The Tiger School By Navin M Raheja

Wednesday 1st January 2014

 It was August 18, 2009. The rain had cast its green spell all around and the forest was enveloped with heavy and tall undergrowth.
With its three lactating cubs, she had an increased and frequent diet requirement. The Pataur Tigress 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
and they were no more localised to the hunting grounds of this tigress. Hunger was making things unbearable for her and 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 and obviously driven by the need to feed her family, entered the closest hamlet and killed a cow. The sleepy hamlet of Pataur shares its boundaries with
Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve.The prey was heavy to be dragged inside 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
patiently waited for her return.

Everything went on expected lines from that moment onwards. The tigress came to the kill late that night and took a few bites of the poisoned meat.
Before she could realise, the pesticide started acting and she immediately rushed in search of water, which she found some three kilometres away under
a pulia (bridge).However, it was too late by then.Within 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 waitedand waited for their mother to return.This is when the forest department ofBandhavgarh stepped in. Several patrolling parties were rushed in the region and the cubs were finally tracked down in the afternoon of August 19.They were tranquilised 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 the zoo and imprisoned for the balance 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 uncharted and unheard of course of action. They
decided to teach the cubs the ways of the wild. But soon, the realisation 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 the planet by humans.   

Thisis 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 over the next nine months and understanding of the challenge and their behaviour that the
prospects of success started to emerge.        

Although busy with my schedule as the Managing Director of Raheja Developers, 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 in the camouflaged machan (scaffold) we had constructed
overlooking the water pond in the enclosure. Ajay Suri, Asif Khan and I along with Patil Saheb hid 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.

Thefirst big kill, of a padda, was witnessed by us through CCTV with lot of intrigue and challenges. As the cubs, now 11 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 lasted for two days when the faculties of the padda gave away
and the tigers, by then overwhelmed with hunger, had learnt on 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 later.

By now, the cubs had grown to 15 months and the enclosure height became accessible as we realised 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 people and gave them all lathis,cans and drums to make noise for a haka party so that the tigress could be
driven back in the enclosure. The possible eventualities and caution was discussed through training and instructions passed on in the training
session. Everyone looked upbeat and courageous enough to handle in case the tigress charged.

Thehaka started and the tigress also started to encircle fence looking for any entry. Asif and I were on our makeshift machan some
eight inches above the ground and highly upbeat of the video that was being shot.

And suddenly hell broke out, the tigress charged on the haka party. So strong was the roar and charge that every braveheart ran helter-skelter for
his dear life. The lessons of bravery and collective action went to smoke for a moment. No one was visible as everyone took shelter, be it the
vehicle parked or the closest tree. I thought it was my turn now as for the first time I realised that a height of eight inches would not
guarantee my life from a marauding tiger which had already jumped across over the seven inch 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 huddle
over the machan. The charge had stopped for well over 15 minutes and everyone had started communicating from their safe settings, when 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 one’s overlooking
the enclosure, I took courage to inform this to Patil Saheb who promptly acted by taking the guards to close the enclosure gate.

After about 18 months, the male was shifted to another enclosure nearby (to prevent any chance of in-breeding). By now, the three could
easily kill any spotted deer put in their enclosure. Finally, they had learnt how to hunt! By the end of 2010, it became 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, one of the tigress’ died. And the forest authorities have planned to release the two soon, probably in
Panna or some other forest reserve of Madhya Pradesh.

AsI am concluding this story waiting to board the aircraft, I called Vinay Varman, the Field Director of Bandhavgarh, and as per him both the
cubs are doing fine under his personal care and supervision. Their early release in the wild will give birth to a new generation as also they will be
roaring free in some part of the planet.

So this is how I put in my two cents, for the sake of an animal which has held me under its spell bound for the better part of my life.



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