WANTED! DEAD OR ALIVE

As the ul­ti­mate man-an­i­mal con­flict drama plays out in Ya­vat­mal, com­plete with a no­to­ri­ous shooter, an ex­pert team of 60, and guid­ing ele­phants, lo­cals strug­gle with anger, grief and loss of liveli­hood

Mid Day - - FRONT PAGE - BY RAN­JEET JAD­HAV AND SHADAB KHAN IN PANDHARKAWADA

‘We are de­pen­dant on farm­ing, but are now sit­ting in fear. Our crops will be de­stroyed by her­bi­vores and our cat­tle will starve with­out fod­der’ Ankush Munesh­war, Wedashi vil­lage sarpanch

PANDHARKAWADA: On Au­gust 4, 60-year-old Gu­lab Mokashe, a res­i­dent of Wed­shi vil­lage, left in the morn­ing along with his 55-year-old brother Nathu Mokashe and cat­tle from the vil­lage to the hilly ar­eas sur­round­ing the vil­lage’s farms to graze in the shrubs. It was a reg­u­lar day and, with an er­rand back in the vil­lage, the brother re­turned home at 6 pm. The sun was on its way down by 6.30 pm and Gu­lab was ex­pected back.

It would have been a reg­u­lar day had it not been for the fact that Gu­lab didn’t re­turn home, prompt­ing Nathu, at 8 pm, to walk to the lo­cal sarpanch’s home to raise an alarm. Ankush Munesh­war, the vil­lage’s 53-year-old sarpanch says that it was rain­ing heav­ily that night and so, hop­ing that Gu­lab was de­layed while tak­ing shel­ter from the rain, they waited till 9.30 pm. And when that didn’t hap­pen, they called the for­est de­part­ment, which reached the vil­lage im­me­di­ately. Night had fallen hard and it was too late to launch a search op­er­a­tion.

At 4 am, a team from the for­est de­part­ment ac­com­pa­nied by Nathu and 20 oth­ers from the vil­lage, in­clud­ing Munesh­war, set out on the two-hour climb to the top of the hill. The scene they en­coun­tered would be too gory to spell out in de­tail. Gu­lab’s body, vis­i­bly eaten, had been left to the el­e­ments. It was the first of three killings in Au­gust by ti­gress T1 that launched a 60-per­son man­hunt with hu­man and elephant re­sources be­ing called in from across not just Ma­ha­rash­tra, but also Mad­hya Pradesh to trap the nearly 170-kg threat. By the end of the month, T1 would have taken a to­tal of 13 hu­man lives since July 2016.

Ya­vat­mal dis­trict lies on the east­ern fringes of Ma­ha­rash­tra, a good 700 km from Mum­bai. And Wed­shi lies on the bound­ary of the Pandharkawada (a frag­mented for­est) along with oth­ers such as Rale­gaon, Ke­la­pur, Sarati and Pan­dark­awada. For the last two years, the res­i­dents of th­ese vil­lages have been haunted by a now five-year-old ti­gress named T1 who moved from the nearby Tipesh­war Wildlife sanc­tu­ary, around 70 km from what’s now be­ing called a con­flict zone, as a twoyear-old. Not much is known about her. It is spec­u­lated that her mother pushed her out and, in search for a ter­ri­tory of her own, she moved to Pandharkawada where she now roams with two 10-month-old cubs. Of­fi­cials fear she might be teach­ing the cubs to hunt and this might make them less fear­ful of hu­mans too.

There’s a tiger in the for­est as well, but he isn’t the prob­lem at hand.

The man­hunt for the tiger­ess would have be­gun in Jan­uary 2018, had the for­est de­part­ment had enough ev­i­dence at hand to prove that it was in­deed T1 that had led to loss of hu­man lives. Then the Prin­ci­pal Chief Con­ser­va­tor Of For­est, also the chief wildlife war­den of the state, AK Mishra had is­sued or­ders af­ter T1 claimed a res­i­dent of Loni vil­lage on Jan­uary 27. How­ever, at the time a Nag­pur-based ac­tivist Dr Jer­ryl Banait ap­proached the Bom­bay High Court plead­ing against the ac­tion as the of­fi­cials had no ev­i­dence to pur­sue their case. That came with Gu­lab. The ti­gress, hav­ing eaten 60 per cent of his body, had left enough of her DNA around the kill area — which

