Hero of the jungle

Hero of the jungle


Hero of the jungle

John Wakefield (somehow I was always tempted to add a ‘Sir’ to that name. It was so fitting.) passed away at the grand age of 94. The last time I met him was at the Bangalore Club where he always stayed when visiting. He was on his way to Delhi. There was talk that he was ‘up’ for a Padma Award. As he left for a medical check-up, he said he wanted me at the Jungle Lodges on March 21. After he left, another friend of his told me, “It is his 94th birthday.”

Wakefield (fondly known as Papa) and I got close when I worked as the Chairman of Jungle Lodges back in the 80s. He had joined the company in 1978. During the next 32 years, while shaping the wildlife cause in the State, he had become a legend not only in the country but around the world. He had made Karapur an international destination. A modern day Jim Corbett. Like Corbett, he was also born in India. Unlike Corbett, he never left India for good, though his mother was insistent. “India is going to the dogs,” she had said. She left in 1948, while he stayed back.

Wakefield’s great grandfather came to India from England in 1826, in the Bengal Army.  His father was in the employ of the Maharajah of Tikari in Bihar and John was born in Gaya. The private forest of the Maharaja was his hunting ground from childhood, a childhood filled with so much fun that he did not have any interest in his studies. He shot his first tiger at the age of nine and his first leopard at the age of 10. By then, fearing the total loss of formal education, his father packed him off to England to his aunt. Six years later, he returned to India, never setting foot in England again. 

The Maharaja had pensioned nine villages to his father on the banks of the Son river.  At the age of 16, as a young landlord, he started a 500-acre sugar farm. Later, he also worked in estates in Uttar Pradesh. But his main interest remained hunting.
Encounter with Corbett

He first saw Corbett on one of these hunts, from an elephant back. He met him next after the commencement of the war in 1941, in Meerut, and the last he saw him was in Chindwara near Nagpur in 1943 when Corbett had been enlisted by the Indian Army as a Senior Instructor in jungle craft. Wakefield remembered him as a gentle, soft-spoken and unassuming man. He demonstrated to him his special ability of what he called ‘jungle telegraph’. “He would put off the lights and imitate a few distant tiger calls. Then, after a warning, he would give a full-throated tiger’s roar. It was a terrifying imitation,” said Wakefield.  

During the war in 1941, he had enlisted in the Emergency Commission of the British Army which took him across North India and Burma. Fighting in Burma, Wakefield also succumbed to the typical war-time romance (a la a farewell to arms). He met and married a British nurse working in Q A Army Hospital. But after his wife’s father fell seriously ill, the family left for England in 1958. He never met her again, though his two daughters and their children visited him often in India.  

He left the Army in 1954 and pursued his interest as a hunter, organising hunting trips for visitors. It took the Wildlife Preservation Act of 1972 to finally convert the hunter into a conservationist. He gave up the gun for the camera and pursued a career in wildlife travel which brought him to Karnataka.

He narrated to me how it happened. “It was in Nepal that the then Chief Minister of Karnataka, Gundu Rao, came to holiday at Tiger Tops. He was very impressed and invited us to open one like it in the state. Jim Edwards (the flamboyant owner) sent Ramesh Mehra and me. We discovered Kabini. The first location was in Mastigudi. After we got started, an Act was passed prohibiting construction within the forest area. We then shifted to where we are now.”

Shaping the banks

Thus began a new phase for Papa, who began to realise that all of his past had gone into making him ideally suited to a future that he was to shape on the banks of the Kabini. It was my privilege as the Chairman at the time to witness two momentous events — the parting of ways with Jim Edwards (by making a token payment of one rupee in lieu of his shares) and with Mehra — which put the entire burden of making a success of Jungle Lodges on Papa.

But it wasn’t easy. Firstly, the instinctive dislike of the Forest Department towards ‘intruders’. Then, the bureaucracy in charge, ‘posted’ by the government which tried to impose its ideas. And finally, the politicians. However, he won them all with his superior knowledge and affable ways. 

I admired his extraordinary patience with the bureaucracy, unfailing politeness with the politicians, a strong love for the people he worked with (90 per cent of whom are locals), steadily growing links with the villagers displaced by the Kabini Dam and most importantly, his highly principled adherence to wildlife tourism as opposed to tourism in resorts, monuments, picnic spots and pilgrim centres.

One has only to go to a place like Thekkady where hordes of tourists land up with transistors and picnic boxes, and noisily cruise on boats to realise how great Papa’s achievement was. In 30 odd years, he had achieved the impossible — teaching eco-tourism to the typically unruly Indian tourist. Little does the changing bureaucracy realise the fragility of wildlife tourism.

Reading through the visitors’ book listing of renowned travel writers and travel companies, the opinion runs along these lines — “Professionalism is absent in Indian sanctuaries. An exception is the Kabini Lodges, a wildlife sanctuary run competently  with knowledgeable guides, a light impact on the ecosystem, sensitivity to the environment and sound management.” And of course, the celebrities who discovered the place, like the late Bill Travers, Virginia Mckenna, Waheeda Rehman, the late Protima Bedi, Mallika Sarabhai and many others who came often. Goldie Hawn wrote in rapture, “I have fallen in love unexpectedly, with Papa! Of course, the wildlife too!”

It is a hard-earned privilege but one that came naturally to Papa. Once I had asked him:  “You have spanned the best part of the last century, met so many grandies, fought the war, and even had a war romance. Which do you think was the most enjoyable part of your life?” We were driving on the rutted road past the village towards the forests.

His eyes wandered over the seamless horizon. “Well, there were certain liberties during the colonial period which made life easy. But nothing like this! I am enjoying my life now more than ever.” Not many of us can say that while well into our 90s! 

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