. He dictated the foreword at one breath without a single mistake!) thought he was too old to trace the rogue elephant, he requested the Forest Department to invite me to shoot it at H.D. Kote. I traced the elephant and shot it and this incidence is rich in my memory.
The other near-death-like experience I can recall was just last month, on Aug. 11, 2017, when I was invited by the Jharkand Government to put down a rogue elephant that had killed 15 people and we tracked it for three days in most difficult terrain and thick impenetrable jungle, the rogue tusker turned around and came for us. My two trackers fled leaving the Veterinarian Dr. Ajay Kumar and me. I saw the 10-foot tall tusker from hardly 10 metres coming for us like a railway engine with a loud trumpet. He raised his head to grab me with his trunk covering the forehead which is the only vital spot to shoot at that close range. A wrongly placed shot would have ended me in a fraction of a second. I took him at 9 metres and shot him in the mouth. The heavy bullet from .458 Magnum brought him to his knees. But he tried to get up in a fraction of a second. Working the bolt fast I fired the second shot in between the eyes and brought him down painlessly and death was instantaneous.
I often strive hard to see that the animal is put out with least pain and agony. Shooting, for me is the last option, when all other remedies have exhausted.
SOM: What about the experience of shooting a man-eating tiger?
Shafath Ali Khan: In July 2017, I was invited by the Maharashtra Government to tranquillise a man-eating tigress that had claimed four human lives. I darted from a distance of 15 metres when she was galloping away. But the most hair-raising incidence was shooting a man-eating tigress in 2009 in UP, where I tracked her for 35 days and nights and shot her when she charged from a distance of six metres.
SOM: Asghar Ali Khan, your son is also an authorised shooter. So, the family tradition continues?
Shafath Ali Khan: Asghar, is an authorised shooter and a crack shot. He has a .470 double rifle on his licence and helps me in dangerous tranquillising operation. But he along with my wife Shaheen keep the fire burning and looks after our chain of resorts in the Nilgiris. Often when a long drawn operation is coming to a conclusion, I summon him to join me as a backup.
SOM: Running Safari Land Resort must be a great experience for you and your family?
Shafath Ali Khan: Definitely yes. The very thought of living in a deep jungle arouses a sense of bliss within me. Forests and wildlife are very close to my heart. Riding in the jungle every morning is a thrill that I have no words to explain. Safari Land has given what no other luxurious Palace in the world can give us.
SOM: But are you related to the Nizam family of Hyderabad?
Shafath Ali Khan: Yes, yes. We are from the royal family of Hyderabad. We were equal to the Nizams, like you had the Maharajas and Ursus in Mysuru. The Nizam married into our family, our daughters were given in the Nizams family. So we were equals.
SOM: How long do you think you can carry this crusade of yours as a hunter and sharp- shooter?
Shafath Ali Khan: My priorities are no longer shooting. Having worked for several assignments for the past four decades, I have been involved in 24 dangerous operations and have culled thousands of animals. No one in the country has shot as many animals as I have done. My priority is not shooting or culling any more. My focus is to help those five crore people who are living in 1,87,000 villages and the forests across the country in most adverse conditions. Since I have worked, stayed and eaten with them, I know what it means by hunger.
Several interior villagers are living in a state of anarchy, in constant fear of wild elephants that raid the villages, break their huts, and eat away their rations. Women with infants in their arms run in the middle of the night to the next village 3 kms away. There is no one to wipe their tears. This is fresh in my mind from Jharkhand. I sometimes wonder whether the Constitutional rights, the right to life and liberty is guaranteed only for the elite and not my brothers and sisters who suffer in silence.
My passion now is to work for them, get them the due compensation, get the government to erect solar fencing to protect them. I don’t charge the government for service and time that I give. Tears of gratitude from underprivileged forest-dwellers when I shoot down a rogue elephant or a man-eating tiger, give me energy to work for them for another 100 years.