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Abandoned tiger cub in Periyar reserve learns to hunt, raises rewilding hopes

Jun 15, 2021 08:59 PM IST

Officials at Periyar Tiger Reserve said Mangala, now 8 months old, is learning to hunt roosters and rabbit and could be released into the wild well before she turns 2.

Thiruvananthapuram: Last November, when two forest guards out on a patrol in the Periyar Tiger Reserve spotted Mangala, her hind legs were paralysed, she had sustained some injuries, and she couldn’t see properly. And, of course, the two-month old tiger cub didn’t have a name then. Some forest officials thought the weak cub would not survive, but that didn’t stop them and a team of veterinarians from caring for the small big cat. Three doctors, three forest officials, and a physiotherapist were dedicated to her. They named her Mangala after the Mangala Devi Kannagi Temple.near which she was found.

Mangala was barely two months old when two forest guards out on a patrol in Periyar Tiger Reserve spotted her in November last year. She was hurt, hungry and weak. (HT Photo/Sourced)

Mangala survived. She is now eight months old, weighs around 30 kg, almost par for the course for a young tigress of that age. And forest officials are preparing to teach her lessons to survive in the wild.

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For starters, they have fenced off a part of the forest near her enclosure and release small prey to get her used to the idea of hunting.

“We have limited her human interactions...and she is learning her wild lessons fast. This is the first time in south India we are rewilding a tiger cub,” said KR Anoop, field director of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is spread across 777 square kilometres of Kerala’s Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts.

But rewilding is a cumbersome exercise and includes protecting or reintroducing key predators and species.

The most high-profile experiment to rewild tigers was in Madhya Pradesh, where two tiger cubs were found abandoned in the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in 2017. They were one and a half months old. The two cubs, however, did not become used to the idea of killing their prey and were eventually shifted to Bhopal’s zoological park in 2020.

In Maharashtra, attempts to rewild cubs have not succeeded. The cub of tigress Avni, who was hunted down in November 2018, was not able to survive in the wild and had to be sent to a zoo. In Pench, a male cub had to be sent to a zoo as he was not able to survive in the wilderness. However, Malini, a tigress, adapted to the wild easily after being kept in an enclosure for several months.

Much before her, a hand-reared orphaned cub were successfully re-introduced in the Panna Tiger Reserve in 2010 and it mated with a tigress from Bandhavgarh a year later, reviving the tiger population in the Madhya Pradesh reserve that had lost all tigers in 2008. R Sreenivasa Murthy, former director of Panna Tiger Reserve, said they had to monitor the movement of the fully grown cub to see how he was adapting to the wild. “Initially, we had to help him to catch prey but as there were not any tigers in the wild and there was enough prey, he adapted well,” he said.

“It (rewilding) is an uphill task,” said Anish Andheria, president, Wildlife Conservation Trust. “Either the tiger re-introduced in the wild can get hammered by another tiger or can starve. Success of re-wilding depends on many factors.”

Mangala, the eight-month-old tiger cub, was found abandoned near Mangala Devi Kannagi Temple in Thekkady. (Ht Photo/Sourced)

The first is that there should not be any human imprinting when the young tiger is in an enclosure as even a remotely habituated animal can end up in villages, and into trouble, he said. The second is the ability to bring down different types of prey species in undulating terrain without getting injured. The third and the biggest hurdle is the ability to fight with other tigers in the wild, he said.

“It is difficult to teach a tiger how to fight with another tiger in the wild in an enclosure,” Andheria said. “Female tigers have a much higher probability of surviving a rewilding experiment than males. On the positive side, in Madhya Pradesh, six hand-raised tigresses have been re-wilded in the last three years. It is important to note that they had all been released in areas that had very few wild tigers. Release of hand-raised tigers in high-density tiger habitats will be fraught with dangers”, he added.

Manu Sathyan, assistant field director of the Periyar reserve forest, said they have started with roosters and rabbits for Mangala.

“She has started showing her wild instincts. We will slowly increase the size of the prey,” Sathyan said.

The forest officials have set up high-resolution cameras around her enclosure to track her. They say Mangala could be released in the wild, after fitting her with a radio collar, before she turns two. Maybe, when she is 18 months old, said one forest official, who asked not to be named. By the time they are 18 months old, most tiger cubs are capable of hunting by themselves, although many stay with their mother till they turn two-and-a-half. A female tiger becomes sexually mature by the time she is three.

But those are all well in Mangala’s future. For now, she has to hunt, and become the apex predator she is. According to standard rewilding procedures, a cub has to make at least 50 kills before being released in the wild.

According to the 2018 big cat census, Periyar Tiger Reserve is home to 26 tigers. India has 2,967 tigers, about 70% of the global tiger population.

Wildlife expert Dr PS Esa said that rewildling of tigers is a time-consuming and laborious process. “In India, elephants and rhinos were rewilded successfully. Big cats, it is difficult because their hunting territory is vast and usually mothers are the best trainers of their offspring,” Esa said.

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