For those who remember the film Born Free about a game warden playing surrogate dad to Elsa, an orphaned lion cub in Africa, a similar story is unfolding closer home.
Staff at Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, 550 km from Bhopal, are rearing three tiger cubs in near natural surroundings with the intention of releasing them in the wild once they mature. The cubs’ mother died of poisoning in August.
“We plan to release them after we are confident they can fend for themselves,” said Bandhavgarh field director C.K. Patil.
The cubs — two females, one male, all aged 10 months — are in a 3-hectare forest enclosure. “Human contact is minimal as we don’t want them to lose their wild traits,” said Patil.
The guard who gets them water stays out of sight. Live goats are released but not regularly — to maintain an element of uncertainty, typical of the wild.
“For the first few weeks, the cubs were given meat. Then they started killing,” Patil said.
The task at hand is a challenge, he said. “Killing goats is different from killing wild herbivores that are far more agile.”
“But a free life against life in a zoo cage makes it worth all the effort,” the director added.
This isn’t the first human-tiger adoption. In the ’70s and early ’80s, orphan cub Khairi — named after the river on whose banks she was found — was reared by then Project Tiger director Saroj Raj Choudhury in Orissa’s Simlipal forest. Her story didn’t have a happy ending though as Khairi died of poisoning before her release.