also matched with five other kill sites — and cam­era trap images con­firm­ing her pres­ence in the for­est. That she had eaten a hu­man helped clas­sify her as a man-eater. But, that would still not move things quickly enough. It took the loss of two more lives to get a fi­nal Supreme Court nod — the HC or­der was chal­lenged in court by Dr Banait and Sarita Subra­ma­niam from the Mum­bai-based Earth Brigade Foun­da­tion — say­ing hu­man life is im­por­tant as well. A t the base­camp out­side Pandharkawada for­est, near Sarati vil­lage, are 10 tents that are cur­rently

serv­ing as the safe space for the 60-mem­ber team that the for­est de­part­ment has out to­gether to catch T1. There’s the ground staff, a pa­trolling team, mem­bers of the state’s Spe­cial Tiger Pro­tec­tion Force (STPF) four vets from Mad­hya Pradesh who will hope­fully tran­quilise T1 when they find her (see box: Pro­to­col to hunt

a man-eater) and mem­bers from var­i­ous NGOS from the state that have put up 80 cam­era traps in­side the thicket and rush ev­ery morn­ing at 6 am in the hope of find­ing T1’s lo­ca­tion. They re­turn by 9.30 am with data from the 70 sq km area, which T1 now oc­cu­pies. On the ba­sis of her ac­tiv­ity, they plan the course of ac­tion of the hunt that will con­tinue till the af­ter­noon heat makes it im­pos­si­ble for the hu­man be­ings and the four ele­phants they have hired to help them walk through the talk and dense fo­liage of the lantana plant. With the bushes run­ning as high as 14 feet, thanks to the mon­soon, hu­mans can’t make their way on foot. It’s not easy with ele­phants, but it’s the best op­tion avail­able con­sid­er­ing the ab­sence of roads and the pos­si­bil­ity that T1 could eas­ily hide any­where, in­vis­i­ble to those hunt­ing her.

An of­fi­cial, not will­ing to be iden­ti­fied, says, “She’s a very clever and elu­sive ti­gress who is not just avoid­ing trap cages, but our teams as well. The ter­rain is re­plete with ravines and gorges and so it be­comes dif­fi­cult to reach ev­ery nook and cranny.”

But, if the hu­mans hud­dled to­gether at the base camp, armed with their tran­quilis­ers and guns, are wary of T1, it’s the vil­lagers’ wrath that they are down­right afraid of.

And it was the 13th kill on Au­gust 28 that brought the mes­sage home: Pa­tience lasts only so long.

Nago­rav Jung­hare of Pim­plesh­ende vil­lage, 20 km from Wed­shi, had taken his cat­tle to graze on his farm. The farm bor­ders the for­est, but the cat­tle re­mained on his farm. Af­ter lunch, he went to the stream that cuts through his land for a sip of wa­ter. It was the last time he was seen.

At 6 pm, two of his cows, as was their rou­tine, re­turned home, with­out Jung­hare. A lo­cal vil­lager Ga­janan Panch­budhe went to the farm, along with oth­ers to look for him. At the stream, they found Jung­hare’s body, half eaten and dis­carded by T1. The kill, they be­lieve, must have hap­pened in the af­ter­noon around 2 pm or 3 pm. Af­ter all, tigers, un­like leop­ards, are nei­ther noc­tur­nal nor have any spe­cific times one can watch out for.

It took a usu­ally prompt for­est de­part­ment an hour to ar­rive at the spot. When they did, two ve­hi­cles were dam­aged by the an­gry mob of 60 vil­lagers. It was again up to the lo­cal hon­orary wildlife war­den Ramzan Vi­rani to calm the vil­lagers down. He had done this a lit­tle over a fort­night ago, at Vi­hir­gaon, when a mob of 200 had gath­ered af­ter Waghuji Raut, a grazer from their vil­lage, be­came another vic­tim.

For the last two years, Vi­rani has been the for­est de­part­ment’s on-ground ‘fire fighter’, sooth­ing an­gry nerves, vis­it­ing vil­lages so that the hu­man-preda­tor con­flict doesn’t take an ugly turn.

