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Lords of the jungle

Geeta Doctor 

Naturalist and conservationist Colonel John Felix ‘Papa’ Wakefield passed away this week. Geeta Doctor pays tribute to him and others who created and sustained some of our best-known wildlife sanctuaries

He was known as Papa to the tribals living in the area and to visitors at the Kabini jungle lodge, Karnataka’s best-known jungle resort, 70 km from Mysore. Colonel John Felix Wakefield was the host, raconteur of fabulous encounters in the wild — there were some who believed he could actually communicate with the elephants — and father figure to the forest rangers, guides and volunteers who worked at the resort.

Just before he passed away earlier this week, Papa, who turned 95 on March 21 this year, was taken back to the blue-green hills of the distant Biligirirangan ranges and dark forests on the banks of the Kabini River that he had loved so much, and allowed to merge into the great silence. He had insisted that he be cremated within the grounds of the small kingdom over which he had presided as Resident Director since he arrived there in 1982 to start the Kabini jungle lodge, along the lines of the more famous Tiger Tops resorts in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal where he had spent his middle years as a conservationist. To those who remember the 1958 film set in the Mysore forests, Harry Black and the Tiger, and Stewart Granger, with his limp, khakis, sunburnt complexion and faithful Indian companion I S Johar asking for “whiskey-wine”, Papa was a part of those distant days when maharajas roamed the earth and heroines fluttered about in white negligees shrieking at the sound of a tiger’s roar in the jungle.

The truth is there were maharajas in Papa’s early life. His father worked for the Maharaja of Tikara in Bihar and took him on his first shoot at the age of nine. Apparently, he bagged a leopard first and then a tiger. At Tiger Tops, the clientele in the old days was made up of princes and rock stars like Mick Jagger. Everyone loved Mick, but had only the most awful stories to tell about his then wife, Jerry Hall, who was properly upset when she discovered that there was no electricity to power her hair-dryer. It was Papa who gently pointed out that being in a jungle meant no hair dryers, no TV, no hot water on tap, no ice some of the time, but yes to mosquitoes, centipedes, scorpions, winged creatures and things that went screaming and cackling into the night while you tossed and turned on hard mattresses and even harder pillows. It was not exactly a boot camp that he ran, though as a veteran of the Burma war he knew how to march with the best of them, but an initiation into a more spartan way of life. But he did this gently and with humour, rewarding those who survived with a great bara khana in the evenings, when campfires would be lit and more stories recounted.

He was one of those who believed that while it’s the animals who are the prime species in a jungle resort, people also matter. The local population make up 90 per cent of the staff at Kabini. At the same time, the hunter-gatherer tribes of the surrounding jungle, the Soligas, have continued their original pursuits as collectors of honey, their villages left undisturbed in the interiors of the forest. He was aware of how, when the dam was built across the Kabini River at Beechanahalli, many of the older settlements had to be relocated, and how it was that the ancient temples and sacred groves that had been washed away could never be replaced. That they would be supplanted by a country liquor shop, a permanently shut village dispensary and an ugly cement-and-grilled-metal, asbestos-sheeted shed to house the earlier gods. But his approach was never confrontational. The dam had also allowed the area to become one of the best natural reserves with 250 different bird species, all manner of small and large animals to live together in close harmony with the human population.

In a sense Papa belonged to an earlier generation of conservationists and naturalists. It’s interesting to note that many of them started as hunters and stayed on to create and sustain some of the better known game parks and reserves. Jim Corbett (1857-1955) is, of course, best known for his exploits as a hunter of man-eating tigers in Kumaon. (Wakefield joined the Kumaon Hunters safari company in 1967.) E P Gee (1904-1968), a tea planter in Assam, actually started Chitwan National Park in Nepal besides writing extensively on the wildlife of the North-east region.

Billy Arjan Singh (1917-2010), who passed away early this year, was not only from a princely family, his great adventure was to introduce a tigress named Tara acquired from a zoo in England into the Dudhwa forest reserve. This shocked some conservationists at the time, since Tara carried the genes of her Siberian ancestry into the Indian jungle. We also have the prince among Indian ornithologists Salim Ali (1896-1987) and M Krishnan (1912-1996), the wildlife photographer.

Romulus Whitaker, the world-famous herpetologist, is still with us, running the Crocodile Bank just outside Chennai and the Agumbe rain forest reserve in the Shimoga district of Karnataka that has been declared a research centre for the king cobra. Whitaker has tried to position the king cobra as a ‘flagship species’ that is at the top of the animal kingdom in that area. The thinking is that each one of the creatures is linked in a grand pattern of life-support systems and by saving the most dominant among them we will be saving our own species.

For John Wakefield, the flagship species at Kabini would have to be his beloved elephants. We trumpet a salute to him and all that he loved and allowed us to share in a forest glade in Kabini. Farewell, Papa!

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First Published: Sat, May 01 2010. 00:29 IST