A Tiger for Lucknow

Airports India - - NEWS - PHO­TOS & TEXT: NAVIN M RAHEJA

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).

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