‘Tigers are one of the best things to happen to our planet’

In The Indian Football Galaxy, He’s The Star That Shines The Brightest. But It’s The Stripes That Have Sunil Chhetri’s Fancy The Most, And It Had Everything To Do With One Evening In The Forests Of Kabini…

A scroll through his feed may not tell you much, but a careful assessment of the ‘following’ tab on Sunil Chhetri’s Instagram will tell you more about his interests on the platform. Knock out the teammates, former coaches, clubs, leagues and celebrity friends, and you’re left with a list of wildlife photographers, conservationists and exploration handles. By his own admission, the wild had been his fascination long before he even had an Instagram account.

“My mind goes back to the time we first had cable TV installed at home. A lot of people would think I spent time watching football, which is also true, but my mother will tell you a different story. From before I can remember, she tells me, I’ve been watching the Discovery Channel. Watching different animals in their natural habitat, running, hunting for prey, taking care of their offspring; these are things that always intrigued me,” says Chhetri.

Those who share a dressing room with him will tell you the same. While some of his younger teammates share memes and funny videos with each other, a good picture of a big cat in the wild is what will prompt the skipper to lean over and show you his screen.

“I wouldn’t say that my love for tigers has increased of late, because I’ve always been fascinated by them. The fact is that I’m more vocal now, because I’m more aware than I was before. Staying in Bengaluru has given me the chance to go to places like Nagarhole, Kabini and Bandipur, and that has helped me broaden my knowledge on the subject. But I will tell you, it’s one thing to love wildlife, read about it and watch videos. When you go out there into the wild and spot an animal, it really changes your perspective.”

And it doesn’t come easy – as Chhetri found out. Having hit the half century mark on rides through the jungle in a 4×4 since he was a young boy, the tiger always seemed to elude him. He had crossed paths with almost every other animal in the wild, but a first meeting with the tiger would have a special story attached to it (see embedded Tweet below).

“I had been on safaris maybe over fifty times; with teammates, with friends, with my family. The biggest sighting for me, had been a leopard. But the very first time I went on a safari with my wife, we spotted a Tiger. I guess she was my lucky charm!”

The excitement in his voice is almost palpable as the skipper switches gears to recall that evening in Kabini. “It was so magical, I don’t know how to describe it. There it was, lying on the trail. It was magnificent, powerful and healthy with a great coat of fur that shone from a distance. The guide told us that it was one of the healthiest tigers at the reserve. I couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks on end. It was, by far, one of the best days of my life,” Chhetri recalls.

At the turn of the 20th century, over 100,000 tigers roamed free in India. Decades of poaching by colonial and Indian Elite, during the British Raj period, and following India’s independence mean that less than 5,000 tigers remain in India, a figure which accounts for almost three quarters of the tiger population in the world.

“It’s true that over 70% of the Tigers in the wild are in India, and that means the onus is on us. There were some glorious years, when we had thousands of tigers roaming free; how wonderful that must have been. It’s depressing to compare, but it was so much worse only a decade ago. We’ve tried our best and the numbers have increased, but there’s a long way to go.”

With every part of a tiger’s body being cause for illegal poaching, Chhetri maintains that awareness is the most important part of the way ahead. “I may be biased, but I think the Tigers are the best animals in the world. We ought to work really hard and make people understand and know more about the decline in their population, because these cats deserve to enjoy their existence. I cannot imagine our future generations being told that there are no more tigers left. They should have the opportunity to see these grand animals in the flesh.”

From just 1411 in 2006, the Tiger population doubled to over 2967 in 2019. Project Tiger, started in 1973, has since come into stronger effect over the last two decades, with over 50 designated tiger reserves, covering an area of over thirty seven thousand square kilometres across India.

“We’re on the right track, so we ought to keep doing what we’ve been doing. The people on ground are doing a fantastic job, but we can’t be happy about this. It’s easy to knock on people’s doors and ask for answers, but people need to talk about it. As a country, we need to read more about tigers and understand how important it is that they have their own natural habitat.”

Despite the slowly growing population of tigers and measures to reduce poaching, Chhetri believes there is a long way to go before tigers are stopped being considered as an endangered species. “When I go on safaris, I see so many people living near the reserves; this is cause for human-animal conflict. There’s always domestic cattle grazing, which is also not ideal. There need to be some stern laws. These animals don’t have a voice. As human beings, we ask, take, vote, quarrel and eventually we get what we want. But animals don’t have that privilege. All of us, as human beings, have a moral obligation towards wildlife. We ought to treat them well, give them the space they deserve, and make sure that they are around for future generations to behold.”

We’re tempted to ask him about that moment in Kabini once again, but we’re saved the trouble as the skipper turns back to that evening. “Everyone who knows me will tell you that that experience changed me. Every time that I’ve been lucky enough to spot this beautiful animal, the love has only grown. I understand that I cannot speak out of emotion, so I try to learn as much as possible. Tigers are one of the best things about planet earth and we must do everything in our power to make sure they are around for generations to come.”

(The tiger on the cover of this story was one of two that the skipper spotted on his last trip to Kabini, in early March.)