Meet Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh, The Photographer Who Built A Forest
He quit IAS to become a wildlife photographer, and along the way, he grew a 50-acre forest that is now home to a variety of wild animals
It’s dusk by the time Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh, 55, has agreed to a meeting at his base in Khilchipur, a short hop from the north-western limits of Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. The forest in the vicinity has come alive under the cover of darkness. In the headlights, a bushy tail disappears in a thicket by the side of the dirt track. Almost on cue, dogs begin howling in the distance. Singh flashes the torchlight of his cellphone and asks me to hold the line, so that he can help us navigate. He’s had too many visitors lose their way after sundown, and he’s taking no chances until we finally arrive. His lair is an extension of the forest that he’s called home for over two decades. It’s been built primarily using sandstone and rocks that are found all around the area. Wild grass from the national park dots the lawn, and wild things have made themselves comfortable in its precincts.
A juvenile hedgehog wraps itself in a ball on spotting a feral cat, until it is rescued by one of the house helps. Frogs hop over to the sitting area until they are escorted to the garden by Singh’s daughter, Nyra. The television lies defunct since langurs took a liking to the dish antenna. As the crepuscular orchestra gets in its groove, Singh settles down with his evening tipple, cocooned in a bulky jacket at the end of yet another absorbing day in the forest. This is a place he first visited as a teen in the 80s, until one day, he decided to make it his home. He lived in Delhi in those days. The world of photography and conservation, which he calls his profession these days, was not on the radar. All he knew back then was that he wanted to build his world around the tigers that inhabit these parts. And the lure was irresistible at first sight.
“Tigers had just started showing up in Ranthambore when I first came here in 1984. I saw Padmini with her three cubs. Then, there was a tiger, Genghis, who would chase his prey into the water and then fight the crocodiles to get the kill back. In a little over a month, I saw a tiger almost every day,” he says. Once back home though, the Delhi boy was trained to follow a different path, far from the eventful life that he leads today. After a degree in civil engineering from Bangalore, Singh hoped to pursue a career in the Indian Administrative Service. He cleared the examination for the Union Public Service Commission on his second attempt, and was soon posted as part of the Central Secretariat Service. The two-year training period was enough realisation that he was cut out for something else.
By this time, he and his wife, Poonam, were already married. They took time to ponder over it, and eventually decided to shift base from the national capital. There was just one catch. “It all sounded great, but where was the money to make the move,” he says, chuckling. “We didn’t really assess the risks — just jumped into it and embraced everything that came our way,” he says.
For a year, Singh worked in construction, which also gave him the opportunity to travel Rajasthan. But his mind was set on moving somewhere close to Ranthambore, in order to explore the world of tigers and wildlife photography. “At the time, this was a hobby for me, an expensive one, nonetheless. When you do about 300 trips to the park, you’re talking about spending Rs 30 lakh each year. A senior from my hostel days, who is in the hospitality business, told me that the only way I could afford it was by getting into tourism,” Singh recalls. The photography plan was put on hold. Instead, the couple leased a government property in Khilchipur, and transformed it into a resort that started operations in 1998. Since then, the Singhs have called the area their own. While Poonam took charge of the administration, Singh started heading into the forest with his camera, alongside the guests, or sometimes just by himself. The pursuit of tigers for photography soon became an obsession, and the next few years landed him plenty of opportunities to get up close — at times, quite literally — to the big cats.
There’s a gorgeous photo that he’s made of a tigress, Machli, with her two cubs on either side, peeping out of the windows of the old Jogi Mahal gate near Ranthambore Fort. Then, on another occasion, he had her snarling in his face when he least expected it. “We were walking past a well after lunch and Machli was sitting on the other side. She charged at us and then came to a stop a short distance away, before turning around and disappearing. I was drenched in her spit from head to toe,” he says. Those were the days of big budget documentary films, and Singh soon found himself on the bandwagon. He started associating with big producers like the British Broadcasting Corporation and National Geographic, assisting their team with camerawork and the logistics of shooting for extended periods of time. One such assignment took him to an area adjacent to the national park near the village of Bhadlav. They spotted a tiger coming down a slope, crossing the fields, and then disappearing into the jungle at the opposite end. The wait was long enough for Singh to fall in love with this serene patch of open land, nestled amid the hills. In 2000, he bought the first piece of land in this area.
“At first, we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to do with it. But for the next five years, all profits were pumped into buying adjacent pieces of land in the area,” he says.
Soon, they figured out a purpose for this farmland. The luxuries at the resort had them realise the need to reduce their carbon footprint. Over time, it sowed the idea of growing their own forest. Each time some land was purchased, it was simply fenced off and left unattended. The idea was to allow the land to restore itself, instead of planting trees or growing a garden. Tough grass and thorny bush emerged in a few months before the forest that once stood there started regenerating. It took about a decade for the tree canopies to blossom, by which time they had procured about 50 acres of land in the area.
