Ranthambhore National Park might be gazetted as 1334 square kilometres but tigers, of course, have very little regard for human boundaries. There are regular reports of tiger spoor (and attacks on livestock) in farmlands around the park, but in 2003 Machali’s three-year-old son, Broken Tail, was killed by a train 180 kilometres from the reserve, experts considered it abnormal that he’d roamed so far. They were wrong – and they know that now because of data captured by Amarsingh and the other farmers who work for Tiger Watch.
Amarsingh is one of 20 Village Wildlife Volunteers (VWV) who have been trained to use camera traps and GPS’s and transfer data to the Tiger Watch headquarters in Sawai Madhopur. Since 2015, the VWVs have recorded and tracked the movements of the cats, and the data they’ve collected is giving conservationists insight into what tigers need to survive: a network of protected areas through which they can safely roam.
The VWVs have evolved into valuable go-betweens for park authorities and villagers by managing the man-animal conflict that threatens the future of India’s wildlife, and in just 18 months they’ve become the humble protectors of Ranthambhore’s tigers.
So that’s how Amarsingh ended up tending camera traps as well as his wheat crop, and after a good night’s sleep beside his field that night last December, Amarsingh woke up at dawn and happened to look over the edge of his bed. All at once, he felt elated, terrified, bemused and relieved: there, a few centimetres from his face, was the bold pugmark of a tigress. He saw another, and another, so he followed them: the spoor led Amarsingh straight to the camera trap he’d checked before going to bed. At 11.36 pm, the camera showed, a mature tigress had casually sauntered past the lens.
“The tiger sniffed me and left,” said Amarsingh, twirling his moustache. “She gave me a message: you are my saviour and I will not hurt you.”
From subsistence farmer to champion of tigers: in India, you see, life is anything but ordinary.