A proud white tiger legacy of Vindhya region in eastern Madhya Pradesh has come to be embroiled in a web of false claims, corruption and a state minister’s political ambition as chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan inaugurated what was touted as “the world’s first white tiger safari” in Mukundpur in Satna district on April 3.

Leave alone the world, all the state government had to do was to look at nearby Orissa. “The Nandankanan zoological park has had a white tiger safari since October 1, 1991,” Park director Dr Sudarsan Panda was quoted by The Statesman as saying on April 3. “Ours was the first white tiger safari in the world and it is still continuing.”

Madhya Pradesh forest officials could not have been unaware of Orissa’s unique global status. After all, they had negotiated, albeit unsuccessfully, with the Nandankanan zoological park to part with two white tigers for the Mukundpur safari three years ago.

Chouhan too had written to his Orissa counterpart Naveen Patnaik with this request. Patnaik refused to oblige, citing the poor tiger conservation efforts in Madhya Pradesh.

Earlier, in December 2013, the National Tiger Conservation Authority had refused to give its nod for reintroduction of white tigers in Madhya Pradesh, pointing out that the white tigers have no “conservation value”.

Wildlife expert and retired Indian forest Service officer PM Lad concurs with the conservation body. The white tiger, he points out, is something abnormal – it looks different, and can’t survive in the wild. “It’s good as a decorative showpiece attracting people in zoos and nothing beyond this."

A senior Indian Forest Service officer who was opposed to setting up the Mukudnpur safari says the decision was purely political.

It turns out that the idea for the safari was mooted by Chouhan’s confidante and public relations minister Rajendra Shukla, who hails from Rewa, and was keen to capitalise on a deep sense of collective pride people in the region have about the white tiger legacy that goes back more than a century.

The white tiger legacy

The first white tiger to be captured was not, as is often claimed, and was repeated in recent reports, the famed Mohan in 1951.

In December 1915, Maharajah Gulab Singh of Rewa caught a two-year-old white cub. It lived in captivity at the Maharajah’s summer palace for another five years. The tiger was then stuffed and sent as a gift to King George V as a sign of his loyalty to the crown.

A full 36 years later, Maharaja Gulab Singh’s son Martand Singh Judeo captured a white cub – on May 27, 1951. The Maharaja domesticated the white tiger and named it “Mohan”, who has come to be known across the world as father of all Bengal white tigers in the world.

As this website points out, there had been several captures and a large number of sightings (and shootings) prior to even the 1915 capture by Gulab Singh. In one of the earliest records a white tiger was displayed at Exeter Change in 1820. Between the 1920s and 1930s, as many as 15 white tigers were killed in the region of Bihar alone.

For a white Bengal tiger to be born, both parents must carry the unusual gene for white colouring – this double recessive allele in the genetic code only turns up naturally about once in 10,000 births.

After a series of unsuccessful attempts at breeding in the private enclosure at the Maharaja’s Govindgarh palace , Mohan’s mating with Radha, a normal tigress, produced four cubs on October 30, 1958.

Later, Mohan fathered 30 more cubs during his lifetime, of which 21 were white. White tigers, however, vanished from Govindgarh forest by 1976. Forty years later, they have made a “ghar vapsi” or homecoming of sorts, courtesy Shukla’s relentless efforts.

A pet project

Shukla has been so impatient for his pet project’s execution that he prevailed upon the chief minister to have the foundation stone for the proposed safari, zoo and rescue centre laid as far back as February 3, 2012 even though the state government had till then no clue where to procure white tigers from.

Two BJP-ruled state governments of Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra came to Chouhan’s rescue. Last year, two white tigers were shifted from Maitri Bagh Zoo at Bhilai in Chhattisgarh. Two Bengal tigers were also brought here at the safari from Aurangabad zoo in Maharashtra this year.

Meanwhile, uncertainty about finding white tigers had not impeded a lavish splurge of taxpayers’ money for the proposed safari, as was evident in state forest minister’s admission in the state assembly on April 1, two days ahead of its inauguration.

During a debate on a calling attention notice, forest minister Gauri Shankar Shejwar admitted corruption and irregularities in construction work for the white tiger safari. Three Congress members of the Legislative Assembly accused PK Singh of Satna, who was then chief conservator of forest, of misappropriating Rs 17 crore from the fund meant for the Rs 50-crore safari project spread across 25 hectare of land.

Sukhendra Singh, one of the three MLAs who had raised the corruption issue in the assembly, directly took on the officer outside the house as well. He slapped the Indian Forest Service officer PK Singh in full public view at the Satna railway station the following day. Curiously, while the MLA audaciously justified to the media his “direct action” against the “corrupt officer”, the officer claimed the “angry lawmaker had only shouted at him”.