Call of the wild
It was August 18, 2009. The rain had cast its green spell all around and the forest was enveloped in <g data-gr-id="148">thick</g> and tall undergrowth. With three lactating cubs, the <g data-gr-id="163">Pataur</g> Tigress had an increased and frequent diet requirement. But with the heavy green cover limiting her visibility, she had failed to grab a <g data-gr-id="164">sambhar</g> or a chital kill. As hunger made things unbearable for her and her cubs, that day, the unwritten pact of peace between the humans and the tiger broke down. As the night set in, the tigress entered a nearby village of <g data-gr-id="165">Pataur</g> and killed a cow. <g data-gr-id="166">Pataur</g> shares its boundaries with the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve.
The prey was too heavy to be dragged inside the forest. So after having a good meal for the night, she decided to come back for a subsequent helping. Some villagers were quick to react. They laced the carcass with poison and patiently waited for her return. Everything went on expected lines from that moment onwards. The tigress came to the kill late at night and took a few bites of the poisoned meat. Before she could <g data-gr-id="151">realise</g>, the pesticide started reacting and she rushed in search of water, some three kms away under a pulia (bridge). However, it was too late by then. Within 72 hours, internal hemorrhage led her to a painful death under the same pulia (bridge).
A tragedy it was, but a bigger one lay ahead. The Pataur tigress had left behind three four-month-old cubs who were totally dependent on her for food. They knew nothing about hunting on their own and were certainly doomed to perish in a few days. As the cubs waited for their mother to return, the forest department of Bandhavgarh stepped in. Several patrolling parties were rushed in the region and the cubs were finally tracked down in the afternoon of August 19. They were tranquilised and shifted to an enclosure in the Magadhi zone of the reserve.
It was the afternoon of a busy day when I got a call from the forest department, giving details of the episode and asking for my possible help. Should they be sent to the 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 Madhya Pradesh, then embarked on an unheard of course of action. They decided to teach the cubs the ways of the wild. However, it was easier said than done. For one, it is the mother who usually trains her cubs. Two, there was no reference material or scientific study to fall back on because nothing like this had ever been undertaken before anywhere in the world.
That is when I came in. The forest department graciously accepted my request to install close circuit CCTV cameras at the enclosure. This was essential to monitor the cubs’ movement as well as their individual personalities. As Park Ranger Lalit Pande later remarked, it was primarily because of the CCTV footage they collected over the next nine months and understanding of the cubs’ behaviour they developed, that the prospects of success started to emerge.
Although busy with my priorities as the Managing Director of Raheja Developers, 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 in the camouflaged machan (scaffold) that had been constructed overlooking the pond in the enclosure. Ajay Suri, Asif Khan and I, along with Patil Saheb, hid 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 imprint 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 stay back.
Their first big kill, a padda (lamb), was witnessed by us through the CCTV with a lot of intrigue and challenge. As the cubs, now 11-months-old, came closer to the padda (lamb), it charged on them. Over the next two days, the padda (lamb) became the hero in the enclosure, forcing the sub-adult tigers to run for their lives. The footage revealed that it did not even let them sleep. This competition to survive lasted for two days by when the padda’s (lamb) faculties gave away and the tigers, overwhelmed with hunger, learnt to work with a collective strategy and strength. The padda (lamb) was finally brought down by Raja and Rani attacking together first and Rajkumari joining the fight later.
By now, the cubs were 15 months old and the enclosure height became accessible as we realised one night. Rajkumari ventured out of it, jumping over the 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 out of the enclosure on the CCTV and promptly informed the authorities. We, too, were informed and asked to join in the operation to get her back.
We collected some 20-25 people and gave them lathis (sticks), 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 was discussed and instructions passed on in a training session. Everyone looked upbeat and courageous enough to handle in case the tigress charged. They all vowed to stand by each other and not run away should the tigress charge.
The haka started and the tigress also started to encircle the fence looking for any entry. Asif and I were on our makeshift machan some eight feet above the ground and highly upbeat about the video that was being shot.
And suddenly all hell broke loose — the tigress charged on the haka party. So strong was the roar and charge that the bravehearts ran helter-skelter for their lives. All lessons of bravery and <g data-gr-id="146">collective</g> action went up in smoke and within seconds there was no one around — some hiding in the parked vehicle and the others on the closest tree. For the first time, I <g data-gr-id="145">realised</g> that my eight-feet high machan was no guarantee to my life from a marauding tiger which had already jumped over the seven-feet fence. It was my turn now, I thought to myself.
But, it was too late to think and evaluate. We were within the reach of the tigress in rage and instinctively abandoned our cameras to go into a hiding huddle over the machan. The charge had stopped for well over 15 minutes and there was no more roaring. Now everyone had started communicating from their safe settings, when I lifted my head to see where the tigress was… I saw her inside the enclosure with her brother and sister. As we were the only ones overlooking the enclosure, I took the courage to put this across to Patil Saheb, who promptly brought along the guards in a covered jeep and got the gates closed.
After about 18 months, the male was shifted to another enclosure nearby (to prevent any chance of in-breeding). By now, the three could easily kill any spotted deer put in their enclosure. Finally, they had learnt how to hunt. By the end of 2010, it became clear that the tigers had learnt all the 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, one of the tigress’ died. Soon after, the forest authorities released the other two, probably in Panna or some other forest reserve of Madhya Pradesh. I am informed that the male cub has moved to the Satpura forests and has turned out to be a handsome and territorially dominant male.
As I conclude this story waiting to board the aircraft, Vinay <g data-gr-id="158">Varman</g>, the Field Director of
<g data-gr-id="189">Bandhavgarh,</g> has called to reconfirm that both the cubs are doing fine. Their release in the wild has spawned a whole new generation that is roaring free in different corners of the planet. I’ve done my bit for the sake of an animal which has held me under its spell for the better part of my life.
(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).