Tiger Tales: The determination of Subedar Ali
What do you do after you recover from a brutal tiger attack?
If you are Subedar Ali, you go back to work for the animal’s cause.
On 15 February 1984, mahout Subedar Ali nearly died.
It was a clear sunny day in India’s Corbett National Park and life was moving at its usual serene pace. Subedar had no premonition of the gruesome time ahead of him when he accompanied another mahout, his neighbour and friend Kutuban, to the forest to collect fodder for their elephants, Gomti and Mouli.
They soon reached the Chooha Sot area. It was here, two years ago, that a park staff member named Kukoo had died after being mauled by a tiger. But on this quiet February day, it looked like the most peaceful place on earth.
As Kutuban cut fodder for his elephant, Subedar moved ahead looking for low-lying branches. Some lopped branches hanging from a ficus tree caught his eye. He tied Gomti to a tree trunk, climbed the ficus tree and started chopping branches for the elephant to feed on.
Subedar was at least 18 feet high when an explosive burst, like a shot from a canon, brought him down in a flash. He found himself staring into the eyes of an angry tiger. He could smell its pungent breath. Subedar clung on to the trunk of the tree with all his might as the tiger growled inches away from his face.
Subedar was terrified. “I prayed to Baba Kalu Shahid, to the tiger, and to all the gods I believed in,” he recalls. “I told the tiger that my wife and kids were waiting for me at home and begged it to release me.”
The big cat gripped Subedar’s shoulders and ripped his skull apart. Blood gushed out of his head. The animal flicked him with its paws, hurled him around and toyed with him as if he was a doll made of rags. It then sat on him and refused to budge. It seemed Subedar was destined to die in the forest like Kukoo two years ago.
But as each second passed, Subedar’s will to live strengthened. He was determined to hang on for as long as possible. After around 20 minutes - but what Subedar says seemed like 20 years - Kutuban arrived on the scene hearing his friend’s cries.
The tiger let go of Subedar, but sat just five feet away, growling, guarding its trophy. It was too dangerous for Kutuban to get off his elephant, but he kept talking to the tiger while Subedar, bleeding profusely, crawled to Gomti. He flung himself on the elephant, which bent low and helped him onto its back. The two elephants then rushed back with the tiger following them for most of the way.
Subedar lost consciousness in the director’s jeep on the way to a hospital in the nearby town of Ramnagar. He was soon shifted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. After seven surgeries, thirty-six blood transfusions and many months in the hospital, Subedar made a complete recovery.
Subedar was soon back at Corbett. “My mother insisted that I quit my job after the incident but I returned,” he says. “I have been at Corbett since I was a child. How could I live anywhere else? The thought of leaving did not occur to me even once.”
Subedar became quite a celebrity. He won awards for his bravery, a film was made about him, and every visitor to the park wanted to sit on his elephant.“I was famous,” he says with a twinkle in his eyes.
Today, Subedar is an Anti-Poaching Patrol Leader, directing a small band of men across the Corbett landscape. He and his team study tracks, trails and other signs in the forest and report on the movement of poachers. They often rough it, sleeping out in the open in their quest to protect this vulnerable area. Is Subedar worried of another tiger attack? “Not really,” he says.
The tiger that attacked Subedar was captured and sent to the Kanpur Zoo. After his recovery, Subedar went to see the tiger, now sentenced to a life behind bars. “I felt bad for the tiger seeing it in captivity,” he says. “It belonged to the jungle.” Subedar continues to work for the cause of tiger conservation. He still carries a lot of scars on his body from the attack, but there is none on his soul.