‘Problematic’ tiger caught alive in 21-day op

Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) officials said that the tiger was tranquillised a little after 1pm
The 13-year-old tiger came to be identified as “MDT 23” , or Mudumalai Division Tiger number 23.(SOURCED)
The 13-year-old tiger came to be identified as “MDT 23” , or Mudumalai Division Tiger number 23.(SOURCED)
Updated on Oct 20, 2021 04:25 PM IST
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ByDivya Chandrababu, Hindustan Times, Chennai

A male tiger who attacked and killed at least two people in Tamil Nadu was tranquillised and captured alive on Friday, bringing to a close a challenging 21-day search for the animal.

Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR) officials said that the tiger was tranquillised a little after 1pm. This is the first time that a tiger has been captured alive in the Nilgiris district, where at least three tigers were shot dead between 2014 and 2016. In 2002, a tiger was captured alive in the Annamalai Tiger Reserve in the state and let back into the forest.

The 13-year-old tiger came to be identified as “MDT 23” , or Mudumalai Division Tiger number 23. He roamed in the buffer zone of the reserve, close to its boundary. Over the past three weeks, MDT 23 had remained elusive despite several close shaves with the search party -- 12 tranquillising darts were used before Friday to try and capture him, but he avoided them all.

The search

The tiger was first recorded by a camera trap in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (BTR) in 2010. “Since then, it established a territory here. But due to his age, and from his wounds, we can say he has been in territorial fights and has moved. Because of the presence of other animals in the MTR reserve, this tiger is not being allowed into their territory which is why it has been moving near the forest boundary,” said field director D Venkatesh.

From the beginning of July this year, villagers of the Gudalur area complained that MDT 23 was preying on livestock. Then, on September 24, the tiger killed a 56-year-old tribal man, V Chandran, a worker in the Devarshola area. The forest department confirmed Chandran as his first human victim. A search was launched for the tiger with five cages set up in vital locations in and around Gudalur, with field staff using camera trap images and patrols. A special police team was also deployed in the area, with a team of experts from Kerala’s Wayanad joining in.

For the next week though, the tiger evaded all the traps set up for it, before surfacing on October 1 with another kill in Masinagudi about 30km away from the first. This brought locals to protest on the roads, demanding that the tiger be put down. Local residents alleged that the tiger killed more people than just the two, but officials have not confirmed this.

On the same day as his second kill, chief wildlife warden Shekhar Kumar Niraj issued an order to “hunt the problematic tiger” under section 11(1) (a) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, as the animal had “become very dangerous to human life in the area”. The section that assigns these powers however adds that “no wild animal shall be ordered to be killed unless the Chief Wildlife Warden is satisfied that such animal cannot be captured, tranquillised or translocated”.

After the order, efforts were strengthened on the ground, with more than a 100 personnel including highly trained staff of the Forest Department -- with vets, sniffer dogs, two kumki elephants (trained in capture and rescue), and tech such as night vision cameras and drones.

Meanwhile, a Chennai-based animal rights group, People for Cattle filed a PIL before the Madras high court seeking directions that the tiger be captured alive, and not killed. Appearing for the principal chief conservator, government lawyer P Muthukumar, informed the court on October 5 that there was no plan to kill the animal or maim it. “Efforts are on in the Mudumalai area to capture the animal alive and study its psychology and behaviour to assess what future course of treatment may be adopted,” he told the court. The bench of chief justice Sanjib Banerjee and justice PD Audikesavalu directed the principal chief conservator of forests to ensure that the least number of people intruded into the forest and posted the matter for after the festive break.

Tiger conservation has been a focus in India for close to fifty years with the National Tiger Conservation Authority coming into being in 1972. A year later, “Project Tiger” was launched in April 1973, with the objective “to ensure maintenance of a viable population of Tigers in India for scientific, economic, aesthetic, cultural and ecological values, and to preserve for all times, areas of biological importance as a national heritage for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people”. The latest Status of Tigers in India report 2018, a four year tiger census, showed an increase in numbers from 2,226 in 2014 to 2,967 in 2018.