“The best way to grow a forest is by not touching it. Everything takes its course — for instance, the weather conditions are different in the shade of a tree, while it’s very different a short distance from it in the sun. So, if you just leave the land, the right plant will grow and survive in a particular space, just like what happens in a forest,” he says.
“Planting something wouldn’t quite do it since there are no straight lines in nature. The idea was to grow something wild,” he adds. They also started a conversation with the local villagers on the need to conserve the area. The human presence was evident everywhere, starting with the periphery of the national park that was devoid of vegetation. It took a few years for the panchayat to pass the “kulhari bandh” diktat. Villagers could continue cutting trees for personal use, but were discouraged from selling the wood. “If you observe the wild areas of India, you’ll find that the population is poor here because the villagers didn’t destroy the forests to monetise it. At the end of the day, the forest is the local person’s resource as well, so you cannot deny them access to it,” he says. -Alongside, they took on the stone mining mafia in the vicinity that had wreaked havoc on the region. It took five years of persistent effort alongside the villagers to get the mine to shut shop.
“The mining mafia is a vicious lot. The forest department wouldn’t even go there, while the police would avoid the place unless they had enough men, especially after a few skirmishes in the past that had led to casualties,” Singh says. The area soon returned to its tranquil past; then, magic happened. The first spotted deer strolled into Singh’s forest not long ago, followed by the nilgai and wild boars. And once the prey made frequent appearances, the predators simply followed. A lot of visitors have even mistaken it to be a part of the national park, until they’ve come across a photo of Singh sitting out, enjoying a beer in the cool shade of a mango tree. “I’ve often realised that the forest I’ve built is denser than a few of the adjoining parts of the national park, which is what is drawing the animals to it. We’ve also blocked off the water channels to hold rainwater on the land, which, in turn, has raised the level of the water table to about 50 feet, whereas a few kilometres away, it’s at about 500 feet,” he says. Singh’s actions, in turn, have helped restore a piece of wilderness in the area at a time when it’s been needed most. As per a 2018 report, India currently has 2,967 tigers; in 2010, that number was at 1,706. And according to Singh, that’s where the problem lies.
“If the conditions are right, tigers tend to breed very quickly. But when the cubs grow up, they have no place to go since these animals are territorial. The need of the hour is more land for the tiger population. We are currently at the terminal death stage,” he says. There are 52 tiger reserves in India. But, according to Singh, 20 of these don’t have any tiger population. There have been attempts made to translocate a few, but the lack of adequate prey base and the presence of a sizable human population have been some of the issues that have prevented them from flourishing in their new habitat. “Take the case of Mukundara Hills National Park near Kota. They shifted four tigers here and there were eventually four cubs as well. But in 15 days, seven of the eight tigers were wiped out, while one survived after prolonged treatment by the vets at Kota zoo. Their prey base was mostly stray cattle, and they were said to have contracted some disease through them. There was no inquiry conducted, yet pretty soon, they’ll try to relocate some more tigers there,” Singh says. His take on certain issues has often put him in a spot, but Singh has stood by his judgement. When a tiger called T-24 started attacking and killing humans in 2015, Singh was vociferous in his belief that this was a man-eater, and had to be removed from the park to prevent future conflicts. A lot of armchair enthusiasts hurled accusations at him, and vehemently protested the tiger’s shifting. Singh says he lost 50 per cent of his clientele during the period due to his stand on the issue. But he stuck to his guns, and eventually backed up his argument with adequate proof on why the tiger had to go.
“I’ve dealt with man-eating tigers and leopards in the past and there are enough signs to tell you when you are dealing with one In the case of one of the four victims, it had taken 3-4 hours to drive away the tiger. When we could finally retrieve the body, it had been partially eaten. So it was definitely a situation that had to be controlled before it got out of hand,” he says. “We eventually got featured by global media. In fact, Barack Obama too sent a message through the United States embassy, so it was really encouraging,” he adds. Challenges, at times, come in other forms as well. He’s been stung by a cobra on two occasions — the first time was a harrowing experience since there was no anti-venom in the vicinity. More recently, he was bitten by a spider, rendered immobile and left worried for days until the medicines finally worked.
“It’s all part of living alongside a jungle. My wife is immune to scorpion bites today. And I’m getting there,” he says, chuckling. Singh shut down his resort a few years ago after the family decided to spend more time together. Instead, the family runs a six-room luxury homestay that is part of their house, and meant largely for serious wildlife enthusiasts. Singh provides them his personal attention including guiding them through the wild parks. Otherwise, Singh often wakes up to days when he’s uncertain about how it will pan out. Wildlife spotting has taught him a thing or two about the art of being patient. He sits in the verandah and gazes in the distance for hours together, collecting his thoughts or simply daydreaming. But each time there’s a call from the wild, he’s off in a flash. For in the jungle that Singh’s created, the tiger will always be his king.
Photographs by Aditya ‘Dicky’ Singh