On November 17th, 1972, the Royal Bengal Tiger was officially named as the national animal of India. Today, we look back at one of the most incredible stories involving this majestic animal and a man, one which is in equal parts both endearing & heartbreaking.

Saroj Raj Chowdhury is a legendary name in the annals of environmental conservation in India. He was the first forest conservator of the government of Odisha, the founder-director of Odisha’s Simlipal Tiger Reserve, and a pioneer of pugmark-based tiger census technique.

On 3rd October, 1974, Chowdhury’s destiny was irretrievably intertwined with the species he was avowed to protect above all. That evening, a group of tribals found a tiger cub, abandoned by its mother, near river Khairi inside Simlipal forests.

Unsure of what to do with the cub, the group brought it to director Chowdhury. Allegedly, it was as close to love at first sight as it can get. The cub – weak, unwell and scared – is said to have leapt into Chowdhury’s arms as soon as she spotted him.

Chowdhury adopted the cub and named her “Khairi,” after the river near which she was found. Over the coming years, Khairi grew rapidly and became a regular member of the Chowdhury household.

When she was very young, Khairi was hand-fed. But even after she grew up, she would refuse to take food unless fed by Chowdhury’s wife Nihar – her foster mother. She also developed a great bond with Chowdhury’s pet dog Blackie.

The two animals, increasingly mismatched in size, would become best of playmates. But Khairi would also become jealous of Blackie when the latter would enjoy a higher share of attention! But she never harmed Blackie or anyone.

Tourists visiting Simlipal forests would hear about this incredible human/tiger cohabitation and would visit Chowdhury’s place to witness and photograph Khairi, who obliged most obediently.

The news eventually reached Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The Prime Minister, a keen conservationist herself and one who played a pivotal role in introducing “Project Tiger,” called up Chowdhury and spoke with him at length on his unusual ‘pet’.

As Khairi grew older, it became evident that mating needs were becoming prominent. Saroj Chowdhury repeatedly tried to introduce her into the wild for the purpose but his efforts came to nought unfortunately.

Possibly alarmed by the human smell emanating from her, tigers of the forests rejected Khairi and every time she found her way back – scratched all over by her own kind – to her “home”: the Jashipur forest bungalow.

On 28th March, 1981, tragedy struck. A rabies infected street dog ran into the bungalow compound. Before anyone could react, Khairi pounced upon the dog. One blow from her mighty paw sent it to its death but not before it had landed a fatal blow on the tigress.

Saroj Chowdhury was away on official duty when the incident occurred. By the time he returned, Khairi was struck down by the dreaded disease. She fought for nearly two months but eventually, her condition became so bad that she had to be euthanized.

Khairi was buried in the bungalow compound itself. The incident left Saroj Chowdhury heartbroken. His health nosedived and never recovered. Less than a year after Khairi’s death, Chowdhury also breathed his last.

Before his death, Saroj Chowdhury chronicled the whole affair into a book titled – “Khairi – The Beloved Tigress.” It remains a valuable piece of work in the behavioural study of the big cat.

The saga of Saroj Chowdhury and his beloved pet tiger Khairi remains a rare one in human/animal interaction – not just in India but even globally.

Above all, it shows the tremendous power of love – something that the world around us is desperately in need of today.