Saturday, 30 October 2010
Here are some of them,
A pug-mark – fresh -we were told. From the size, one could make out that it was a large male. Tigers have soft paws. So they prefer to walk on the road whenever possible. We drove down to the nearest watch tower and heard then the ‘good news’. A large male tiger had been sighted. Elephants from the forest department had tracked him down. In a situation like this, one or two elephants stand at a distance to keep the tiger in one place. Visitors are taken close to the cat on another elephant. We were lucky to be the first to reach the tiger on an elephant.
And there it was! A huge, majestic tiger, curiously looking at us from a distance of less than 20 feet. Later on, we were told that he has been the dominant male of that territory for the past three years. He is referred to as “62” by locals as he has a design similar to “6” above his right eyebrow and “2” above the left.
Later on, we were told that he has been the dominant male of that territory for the past three years. He is referred to as “62” by locals as he has a design similar to “6” above his right eyebrow and “2” above the left.
Last tiger - Photographed by Wildlife Institute of India during Jan-2009
The latest tragedy from Ranthambore, the death of a three-and-a-half-year-old male tiger, did not make big headlines. After all, the death was the result of infighting: male tigers often engage in mortal territorial battles. So the forest department decreed that the T36 male died a natural death.
Or did he?
The story goes back roughly two years. In September 2008, Ranthambore’s famed Guda tigress died of suspected poisoning, leaving two sub-adult cubs. The forest department dragged its feet over investigating the poisoning, but helped the cubs promptly, then about 16 months old. Since then, T36 male and his sister T37 have been enjoying routine baits handed out by well-meaning officials.
Raised on calves left for them, the brother-sister duo possibly lost or did not get to acquire the skills needed to survive in the wild on their own. The sister has a better chance, since females seldom face deadly challenges from other females. The brother’s luck ran out when he walked into a probing male last week. The adversary was just three years old. The natural advantage should have been with T36. But it was an unequal battle between a raised tiger and a wild one.
Once orphaned, 16-month-old T36 would have died of starvation. Or perhaps necessity would have made a wild tiger out of him. But by offering him baits, forest officials made his end an inevitability. Poor T36 was dead the day his ‘petting’ began in the wild.
For generations inspired by the 1966 blockbuster based on Joy Adamson’s Born Free, the idea of ‘nursing’ wild animals, particularly big cats, in distress and ‘restoring’ them to the wild is still one of the loftiest goals of conservation.
So, across the country, old and injured tigers are being baited and treated, orphaned cubs are being brought up in ‘natural enclosures’ in different reserves. Not to mention the smug celebrations every time a man-eater is packed off to some zoo, instead of being shot dead.
But animal welfare is an ethical and not ecological concern. At best, these efforts have no bearing on wildlife conservation. At worst, they defeat its purpose.
In nature, the weak and the injured must perish so that the fittest may flourish. An aged tiger will die of starvation or at the claws of a young adversary. The reign of Charger, revered as the mightiest ever of all Bandhavgarh tigers, ended in a deadly fight with one of his grandsons in 2000. The forest staff tried to feed and treat the mauled, half-blind oldie in an enclosure, but Charger never recovered and died after a couple of months.
Had Charger survived thanks to human benevolence, his young grandson (B2) would have had to get into another fight to kill him, thereby inviting fresh injuries to himself and possibly jeopardising his own future as a dominant male.
Yet, we love to treat the wild like pets. The doomed T36 male was not the only victim in Ranthambore. Another brother-sister duo, orphaned when tigress Berdha died in April 2009, have been routinely fed by park officials since. This July, Simba, the three-year-old brother, seriously injured himself attempting a wild hunt. He was spotted in sorry shape during the monsoon, still suffering from deep wounds caused by porcupine quills. His fate remains uncertain.
Our heart bleeds for the young and old alike. Machli, the grand old matriarch of Ranthambore, has long lost her canines and cannot hunt anymore. So she is being fed with much fanfare. The park officials are also baiting her contemporary T2, a really aged male. In the same reserve, a young injured male (T24) was operated upon in April last year. It is another matter that Ranthambore’s tiger population shows a skewed sex ratio, with far too many males, and nature must eliminate a few to restore balance.
This August, over-protection led to the killing of three cubs from the first litter born since the high-profile experiment to re-populate Panna took off last year. An official report admits that while the father tried to approach the mother and cubs soon after they were born, the monitoring staff ‘did not allow such meetings’, essential for natural familiarisation through odour identification, etcetera.
