Many of you are aware that Sariska tiger reserve in Rajasthan was first to lose all its tigers allegedly to poaching and later Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh too became bereft of tigers by the year 2009.There are many theories about how and why Panna lost all its tigers but that story will be told later.
After the debacle in Panna, some gritty officers of Madhya Pradesh Forest department decided to re-establish a healthy population of tigers in Panna and the work began with a stoic zeal. Initially three female and one male tiger were brought to Panna Tiger Reserve from the jungles of Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench. This constituted the founder stock.
In this very long and arduous task of resurrecting tigers in Panna many stories unfolded depicting the struggles of a species like the tiger that needs inviolate and disturbance free forests to breed and then to disperse away from their home ground into unknown territories to find a new hearth and home. Unfortunately, with us humans treading on every nook and corner of earth and defiling it, wild animals have little scope to survive unless humans wish to allow them to live. Isn’t it sad that those creatures who owned the world for millions of years till we arrived on this planet – just a few seconds ago – have to live at our mercy?
This story is a tale of a first-generation young tiger – PANNA 211, one of the sons of the founder tigress T2, reintroduced to Panna from Kanha, and T3 the male tiger from Pench. T2 was first seen by the deputy director with four cubs near Bundela baba camp on Talgaon plateau of Panna range. Two of the four were females of which one died and another found a territory for herself within the tiger reserve. But, P211, like his brother P212, was bitten by the wander bug at an early age of less than two years and had left his mother and his home to explore the unknown frontiers. This story presents P211’s long and dangerous journey that ultimately gave him a new abode far away from his homeland. (You have already read the story of his brother – P212, the original wanderer, who had left the Panna tiger reserve before P211 and was captured and brought back from Panagar village of Satna district).
This is also an account of some strong-willed and astute managers who left no stone unturned to achieve the goals set for them. Besides, this is a narration of an extraordinary and, up till then, unheard of cooperation between wildlife and territorial staff who worked beyond the call of duty to keep a young tiger safe and sound in the face of enormous adversities while he was trying to find a suitable home for himself. The readers would also appreciate how equipping, training and imparting skills to front line staff become critical to saving forests and wildlife.
Like all first-generation young tigers P211 was Radio-collared to keep an eye on his peregrinations. He was fitted with a collar on 23-02-2012 by the reserve’s veterinarian. For six months he roamed within the reserve but couldn’t find a place for himself to settle down. I surmise that the reason for this was the absence of a suitable area for P211 as the cubs of Tigress T1 – P111 and P112 had already occupied some good habitats by then. P211 became restless and on 23 September 2012 he decided to find himself a new home and mate so he began travelling across the whole length of the reserve covering Panna and Chhatarpur districts, in the process he crossed the River Ken, climbed the hills, descended into valleys and emerged at Shahgarh range of Sagar district some 150 kilometers away as the crow flies.
The then Field Director (FD) monitoring team followed him all along. They went after him even in the forests of Sagar and also Lalitpur which is a district in U.P. and shares its boundary with Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh. This whole exercise, of running after the tiger who had started roaming in an area spread over more than 100 square kilometers, was proving unsustainable as the staff of Panna tiger reserve couldn’t have left their various tasks at Panna unattended for months.
The other question was – should it be the responsibility of the FD Panna to go after the tigers dispersing from the reserve all over the state and beyond the state boundary? I discussed this matter with my immediate boss – the CWLW, and requested him to make the respective territorial divisions responsible for dispersing tigers in their jurisdictions. I also clarified that the wildlife wing would provide necessary training and equipment wherever needed. He immediately understood the necessity to do so and an order was issued to all territorial officers. I discussed this with the FD and he meticulously trained and equipped the territorial officers and staff of Sagar forest division. The Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) North Sagar was an able leader who soon ensured that his staff did their best.
The important and timely decision by the CWLW to make territorial officers responsible for tigers was a game changer that ensured the reoccupation by tigers of those forest habitats from where they had disappeared long ago. Many territorial Chief Conservators of Forests (CCFs) and DFOs started taking interest in wildlife management. Some of them were excited to see camera trap photos of leopards and tigers in their forests and used to share those with me immediately. I recall how the then CCF Jabalpur had sent me an emotional email along with camera trap photos of female leopard with cubs at a kill.
