THE TIGER CUBS OF PATAUR

A TRUE AND FIRST-HAND STORY ON HOW THREE MOTH­ER­LESS CUBS WERE SUC­CESS­FULLY TRAINED TO SUR­VIVE IN THE WILD

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

It was Au­gust 18, 2009. The rains had cast its green spell all around and the for­est was en­veloped with heavy and tall un­der­growth. The sleepy ham­let of Pataur shares its bound­aries with Band­hav­garh Tiger Re­serve.

The Pataur Ti­gress, with its three lac­tat­ing cubs and an in­creased and fre­quent diet re­quire­ment, had been un­able to grab a samb­har or a chi­tal kill as the heavy green cover had lim­ited her vis­i­bil­ity and stealth and had of­fered bet­ter food avail­abil­ity for her­bi­vores, so they were no more lo­cal­ized to the hunt­ing grounds of this ti­gress.

Hunger was mak­ing things un­bear­able for her as well as the cubs. On that day, the un­writ­ten pact of peace be­tween the hu­mans and the tiger broke down. As the night set in, this ti­gress, mother of three small cubs, ob­vi­ously driven by the need

to feed her fam­ily, en­tered the clos­est ham­let and killed a cow. The prey was too heavy to be dragged into the for­est and hav­ing given her­self a good meal for the night, she de­cided to come back for a sub­se­quent help­ing. Some vil­lagers of Pataur were quick to re­act. As gen­er­ally hap­pens across India, they laced the cow’s car­cass with poi­son and pa­tiently waited for her re­turn.

From that mo­ment on­wards ev­ery­thing went on as ex­pected. The ti­gress came to the kill late that night and took a few bites of the poi­soned meat. Be­fore she could re­al­ize, the pes­ti­cide started re­act­ing and she im­me­di­ately rushed in search of wa­ter, which she found some three kilo­me­ters away un­der a pu­lia. How­ever, it was too late by then. In the next 72 hours, in­ter­nal hem­or­rhage caused a painful death, un­der the same pu­lia.

A tragedy it was but a big­ger tragedy lay ahead. She had left be­hind three cubs. The four-month old cubs were en­tirely de­pen­dent on their mother for food and nour­ish­ment. They had not learnt any­thing about hunt­ing on their own and were cer­tainly doomed to per­ish in a few days. The cubs waited and waited for their mother to re­turn. This is when the for­est de­part­ment of Band­hav­garh stepped in.

Sev­eral pa­trolling par­ties were rushed to the re­gion and the cubs were fi­nally tracked down in the af­ter­noon of Au­gust 19. They were tran­quil­ized and shifted to an en­clo­sure in the Ma­gadhi zone of the tiger re­serve. It was the af­ter­noon of a busy day of Au­gust end when I got a call from the for­est de­part­ment giv­ing de­tails of the episode and ask­ing for my pos­si­ble

help, con­tri­bu­tion and guid­ance. Should they be sent to a zoo and im­pris­oned for the bal­ance of their life or should we try to give them a chance of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion in the for­est? Dis­cus­sions went on and on! CK Patil, the Field Direc­tor and HS Pabla, the Chief Wildlife War­den of MP, then em­barked on an un­char­tered and un­heard of course of ac­tion. They de­cided to teach the cubs the ways of the wild. But soon, the re­al­iza­tion dawned that it was eas­ier said than done. For one, it is the mother which im­parts train­ing to the cubs. Se­condly, there was no ref­er­ence ma­te­rial or sci­en­tific study to fall back upon be­cause this work was never un­der­taken be­fore on this planet by hu­mans.

This is when I chipped in. The for­est de­part­ment gra­ciously ac­cepted my re­quest to let me in­stall close cir­cuit CCTV cam­eras at the en­clo­sure. This was es­sen­tial to mon­i­tor the cubs move­ment as well as their in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ties. As the park ranger Lalit Pande re­marked to us, it was pri­mar­ily be­cause of the CCTV footage they re­ceived dur­ing next nine months and un­der­stand­ing of the chal­lenge and their be­hav­ior that the prospects of suc­cess started to emerge.

Although busy with my work sched­ule I made it a point to visit the en­clo­sure at least once ev­ery month mainly to mon­i­tor the sit­u­a­tion and to en­sure that the ex­per­i­ment was pro­ceed­ing in the right di­rec­tion. The cubs were very cau­tious and alert. They al­ways de­tected our pres­ence and would not ap­pear un­less we re­mained on the cam­ou­flaged machan we had con­structed over­look­ing the wa­ter pond in the en­clo­sure. Ajay Suri, Asif Khan and I, along with Patil Sa­heb, would hide our­selves in the machan for days to­gether. Ini­tially, say for the first four months, the cubs were fed on dead meat. They were also lov­ingly named by the staff as Raja, Rani and Ra­jku­mari. I must add here that for over a year, no tourist Gypsy was al­lowed near the en­clo­sure. This was im­por­tant, to prevent un­nec­es­sary hu­man im­print­ing on the cubs.

