A Tiger for Lucknow
It was hardly a five-line report buried inconspicuously inside page 7 of a national daily, but nevertheless it caught my eye. That was during the extreme winter of early January 2012. A tiger, the report stated, had emerged at a place hardly 19 kilometres from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh and undoubtedly one of the most populous places in India. “Hey, what is this tiger doing so close to Lucknow, and how did it reach here?” I questioned myself while brushing the newspaper aside. A freak phenomenon, I concluded.
Little did I know then that the issue would soon become one of the most discussed topics among environmentalists and wildlife lovers alike, and would trigger a big tiger-chase which, despite the efforts of dozens of forest officials, remained a
chase for about 108 days before the wildlife department succeeded in capturing the animal. For the Tigers and Leopards always outshine an average wild lifer. What is more, the wily big cat started sharing the limelight with top politicians of the country, and it exploits appeared in the front page of several newspapers almost on a daily basis!
But first things first. The day I read about the tiger, my wildlife team cameraman Piyush Sharma was sent to the spot... and what a spot it was! A village which goes by the name of Rehmankheda. Situated on the outskirts of Lucknow, you will have to squint your eyes to spot the village on the map of Uttar Pradesh. We eventually found it to be a small, sleepy place. Of course there is this huge complex of Central Institute For Sub-tropical Horticulture nearby, which gives some semblance of identity to Rehmankheda...
And suddenly, one fine morning in the January of 2012, Rehmankheda and the Central Institute shot to public attention. For, a wild tiger decided to arrive and make itself comfortable in the area!
It’s not every day that a tiger walks into habitation and starts living there...and that too so close to the political jungle of India’s most populous state! To be fair to the tiger, it has behaved exactly like the way the famous hunter and conservationist Jim
Corbett envisioned it decades ago: A perfect gentleman. So far, this particular tiger had not harmed a single human being, or created scare of any kind...
In fact, the people of Rehmankheda and some dozen odd villages in the vicinity seemed to be of similar temperament. They did not mind the tiger in their midst!
Initially, there were doubts about the existence of tiger. But on the morning of January 18, it was finally spotted by the people of Rehmankheda. The night before, they heard it roaring outside the village. On January 19, our reporter, Piyush photographed the pug marks- proving without a shadow of doubt the existence of a tiger.
The tiger, it was discovered subsequently, would spend the day in the Central Institute complex. Hundreds of mango trees, bushes and a large patch of grass-land within the complex gave ample hiding space to the tiger, and this is where it would spend better part of the day. At night, however, the tiger would come out of the complex and visit Rehmankheda and other villages. Its pugmarks, spread all over the fields, unmistakably revealed its lonely journeys.
Meanwhile, the forest authorities of Uttar Pradesh initiated efforts to nab the wayward tiger. It is true that the big cat had not harmed a human so far, but would indeed have been prudent not to take a chance.
The first thing the forest authorities did was to set up traps at three places inside the central institute complex. To lure it near the contraptions, they even put up goats as baits. Additionally, a number of trap-cameras were placed in and around the campus to monitor the activities of the elusive tiger.
Subsequent photographs gathered by trap cameras showed the tiger was hugely enjoying the hospitality being offered to it. It killed and ate all the goats, but decided to stay away from the traps. Now who says tigers are not smart?
The big question was- where did this smart tiger come from? Dudhwa National Park or the forests of Pilibhit region came naturally to mind. But what wasn’t clear was why did it choose Rehmankheda? According to some officials, the tiger could have lost its territory to a challenger- and hence was forced to move out and find a new territory. At best, however, this remained a hypothesis.
Whatever the reasons for the tiger’s sudden appearance and its obvious reluctance to leave the area, the forest department mounted their efforts to nab it. A team from Dehradun based Wildlife
Institute of India was assisting the UP forest Department. It had even got the tranquilizing guns for the forest staff. But the tiger chose not to come within its range.
When neither the traps nor the tranquilising guns work, what does one do? Bring in the elephant, of course! Three trained elephants had been brought specially from Dudhwa National Park to keep an eye on the tiger’s movement.
More than three months had gone By. However, the tiger had continuously outwitted its pursuers. Life, too, went on normally in Rehmankheda. The funny thing was that nobody in the village seemed to be too concerned about the tiger. My heart kept on craving for a tryst with this new nawab of Lucknow, and, sitting in my New Delhi office, I was wondering what this tiger’s next move could be. I had been talking to the chief wildlife warden about how to move about catching this new “Nawab of Lucknow”. But, Soon after, I got a message flashed on my phone that the hunt had finally succeeded and the tiger was trapped after being on the prowl in the neighbourhood of Lucknow for exactly 108 days.
UP forest and wildlife experts, who were entrusted with the task in mid April, hit first success by spotting the tiger within a week’s time — a task that several other experts had failed to achieve in more than three months.
The tracking team had managed to localise the animal by setting a bait on the previous night, when it came for the kill; and knowing that it would return to the kill after a day, took positions with their tranquilizer guns and Wildlife experts on the elephants. As soon as the animal came within the range of the tranquilizer gun, they fired the dart, which made the wild cat unconscious within a matter of seconds and the support team instantly got into action and carted the animal into a cage, following which a crane was brought to lift the new Nawab on a truck, to be deported back to the Dudhwa National Park.
The tiger had regained consciousness within 40 minutes of the capture, however the cage was covered under a black sheet to prevent teasing by thousands of curious local villagers who had gathered at the site. The menacing growl and threatening roar of the striped cat could be heard all along until the truck sped away from Rehmankheda.
This was the third time since December 2008 that a tiger had strayed out of the wild to enter urban pockets including the neighbourhood of Lucknow. In the past two incidents, both presumed man-eaters were gunned down in Faizabad and Lakhimpur-kheri after special wildlife teams failed to trap the animals in several months-long chase.
I couldn’t help but think of William Blake’s immortal lines: “When the stars threw down their spears, And water’d heaven with their tears, Did He smile His work to see? Did He who made the lamb make thee? Tiger, tiger, burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”
The straying of the tiger from the reserved forests in the terai region speaks volumes of the increasing penetration of human population in the natural home of the big cats.
(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).