A territorial divisional forest officer who was in Datia division, covered an extra mile and began monitoring and protecting a tiger that had suddenly appeared in his area as if from thin air. Soon, a researcher of WWF who was monitoring that tiger in Ranthambhore disclosed that it was one of three cubs of tigress T26 of Ranthambhore. After learning about the tiger’s identity, I procured a copy of a map prepared the researcher depicting movement of the young tiger from Ranthambhore to Seondha forest of Datia (a hundred square kilometer forest patch in an agriculture dominated landscape). When an enthusiastic DFO began sending daily monitoring reports to CWLW office on his own volition, we were quite impressed and began equipping him with all necessary equipment and field gear to facilitate monitoring and provided funds to create waterholes and repair roads. The tiger had made a small area (just three compartments of Seondha Forest in Datia division and besides preying on cattle, it also killed nilgai and became a favourite among the local farmers. May be one day I will write a detailed story on the Datia tiger for you. I was extremely impressed by DFO’s dedication and hard work and at the first opportunity I recommended him for a state level wildlife Conservation Award. The state government issued him a letter of appreciation for his exemplary service to wildlife conservation for the year 2013.
Here I am just highlighting the changing ethos of the forest department in which territorial officers were willingly contributing to the conservation of wildlife. As we were seriously focused on saving long-ranging species like tiger in hostile and fragmented landscapes this was a much needed and overdue change in the forest department.
The meticulous monitoring of P211 by North Sagar team revealed interesting information. The tiger was truly a wanderer. He was spending 30 % of his time in the forests of Uttar Pradesh and 70 % in Sagar. For about four and a half months he spent his time between the Lalitpur Division of Uttar Pradesh and Sagar Division of Madhya Pradesh.
DFO Sagar’s team members were already on their toes to ensure safety of the tiger from electric wires hanging illegally in and around farmlands to protect crops from wild herbivores. Even poachers take advantage of this fact and they too use powerlines to poach tigers (Both Lalitpur and Sagar has a good population of some traditional hunter tribes).
DFO Sagar had left no stone unturned to keep local people on his side – his team organized regular meetings with the hundred and five JFMCs (Joint Forest Management Committees) and kept constant contact with village leaders. They also sensitized police personnel the district level through regular meetings and sought their help from time to time. Meetings with forest staff of both Uttar Pradesh and Sagar were organized. They found forty-one farmlands where farmers had laid out live electric wire to protect crop from the wild animals and removed those. His staff patrolled twenty-three high tension powerlines that were in the tiger’s territory to locate live wire traps and dismantled them. The Range officers kept in regular touch with thirteen power substations in that area and collected data of tripping cases and locations. The staff searched for and removed several pig traps laid out by farmers in their farmlands. These traps were more common on the Uttar Pradesh area.
Ninety-five families belonging to traditional hunting communities, who resided in and around the movement zone of P211, were kept on 24×7 surveillance. Eight Forest Mukhbirs were deployed to check and inform about the illegal happening in and around the tiger movement area. Regular monitoring of eighty-five water holes existing in and around the location area was undertaken. The communication network was strengthened by deploying thirty handsets and six fixed wireless stations. Regular day -night vehicular patrolling was a part of the routine in a radius of 15 kilometers from the tiger’s location.
Despite these extraordinary arrangements, poachers made an attempt to kill P211 but the alert staff prevented that from happening. The criminals were caught and sent to jail. While the CWLW U.P. was upset with Madhya Pradesh, his DFO continued cooperating with our DFO. A joint appeal by DFO (N) Sagar and DFO Lalitpur was made to the nearby villagers requesting them not to harm the tiger.
During his four and a half month stay in Sagar and Lalitpur P211 had killed thirty-eight and injured twelve cattle in both UP and MP. Payment of Compensation to the owners of the cattle was prompt and a total of Rs. 2.06 Lacs compensation distributed. DFO Lalitpur was also proactive in disposing off cattle kill cases and paying compensation within a day of reporting.
Meanwhile, CCF Sagar Forest Circle began writing letters to Chief wildlife Warden (CWLW) informing him that in the impending summer season farmers would deploy more and more pig traps and live wires and then the DFO and his team may not be able to protect the tiger. We at the headquarters pondered over his fears. We felt that the tiger was indeed in grave danger of losing its life. The CWLW then convened a meeting at Bhopal on 1 February 2013. Considering all the pros and cons some guiding principle emerged for taking care of dispersing tigers. The principles were:
- to make territorial officers responsible for tigers in their area, train and equip them, they should take care of those tigers,
- only in cases of extreme danger either to the tiger or to the local people, which must be assessed objectively, such tiger may be removed, and
- the tiger removed from a hostile area must not be sent to a zoo unless it is ill and disabled beyond redemption but should be rehabilitated in a suitable habitat. The suitability of habitat should be determined scientifically by assessing prey availability, population dynamics of resident tigers and habitat occupancy. It was also necessary that the sender of the tiger must prepare a detailed protocol for capture and transportation and the recipient should make a Release, Monitoring and Protection plan. We had decided to complete the immobilization and transportation of P211 to Satpura tiger reserve in the cool season, preferably in the first week of February 2013,
Once this decision was conveyed and protocols were prepared, the FD, Panna tiger reserve sent us a date for the operation. P211 was to be captured and shifted to Dhain Range of Satpura Tiger Reserve. He had named this Operation – “Operation Panna 211: Vidhya-Satpura Tiger Bridge Project” as the tiger was now going from the forests of Vindhyan hills to the forests nestled in Satpura Hills.