Grad­u­ally, live meat in the form of chicken, goats and piglets were pushed in­side the en­clo­sure. After a few hits and misses, the cubs started tack­ling the small game with ease. And they also started gain­ing mass, as well as de­vel­op­ing in­di­vid­ual streaks. The male, Raja, turned out to be the bold­est of the three, while the two fe­males pre­ferred to take the back seat.

The first big kill, of a padda (a young buf­falo), was wit­nessed by us through CCTV with lot of in­trigue and chal­lenges. As the cubs, now eleven. months old, came closer to the padda, it charged back on them. The sub­se­quent two days, CCTV footage showed the padda be­came the hero in the en­clo­sure mak­ing sub adult tigers run for their lives and it did not al­low the tigers to sleep. This com­pe­ti­tion to sur­vive the hunger lasted till the fac­ul­ties of the padda gave way and the tigers, by then over­whelmed with hunger, had learnt how to work with a col­lec­tive strat­egy and strength.

The padda was fi­nally pulled down by Raja and Rani at­tack­ing to­gether first, while Ra­jku­mari joined the fight, third. By now, the cubs had grown to 15 months and the en­clo­sure height be­came ac­ces­si­ble as we re­al­ized one night. Ra­jku­mari ven­tured out of the en­clo­sure jump­ing over the link chain fence. Our CCTV mon­i­tor was about 200 yards away from the en­clo­sure in the for­est chowki at Ma­gadhi.

Luck­ily the care­tak­ing for­est guard saw her jump­ing out­side the en­clo­sure on CCTV and promptly in­formed the au­thor­i­ties. We too were in­formed and asked to join in the op­er­a­tion to put her back in the en­clo­sure. We were able to col­lect some 20-25 per­sons and gave them all lathis, cans and drums to make noise for a haka party so that the ti­gress could be driven back into the en­clo­sure. The pos­si­ble even­tu­al­i­ties and cau­tion were dis­cussed through train­ing and in­struc­tions passed on in the train­ing ses­sion. Ev­ery­one looked up­beat and coura­geous enough to han­dle in case the ti­gress charged.

The haka started and the ti­gress also

started to en­cir­cle the fence look­ing for any en­try that could send her in. Asif and I were on our makeshift machan some eight feet above the ground and highly up­beat with the video that was be­ing shot.

Sud­denly all hell broke loose, as the ti­gress charged on the haka party. So strong was the roar and charge that ev­ery­one ran hel­ter skel­ter for their dear lives. The lessons of brav­ery and col­lec­tive ac­tion all went for a six. No one was vis­i­ble as ev­ery­one took shel­ter, be it in the ve­hi­cle parked or the clos­est tree.

My heart was beat­ing at a su­per speed with the thought that it was my turn now as for the first time I re­al­ized that a height of eight feet would not guar­an­tee my life from a ma­raud­ing tiger which had al­ready jumped across over the seven-feet fence.

Well, it was too late to think and eval­u­ate. We were within reach of the ti­gress in rage and aban­doned our cam­eras for go­ing into a silent cam­ou­flaged hud­dle over the machan. When the charge had stopped for well over 15 min­utes and ev­ery­one had started com­mu­ni­cat­ing from their safe set­tings, I lifted my head to see where the ti­gress was... and I saw her in­side the en­clo­sure with her brother and sis­ter.

As we were the only ones over­look­ing the en­clo­sure, I took courage to in­form Patil Sa­heb who promptly acted by tak­ing the Gypsy and the guards to close the en­clo­sure gate. After about 18 months, the male was shifted to an­other en­clo­sure nearby (to prevent any chance of in­breed­ing). By now, the three could eas­ily kill any spot­ted deer put in their en­clo­sure.

Fi­nally, by the end of 2010, it had be­come crys­tal clear that the tigers learnt all those tricks which their mother would have taught them. But the big ques­tion re­mained unan­swered: Would they be able to sur­vive in the wild? Un­for­tu­nately, in 2011, as one of the ti­gress’ died due to some mys­te­ri­ous sick­ness, the for­est au­thor­i­ties planned to re­lease the other two, soon, prob­a­bly in Panna or some other for­est re­serve of Mad­hya Pradesh.

And fi­nally, in 2014 one of the sub adult ti­gress’ was re­leased in the forests of Band­hav­garh and the sub adult tiger was sent to the jun­gles of Sat­pura and were do­ing fine in their re­spec­tive for­est ter­ri­to­ries, roar­ing free in wilder­ness.

(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).

The Spot where the Pataur Ti­gress’ died

The cubs learn­ing to hunt goats

The en­clo­sure where the tiger cubs got their train­ing

The three cubs are now sub-adults

The au­thor, ac­com­pa­ny­ing the for­est staff with the dead chi­tal kill

Ra­jku­mari charg­ing at the for­est guards

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