His aware­ness pitches have been to ask the vil­lagers not to en­ter the pro­tected ar­eas in the for­est, where they of­ten take their cat­tle for graz­ing, and in­stead stick to the fringes. “If your cat­tle graze away, take help of the for­est de­part­ment and other vil­lagers when en­ter­ing the for­est,” he says. The for­est de­part­ment has de­ployed two pri­vate van maz­doors to act as body guards for the vil­lagers when en­ter­ing the for­est is un­avoid­able. Of course, their help isn’t al­ways taken.

At Pim­plesh­ende, Vi­rani pleaded to the vil­lagers to let the for­est de­part­ment do its job. Af­ter all, if the of­fi­cials didn’t take hold of the body, col­lect sam­ples for DNA test­ing, how could it prove that a life had been lost to a ti­gress? How would the be­reaved fam­ily get a com­pen­sa­tion of

R10 lakh?

Talk of money may seem crass when 13 lives have been lost, but T1’s men­ac­ing pres­ence has hurt the vil­lagers of Ya­vat­mal where it hurts the most — liveli­hood.

The farms here sub­sist on cotton, soy­bean and toor and har­vest sea­son is around the cor­ner. For the last four days, says Wed­shi vil­lager Raghuji, farm­ers haven’t tended to their lands as the for­est de­part­ment has asked them to stay away. “We are eco­nom­i­cally de­pen­dant on farm­ing. If we con­tinue to stay away from the farms, our crops will be de­stroyed thanks to her­bi­vores like wild boar and neel­gai who will raid the crops,” says Munesh­war. Here, even the 400 cat­tle haven’t been sent graz­ing in days, and with­out much fod­der at home, they’ve be­gun starv­ing too.

There’s no sign of ac­tiv­ity in the vil­lage. Hu­mans are hud­dled in cor­ners await­ing only one news: T1 has been caught.

T1 MOVED from the Tipesh­war Wildlife sanc­tu­ary to Pandharkawada, as a two-year-old. Of­fi­cials fear she might be teach­ing her ten-month-old cubs to hunt and this might make them less fear­ful of hu­mans too

PICS/SHADAB KHAN

Pravin Waghuji Raut, 12, and Ganesh Waghuji Raut, 14, the sons of Waghuji Raut at their home in Vi­hir­gaon. Waghuji had taken cat­tle to graze at 8 am on Au­gust 11. That evening when he didn’t re­turn, lo­cals launched a search and found his body a mere 200m from the vil­lage. T1 was spot­ted nearby. 170 Weight of the ti­gress in kg

PICS/SHADAB KHAN

Gu­lab Mokashe’s wife Shakun­tala at their home in Wed­shi vil­lage in Ya­vat­mal dis­trict. On Au­gust 5, the grazer’s body was found on the hills where he usu­ally took the cat­tle. It was T1’s first kill.

Pravin Waghuji Raut, 12, and Ganesh Waghuji Raut, 14, are the sons of Waghuji Raut, 60, T1’s sec­ond vic­tim in Au­gust from Vi­hir­gaon vil­lage. The only bread win­ner in their fam­ily is their mother Renuka, 39

The frag­mented for­est of Pandharkawada is near the Tipesh­war Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary from where it is be­lieved that T1 walked as a young two-year-old

GRAPHIC/UDAY MO­HITE

The for­est de­part­ment has now as­sem­bled a team of 60 that have set up base camp out­side the for­est from where they en­ter the for­est, set up cam­era traps and check for pug marks to find T1

Each morn­ing, Deputy Con­ser­va­tor of For­est MK Ab­harna dis­cusses the plan of ac­tion. Ev­ery team comes back to her with up­dates at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. “Around 6 am, the two ele­phants fol­lowed by our foot-pa­trolling team vis­its the for­est look­ing for pug­marks. The cam­era trap teams also check the cam­eras based on which we plan our day. The ex­pert team from MP, along with vets are al­ready there,” she says

Wed­shi’s sarpanch Ankush Munesh­war says the for­est de­part­ment should have acted sooner. The thick fo­liage in the for­est dur­ing the mon­soons has re­duced chances of tran­qulis­ing the ti­gress. Vis­i­bil­ity would have been much higher in the sum­mer

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