Preparations began at Panna on 8.2.2013 and two elephants Ram Bahadur and Ganesh were loaded on the truck and sent to Bahrol North Sagar where P211 was located in compartment 222 of Netna forest beat. Elephant Roopkali refused to board and was left behind. In such operations at least four elephants are necessary hence FD Bandhavgarh was asked to send two elephants to Bahrol.
Field director (FD), Panna along with the tiger reserve’s veterinarian reached the spot-on February 9. At Bahrol he consulted the DFO and drew a plan of action and then proceeded to meet P211 and found him sleeping in Compartment 222. The spot where he was sleeping was suitable for manoeuvring the elephants and darting. Considering this the FD ordered buffalo meat for P211 to keep him occupied at that spot till his team was ready to tackle him. The protocol, before beginning the immobilization operation, requires a detailed briefing of team members. The FD assigned duties to various teams and briefed them about their role and responsibilities. This briefing is mandatory and even experienced team members have to undergo this exercise whenever a new rescue operation is commissioned.
While the briefing was on the news came from the tracking team that P211, after eating buffalo meat, had begun walking on the path by which he had come to Netna beat.
Next morning, by 4.30 am, two more elephants Gautam and Heera from Bandhavgarh had reached the spot. By that time P211 had travelled about 7 kilometers to Forest Compartment Number 186 of Talpoh beat. The elephants and the entire team assembled at the spot by 12 noon. Though, the general idea of location of P211 was known to the tracking team the animal was not visible, so the elephants were deployed to search for and locate him.
Around 1 pm P211 was located. Around 2.30 pm the wildlife veterinarian immobilized him without any difficulty. His old radio-collar was replaced with a satellite collar and he was shifted on a stretcher and put in a cage and administered the antidote at 3.07 pm. He was on his feet by 3.20 pm. His cage was then loaded on a tractor trolley and transported to a place where rescue squad’s specially designed transportation truck was parked. The cage was loaded onto the truck by operating a hydraulic power platform and P211 was soon on his way to Satpura tiger reserve under the watchful eyes and care of veterinarians from Panna and Satpura tiger reserves and the SDO of North Sagar and Assistant Director of Satpura Tiger reserve. P211 entered Satpura tiger reserve at about 5.30 am and at 11.30 am he was safely released at Dhain which was a forest village once but after the voluntary rehabilitation of villagers at a place of their choice, transformed into a wildlife habitat teeming with wildlife.
As P211 was now fitted with a satellite collar, besides the ground monitoring team at Satpura, I was able to monitor P211’s movement on my laptop from my office and home. True to his nomadic tendencies, at Satpura too, P211 did not settle down immediately he began exploring every nook and corner of the reserve as well as areas beyond its boundaries. Once, I got worried to see his movement at a faraway place Bankhedi – an area infamous for timber thieves and poachers. He also explored the banks of the Denwa river giving me goosebumps as beyond the river there are many human habitations.
But after some months he settled down around Pagara village inside the tiger reserve and after sometime shifted to a safer location in Churna. He made the entire stretch of forest from Churna to Dhain (about 13 kilometers) his territory. Just after five months of his release his satellite collar stopped sending signals, thereafter staff monitored him through the camera trap images and pug impressions obtained from Pug Impression Pads (PIPs). His collar was removed later but we decided not to recollar him as he had fully settled in his territory and there was no one to challenge him till then. I left the wildlife wing in August 2015 but continued to visit the Satpura Tiger Reserve. The news is that P211 is living there happily. There were reports of his mating with tigresses but no one could confirm if P211 ever became a father. But I know it is the shortcomings of people managing the reserve if they cannot tell me whether P211 ever became a father. They may be in a position to confirm it even today if they wish. The easiest and fool proof method would be to collect scat samples of P211 and other tigers from all over the reserve’s core and buffer in a systematic manner and send all the samples for DNA fingerprinting to CCMB, Hyderabad or WII, Dehradun.
I hope they will give me the good news soon.
Featured image: R Sreenivas Murthy
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