One name that was conspicuously missing from the discussions and celebrations around the golden jubilee of Project Tiger was that of Karan Singh, who was Indira Gandhi's point person in the national effort to give the Royal Bengal tiger a second life in the big cat's home country.
The former Sadr-i-Riyasat of Jammu and Kashmir, cabinet minister, ambassador, MP and well-regarded scholar, rewinding back to the days when Project Tiger was born, narrated the sequence of events that led to its birth.
In a conversation with IANS, Singh said: "I was in Mrs Gandhi's Cabinet in 1969. One day, she asked me to take over the Indian Board of Wildlife, the chairman of which was the Maharaja of Mysore (Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar), a fine man but not very mobile."
After taking charge, Singh began to go over the papers related to the Board and was "astounded to see that the national animal was the lion and not tiger".
India's national animal was the lion from 1947 to 1969, inspired of course by the national emblem appearing on the Ashoka Pillar. The lion does not represent India as it is found only in one part of the country. Tigers, however, "are ubiquitously found throughout the country", Singh pointed out, looking back at 1969.
He then set in motion the actions required to get the tiger recognised as the national animal. "I brought that up with Indiraji and she put the proposal through the Cabinet," Singh said. The process of this switch was relatively hassle-free. The Congress had a clear majority and the required Bill was passed in both Houses of Parliament.
"Immediately after that we geared up for Project Tiger. That's the national animal, so let's do something to protect it," Singh said, adding that he did not recall any resistance from any Chief Minister.
Karan Singh took over the Indian Board of Wildlife (now known as the National Board of Wildlife) at the age of 36, and committed himself to the conservation of the big cat.
Talking about the near-disappearance of the tiger, Singh said: "Hunting was a major issue. The maharajas and viceroys had decimated the tiger population."
India had an estimated 40,000 of these big cats in the last century. By 1970, there were just about 2,000 tigers left in the country.
President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, one of the architects of the Non-Aligned Movement, was on one of his visits to India in the early 1970s. Karan Singh travelled with him as the minister of waiting to the Bandipur sanctuary in Karnataka. When the dignitary expressed his wish to shoot down a tiger, Karan Singh politely conveyed that it wouldn't be possible. Tito quipped: "You must be praying for these animals!"
Singh, now 92, but with a rapier-sharp memory, talked about a certain maharaja who had an ostentatious display of 101 tiger skins. "Horrible!" Singh exclaimed. "Mai prayashchit kar raha hoon! (I am atoning.) For what they have done, I'm saving tigers now!" added the former prince regent of Jammu and Kashmir.
It was of course coincidental, but Karan Singh's nickname, much before he took charge of Project Tiger, was tiger.
Taking it up as a personal responsibility to set right the wrongs committed by his fellow royals, Singh first made the tiger the national animal and then set about establishing an elaborate network for the big cat's conservation.
The Indira Gandhi government got the Wildlife (Protection) Act passed in 1972 with the aim to protect wildlife in India and to control poaching and smuggling of wildlife derivatives. On April 1, 1973, Project Tiger was inaugurated at the Jim Corbett National Park, now in the state of Uttarakhand.
When the project was launched, there was hardly any public awareness about the depleting number of tigers in India. As a result of the consistent efforts of Singh with Indira Gandhi's support, the idea that tigers were an endangered species was brought into the public domain.
"The tiger is just the peak of the pyramid. There's the entire environment and ecology that gets conserved along with the tiger," Singh explained, and then went on to recount how "a very good forest officer from Rajasthan, K.S. Sankhala". He became the first Project Director when "we began with just nine reserves".
Sankhala is now known as the Tiger Man of India. The number of tiger reserves in India today stands at 54 and the number of tigers there have increased to 3,167.
The first step taken for tiger conservation was to ban hunts with immediate effect. Singh refrained from naming anyone, but "there were people in the government involved in it".
And he added: "There were safaris where people came and paid money to shoot down tigers. Now a safari means just seeing, earlier it meant shooting. Till 1969, wildlife safaris included shooting animals."
The other great danger to tigers was poaching as tiger parts were in great demand in China and fetched handsome amounts of money. "The poachers are very well-organised. There's a cartel, they export the nails, skin, and various other parts," Singh said. "There were no special laws to check them."
There was thus no punishment for poachers either. The immediate method of checking that prevailed at that time was that poachers, if spotted, could be shot -- not killed but shot.
Project Tiger also set in motion intensive, tiger-focused research, starting with studies on the big cat's habitat to ensure that it has prey that it can hunt.
A major impediment to the execution of the project turned out to be the relocation of villages and displacement of human habitations. Relocation was done by giving people monetary and other incentives. This matter was not resolved entirely when Karan Singh helmed the project.
Tribal communities are very closely associated with forests. But there was a "weakness" in the method, Singh said: "They were not involved in the first phase of the project. That was the weakness in the first phase -- it did not involve the locals adequately. Later, though, they were involved -- they were the ones who knew everything so we didn't want to alienate them."
Singh then got the WWF involved. Formerly called the World Wildlife Fund, the World Wide Fund for Nature is a Switzerland-based international NGO dedicated to conservation.
The late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who was the WWF chairman from 1981 to 1996, took a keen interest in Project Tiger. He remained in touch with Singh throughout his tenure at the helm of the Project.
"WWF raised a lot of money and supported Project Tiger," Singh said. "We are grateful to them but it remained exclusively a Government of India project. It was the government's dedication to this project that kept it going," he added.
"The project will flourish as long as the government is fully involved in it. It has to be financed by the government, it can't be self-sustaining," Singh pointed out.
"Indira Gandhi was a concerned and committed environmentalist," Singh continued. When the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment took place in Stockholm -- it was the first international conference to take up environment as a major concern -- "the only heads of government there were Indira Gandhi and Olof Palme (the Swedish premier) and unfortunately, both were assassinated," Singh added.
In 1973, someone asked Karan Singh if tigers would survive in India till the end of the 20th century. He had replied then that if tigers survive in India, it would be because of Project Tiger.
"If we had not acted for another 25 years, the tigers would have nearly vanished -- Sariska (in Rajasthan) had lost all its tigers," Singh recalled. Tigers, in fact, had to be relocated to the Sariska reserve.
The project that Karan Singh helmed with Indira Gandhi's support has completed 50 years and the future of the big cat looks secure in this golden jubilee year. Singh, naturally, can look back -- and forward -- with a sense of satisfaction. "Project Tiger has been doing very well," he said. "I congratulate the governments at the Centre and in the states for it."