The final hours

Over the past three weeks, there were several touch-and-go situations on the hunt, with MDT 23 making a fleeting appearance, only to disappear in the forest.

It was after officials suspended operations for the day on Thursday that they received a message, at around 8pm, that the tiger was spotted near the Theppakadu elephant camp, which is part of the Mudumalai National Park. A search team was rushed to the spot.

MTR’s field director Venkatesh said that, soon, the tiger began moving towards Masinagudi. “In the meantime a small accident was reported in Masinagudi where a private vehicle skid from the road and the tiger mildly charged at the travellers, and our team stationed there brought the situation under control,” said Venkatesh. “We continued following the tiger because there is a temple near the forest boundary where more than 3,000 people had gathered because of the festival.”

It was 4am when the tiger went back to the dense forest. “We had no weapons with us. We were very cautious so that the tiger doesn’t enter any human habitation.”

On Friday morning, officials informed locals not to allow cattle-grazing in the area where the tiger was spotted.

Forest veterinarian Dr Rajesh Kumar said that their team spotted the tiger at 8.30am inside a bush in the Masinagudi area. They were planning to capture him using nets, and once that failed, they cordoned off the area using the two kumki elephants.

“The tiger roared and charged at us twice. The first time the kumki, Udhayan, took a step back but the second time, he stood his ground and that’s when I could dart him. The real hero of the operation is Udhayan,” he said.

Kumar darted a tranquilliser from the kumki elephant’s back at the tiger at 1.05pm on Friday. “...we used a second dart on him on the ground again at 2.15 pm and secured the tiger at 2.30 pm,” said Kumar.

The forest officers had the option of shifting the captured tiger either to the Vandalur zoo in Chennai or the Mysuru Zoo in Karnataka. Since the animal is old and weak, they decided to shift the animal to Mysuru, Karnataka which is closer to MTR.

K Kalidasan, president of Coimbatore-based environmental organisation Osai, who has been working in the MTR landscape for two decades, said that the tiger was not a man-eater but had to be eliminated. “This tiger didn’t attack human beings as its prey but it did so while it was preying on livestock. All the four people (who are suspected to have been killed) are herdsmen,” Kalidasan said. However, after it killed a man on October first, the tiger is said to have mauled his arm. “It led to fear and panic among people. So the tiger had to be captured because we need the support of the local people who live in the fringes of the forest for wildlife management. And it’s not an easy task to capture an animal like the tiger alive while its nature is to hide in a closed forest. It was a huge and patient effort by the field staff.”

Local herdsmen collect cowdung and sell it as a means to sustain their livelihood. Though cattle grazing is prohibited in tiger reserves, it continues unabated in buffer zones, says Kumaraguru Arumugam, conservation scientist and member of the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve Foundation. “Due to this interference of cattle grazing, the herbivores of the region, such as deer, blackbuck, bison, have moved, affecting the balance of the prey and predator. So the tiger doesn’t have sufficient prey and it is also moving outside its territory,” says Arumugam. “This is why man-animal conflict is increasing inside tiger reserves in Tamil Nadu as well as in India.”

Chief wildlife warden Niraj described the operation as intense. “And there was a constant fear that the tiger shouldn’t come out and kill anyone else,” said Niraj. “We are satisfied that we tried everything from data analysis to DNA analysis and we completed our mission which was to save the life of the tiger without injuring him. This is the first time in a decade that we have been able to capture a tiger alive.” 

Niraj said that the tiger has been stabilised after being tranquilised and his vitals, temperature, blood pressure are all normal. The vehicle is travelling with four doctors and officials at a low speed to Mysuru since the tiger’s condition is weak. “I’ve received an NOC from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) for the tiger to be rehabilitated there. He has crossed his prime age of hunting. After he recovers, we have to find him a home based on what doctors say.”

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021