It was August 18, 2009. The rains had cast its green spell all around and the forest was enveloped with heavy and tall undergrowth. The sleepy hamlet of Pataur shares its boundaries with Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve.
The Pataur Tigress, with its three lactating cubs and an increased and frequent diet requirement, had been unable to grab a sambhar or a chital kill as the heavy green cover had limited her visibility and stealth and had offered better food availability for herbivores, so they were no more localized to the hunting grounds of this tigress.
Hunger was making things unbearable for her as well as the cubs. On that day, the unwritten pact of peace between the humans and the tiger broke down. As the night set in, this tigress, mother of three small cubs, obviously driven by the need to feed her family, entered the closest hamlet and killed a cow. The prey was too heavy to be dragged into the forest and having given herself a good meal for the night, she decided to come back for a subsequent helping. Some villagers of Pataur were quick to react. As generally happens across India, they laced the cow's carcass with poison and patiently waited for her return.
From that moment onwards everything went on as expected. The tigress came to the kill late that night and took a few bites of the poisoned meat. Before she could realize, the pesticide started reacting and she immediately rushed in search of water, which she found some three kilometers away under a pulia. However, it was too late by then. In the next 72 hours, internal hemorrhage caused a painful death, under the same pulia.
A tragedy it was but a bigger tragedy lay ahead. She had left behind three cubs. The four-month old cubs were entirely dependent on their mother for food and nourishment. They had not learnt anything about hunting on their own and were certainly doomed to perish in a few days. The cubs waited and waited for their mother to return. This is when the forest department of Bandhavgarh stepped in.
Several patrolling parties were rushed to the region and the cubs were finally tracked down in the afternoon of August 19. They were tranquilized and shifted to an enclosure in the Magadhi zone of the tiger reserve. It was the afternoon of a busy day of August end when I got a call from the forest department giving details of the episode and asking for my possible help, contribution and guidance. Should they be sent to a zoo and imprisoned for the balance of their life or should we try to give them a chance of rehabilitation in the forest? Discussions went on and on! CK Patil, the Field Director and HS Pabla, the Chief Wildlife Warden of MP, then embarked on an unchartered and unheard of course of action. They decided to teach the cubs the ways of the wild. But soon, the realization dawned that it was easier said than done. For one, it is the mother which imparts training to the cubs. Secondly, there was no reference material or scientific study to fall back upon because this work was never undertaken before on this planet by humans.
This is when I chipped in. The forest department graciously accepted my request to let me install close circuit CCTV cameras at the enclosure. This was essential to monitor the cubs movement as well as their individual personalities. As the park ranger Lalit Pande remarked to us, it was primarily because of the CCTV footage they received during next nine months and understanding of the challenge and their behavior that the prospects of success started to emerge.
Although busy with my work schedule I made it a point to visit the enclosure at least once every month mainly to monitor the situation and to ensure that the experiment was proceeding in the right direction. The cubs were very cautious and alert. They always detected our presence and would not appear unless we remained on the camouflaged machan we had constructed overlooking the water pond in the enclosure. Ajay Suri, Asif Khan and I, along with Patil Saheb, would hide ourselves in the machan for days together. Initially, say for the first four months, the cubs were fed on dead meat. They were also lovingly named by the staff as Raja, Rani and Rajkumari. I must add here that for over a year, no tourist Gypsy was allowed near the enclosure. This was important, to prevent unnecessary human imprinting on the cubs.
Gradually, live meat in the form of chicken, goats and piglets were pushed inside the enclosure. After a few hits and misses, the cubs started tackling the small game with ease. And they also started gaining mass, as well as developing individual streaks. The male, Raja, turned out to be the boldest of the three, while the two females preferred to take the back seat.
The first big kill, of a padda (a young buffalo), was witnessed by us through CCTV with lot of intrigue and challenges. As the cubs, now eleven. months old, came closer to the padda, it charged back on them. The subsequent two days, CCTV footage showed the padda became the hero in the enclosure making sub adult tigers run for their lives and it did not allow the tigers to sleep. This competition to survive the hunger lasted till the faculties of the padda gave way and the tigers, by then overwhelmed with hunger, had learnt how to work with a collective strategy and strength.
The padda was finally pulled down by Raja and Rani attacking together first, while Rajkumari joined the fight, third. By now, the cubs had grown to 15 months and the enclosure height became accessible as we realized one night. Rajkumari ventured out of the enclosure jumping over the link chain fence. Our CCTV monitor was about 200 yards away from the enclosure in the forest chowki at Magadhi.
Luckily the caretaking forest guard saw her jumping outside the enclosure on CCTV and promptly informed the authorities. We too were informed and asked to join in the operation to put her back in the enclosure. We were able to collect some 20-25 persons and gave them all lathis, cans and drums to make noise for a haka party so that the tigress could be driven back into the enclosure. The possible eventualities and caution were discussed through training and instructions passed on in the training session. Everyone looked upbeat and courageous enough to handle in case the tigress charged.
The haka started and the tigress also started to encircle the fence looking for any entry that could send her in. Asif and I were on our makeshift machan some eight feet above the ground and highly upbeat with the video that was being shot.
Suddenly all hell broke loose, as the tigress charged on the haka party. So strong was the roar and charge that everyone ran helter skelter for their dear lives. The lessons of bravery and collective action all went for a six. No one was visible as everyone took shelter, be it in the vehicle parked or the closest tree.
My heart was beating at a super speed with the thought that it was my turn now as for the first time I realized that a height of eight feet would not guarantee my life from a marauding tiger which had already jumped across over the seven-feet fence.
Well, it was too late to think and evaluate. We were within reach of the tigress in rage and abandoned our cameras for going into a silent camouflaged huddle over the machan. When the charge had stopped for well over 15 minutes and everyone had started communicating from their safe settings, I lifted my head to see where the tigress was... and I saw her inside the enclosure with her brother and sister.
As we were the only ones overlooking the enclosure, I took courage to inform Patil Saheb who promptly acted by taking the Gypsy and the guards to close the enclosure gate. After about 18 months, the male was shifted to another enclosure nearby (to prevent any chance of inbreeding). By now, the three could easily kill any spotted deer put in their enclosure.
Finally, by the end of 2010, it had become crystal clear that the tigers learnt all those tricks which their mother would have taught them. But the big question remained unanswered: Would they be able to survive in the wild? Unfortunately, in 2011, as one of the tigress' died due to some mysterious sickness, the forest authorities planned to release the other two, soon, probably in Panna or some other forest reserve of Madhya Pradesh.
And finally, in 2014 one of the sub adult tigress' was released in the forests of Bandhavgarh and the sub adult tiger was sent to the jungles of Satpura and were doing fine in their respective forest territories, roaring free in wilderness.
(For already published stories and films on wildlife by the writer, which have run on National Geographic channel, Doordarshan National channel and Doordarshan (India), please log on to www.rahejagroup.org).