‘Billy’ Arjan Singh - the legendary ‘Tiger-walla’ departs

Posted on
06 January 2010
Legendary conservationist Arjan Singh - “Billy” as he was popularly known, passed away on 1 January 2010, at the age of 92. For more than 70 years, he battled to secure a safe future for tigers in India. In 1988, his efforts led to the establishment of Dudhwa Tiger Reserve – among the world’s finest tiger habitat.

 “Billy” was born in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, on 15 August 1917, and raised in the then princely state of Balrampur. His father, Jasbir Singh, came from the royal family of Kapurthala, and served as a Special Manager for the nominal ruler of Balrampur, then still a minor.

Billy’s love for wildlife was abundantly evident from his childhood days. Though he started as a hunter, by the time he was thirty, he gave up shikar and thereafter devoted his entire life to the conservation of wildlife.

Conservation was a little known concept in the years directly following India’s independence - few having heard or paid any heed to it. But for Billy it had become a passion. Reluctant to be separated from this area of the Terai and its animals, Billy decided to abjure any occupation which would take him away from this beloved land and its animals. He took up farming and set up his own farm - “Tiger Haven”, on the outskirts of what is today known as the Dudhwa Tiger Reserve. Close to his favourite habitat, Billy had the opportunity to observe wildlife in its natural surroundings and he made full use of his unique choice. He lived there till his final breath.
If Dudhwa is one of India’s finest tiger reserves today, the credit for recognizing its potential must go entirely to Billy Arjan Singh. It was his love for the forests of Dudhwa that made him approach the then Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, to have it declared a tiger reserve under the prestigious Project Tiger. He pursued the matter with great tenacity and the area was finally declared a Project Tiger reserve in 1988. Today, Dudhwa National Park is home to tigers, elephants and rhinos, and a vital link in the Terai Arc Landscape, where WWF-India is currently working. It is among the prime citadels for tiger conservation and connects the important tiger habitats of India and Nepal.

Billy is the author of several books on Dudhwa, among which are Tara: The Tigress and Prince of Cats, based on his hand reared big cats. He has made a deep impact and impression on the generations following him. Individuals of all age groups, who have read Billy’s books on his experiences and his conservation efforts or have visited Dudhwa have been fired by his passion and some have been inspired to follow in his footsteps. Billy’s personal courage whether facing poachers, or in situations which put him at grave physical risk or whilst facing controversy is well-known.

Billy was a recipient of many awards for his commitment to conservation. In 2004, Billy received the coveted J.Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Award which is administered by WWF on behalf of the Getty family. The award recognises innovation in the field of conservation and in creating public awareness.

Billy was recognized by the national and state governments of India as a pioneer of tiger conservation and received many awards. This included one of India's highest national civilian award the Padma Shri (1995). In 2006 he received the Padma Bhushan, which was welcomed by Ravi Singh, SG & CEO, WWF-India as “a great moment for all of us in the conservation world”. In the same year he was conferred the Yash Bharati award by the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh at the state capital Lucknow. As a true conservationist, Billy, in his brief speech at the award ceremony, called upon the state government to provide more financial assistance to the Dudhwa National Park. He was also a recipient of the World Wildlife Fund gold medal (1996) and the Order of the Golden Ark (1997).

Billy was a true conservationist at heart and always spoke of survival of Dudhwa’s wildlife in the conversations he had with various people. Billy was particularly close to WWF-India. He often corresponded and visited its secretariat in Delhi and was felicitated by it on several occasions. Billy’s passion inspired WWF-India’s to involve itself more closely in the Terai arc. He likened Dudhwa as the fulcrum of the Terai arc and spoke about this to Mr. Ravi Singh, Secretary General & CEO, WWF-India, on a number of occasions.

Samir Sinha, IFS, head of TRAFFIC-India says “He held very strong views and would regularly type away letters on his trusty typewriter to flag his concerns on issues that he considered important. Though his prolific writing was curtailed due to the physical effort of typing in his last years, even with failing health, his eyes would light up at the mention of the tiger and he was always eager to engage in efforts in support of this majestic animal.”

His zest for the Dudhwa never dimmed even into his last days. His last desire was that when his end came he should be in the “saddle,” doing what he knows best - looking after his kin - the denizens of Dudhwa. In a letter to Mr. Ravi Singh in July 2008, he wrote “time is not on my side and I still dare to hope that the last tiger will not be at the Pearly Gates when I arrive”.

In this fast changing world, his saying, “the air we breathe and the water we drink stem from the biodiversity of the universal environment and its economics. The tiger is at the centre of this truth. If it goes, we go”, is more true than ever.

Books by Billy:
Tiger Haven; Tara A Tigress; Tiger! Tiger!; A tiger's story; Prince of Cats; Eelie and the big cats; Tiger Book; Watching India's wildlife: The anthology of a lifetime; Legend of the Man-Eater; 

Books on Billy:
Honorary Tiger: The Life of Billy Arjan Singh; 

Films about Billy:
Leopard of the Wild; Tiger, Tiger; The Fire of Thine Eyes


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