Repeated fights broke out between the tiger and tigress when they were finally allowed to meet after four months. The father could not identify the cubs as his own, in all likelihood, and tried to kill them so that he could mate with the tigress again. Like any tigress, the mother resolutely defended her cubs, at the risk of injuries to herself, but could not save all of them. Conservationist Valmik Thapar recalls several instances of male tigers helping tigresses bring up cubs by sharing kills and so on. It is only when a father is ousted by another male that infanticide takes place, with the new male trying to kill his predecessor’s cubs—partly to establish his own bloodline and partly to free the tigress that refuses to mate while bringing up cubs. Since the father in question is the only male tiger now in Panna, Thapar finds it inexplicable why the authorities invited trouble by denying him access to his own cubs.
In neighbouring Bandhavgarh, another welfare drama is being played out in the wild. When the Jhurjhura tigress was killed in a shocking road accident this May, the future of her three small cubs in the wild was sealed. Soon enough, one of the cubs was killed by a male. Still, the other two cubs are being raised in an enclosure at the heart of the reserve, affecting natural use of the habitat.
In Bandhavgarh again, an injured Sidhbaba female has been struggling to raise her two cubs. Given her limp, she rarely hunts wild prey, making do with occasional village cattle. Whenever she fails to make a kill, officials offer baits to keep the family alive.
The obvious downside is that Sidhbaba’s cubs are learning the tricks of the trade from their mother who only hunts cattle. The family might have died without regular feeds, but in the present scenario, the department, in effect, is raising the cubs to be cattle-lifters who will eventually run into major conflict with villagers, perhaps leading to their death or captivity.
Not too far, in Maharashtra’s Bor sanctuary, three orphaned Tadoba cubs are being hand-raised in an enclosure, and local NGOs want them released. Even if the three survive in the wild, it is sure to result in conflict.
Sceptics will remember how Billy Arjan Singh’s controversial experiment with hand-raised big cats led to conflict and the poisoning of two female leopards he named Harriet and Juliette.
Wildlife biologist Dr Dharmendra Khandal offers a recent example. Last year, when a hand-raised leopard, Lakshmi, was released on the outskirts of Ranthambore, the people-friendly cat ran after local villagers, spreading panic. Lakshmi is now confined to an enclosure deep inside the reserve, much to the annoyance of the wild cats of the area.
Evidently, we love to play God, but to what end? Hand-raised cubs, for instance, have rarely succeeded in the wild. They lack hunting skills and fail to defend themselves. Also, bereft of any fear of humans, they tend to get into conflict all too often.
Captive females do stand a chance, since wild males accept them as mating partners. For a hand-raised lioness, such acceptance even compensates for her lack of hunting skills as she gets to feed with the pride. After rehabilitating Elsa the lioness, Adamson successfully
returned two more hand-raised cats to the wild. It’s no coincidence that Pippa the cheetah and Penny the leopard were also females.
In India, Billy Arjan Singh experimented with four hand-raised cats. Tigress Tara and leopardesses Harriet and Juliette had cubs in the wild, but the whereabouts of Prince, the male leopard, remained uncertain. More recently, in 1999, Gajendra Singh released two leopards near Bandipur. While the male was killed soon after, the female survived.
Male cubs or hand-raised male adults cannot survive challenges from other males. When Raja and Rani were orphaned after tigress Begum was poisoned in Palamau in the early 1990s, they were both about six months old. To bring up her cubs, Begum had moved to a 29 sq km forest compartment that was separated from the rest of the reserve by a railway track. After she was gone, the forest staff occasionally assisted the cubs with live baits, but never tried to handle them. However, it was the railway track that saved Raja from Palamau’s other males.
Almost a decade ago, an orphaned brother-sister pair of cubs was helped by live baiting in Ranthambore. The presence of the tiger that fathered them probably helped their survival.
But few are as lucky. The small cubs of the Jhurjhura tigress, the orphaned Bor cubs, the hand-raised Lakshmi of Ranthambore—none of them have a future outside captivity. But instead of taking them to zoos, to quote wildlife photographer Aditya Singh, we are deluding ourselves by bringing zoos to the forests.
This blinkered welfare motive works everywhere. For example, sending a ‘man-eater’ to a zoo does save its life, but, in terms of wildlife conservation, the effort is no better than shooting the animal dead. In both cases, the result is one animal less in the wild.
Our excitement about saving ‘man-eaters’ distracts us from the real problems—absence of buffer forests, faulty land use around forests, and so on—that push predators to chance encounters with people, thus creating ‘man-eaters’ in the first place. If these primary causes are not addressed and if we do not learn to differentiate between accidental and deliberate attacks, we may soon be left with empty forests, once we have happily ‘rescued’ all tigers by whisking away these ‘man-eaters’ to zoos.
It will certainly not harm the wild if we care a little less. Less enough to stop meddling—like those who proudly treated, in a rescue centre, a two-month-old rhino calf that was attacked by a Kaziranga tiger in 2007. Touching, but that left a captive baby, its estranged mother and a hungry predator. I do not know which one deserves our apology most.
Sunday, 24 October 2010
Shantha Thiagarajan, TNN, Oct 24, 2010, 06.42am IST
UDHAGAMANDALAM: Over 100 tigers have been spotted in the three Tigers reserves of Kalakkad Mundanthurai in Tirunelveli district, Anamalai in Coimbatore district and Mudumalai in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu forest minister, N Selvaraj said on Saturday. While their numbers were dwindling nationwide, the big cats are thriving in Tamil Nadu, according to Selvaraj.
In a recent survey, 46 tigers have been sighted directly in Sathyamangalam forest area, Selvaraj said. According to a 2007 survey, the population of tigers in Tamil Nadu was between 62 and 76. Stating that the reason for their growing numbers is the healthy prey base, the forest minister said, "I happened to see a lot of bison and several herds of spotted deer in the Mudumalai reserve and its surroundings". Also, poaching activities are completely under control, he added.
Asked about the long-pending proposal for merging the Sigur reserve forest area with the adjacent Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Nilgiris, he said, "The proposal is under consideration." Many wild animals including tigers are being sighted in the Sigur forests. Recently, Union forest and environment minister Jairam Ramesh had written to the Tamil Nadu government urging it to declare the Sigur forest as a tiger reserve. The proposal for merging the reserve forest with the Mudumalai tiger reserve is pending with the government.
On several illegal resorts operating in the hill district in identified elephant corridors in the Sigur Plateau, Selvaraj said cases in this regard were pending in the courts. However, no fresh construction would be allowed in these areas, he said, adding that protecting wildlife would be the first consideration in any kind of development projects in the hill district, including laying of new roads. The penalty fee against cutting trees illegally in private lands, presently a very nominal amount, would be revised soon, said the minister.
The forest department will ensure there are no encroachments on the traditional elephant paths in the forests. The elephants move in herds and on a particular trajectory. When this is disturbed they stray into unknown zones and end up entering human habitats, affecting residents, he said. To a question regarding monitoring of the neutrino project to be set up in Theni, the minister said, "Once the project is set up, arrangements will be made to monitor the project".
Wednesday, 20 October 2010
The story of Machli, the world’s most famous tigress, is nearing an end. A tribute
There is an old jungle saying in these parts. Of a tigress who stalks. Of a tigress who rules Ranthambore. Of a tigress whose majesty is assured as much by the gaze of millions she arrests with the distinctive ‘fish’ mask outlining her eyes, as the YouTube clips of her legendary exploits: her jaws choking a 14-foot crocodile lifeless here, her snarl warding off a predatory male in defence of her cubs there. The survival of the tigress, goes the old jungle saying, is the survival of the tiger.
That’s perhaps why the Machli we know, a 14-year-old marked officially as T-16 at Ranthambore National Park, is actually the daughter of the original tigress by that name. But that little detail doesn’t matter. The legend of Machli as the world’s most photographed cat with stripes, as she’s regarded, has survived a generation, and there are many who wish it would last another. After all, the tiger’s survival is a cause dear to us all.
WILD IN RHYTHM
Machli’s Facebook page does not have 150,000 fans for nothing. She is the world’s oldest documented tiger alive. Hundreds of photographers attest to her fame, helped along in no small measure by the picturesque setting against which she has spent a life being captured on film, the deceptive serenity of the lake territory along an Aravali ridge crowned by the imposing ramparts of the Ranthambore Fort.
Says Fateh Singh Rathore, a conservationist who has spent 50 years in Ranthambore and gave Machli her name: “She has made Ranthambore perhaps the greatest place on earth to view the tiger because of its terrain of grassland and lakes.” The terrain offers very little cover from prying onlookers, and Machli’s lack of camera shyness has given dozens the thrill of watching a big cat hunt in broad daylight. “She is totally oblivious of humans in a jeep,” says Rathore, “often even using the vehicle as a shield, moving alongside it before breaking into attack-mode and killing prey.”
It’s a rarity that has given Machli the honour of starring in three documentary films, the latest being S Nallamuthu’s Tiger Queen, not to mention a ‘lifetime achievement award’ bestowed upon her by Travel Operators for Tigers (Toft), a UK-based travel industry lobby that estimates that she alone has added $10 million over the past decade to Ranthambore’s local economy because of the popular draw she is. If it’s a pity she did an Aamir Khan at the award ceremony, a bigger pity than her no-show is her no-share in the cash coming the park’s way. “Machli is a living legend. She has proven beyond doubt her worth both to her kith and kin, but also her economic worth to India,” says Julian Matthews of Toft, hopeful that the $10 million figure will make beancounters take a good look at the value of Indian wildlife.
The value of Machli’s own life, however, is something only her fans can fully appreciate. For they know that she may not have much time left. She has wowed millions with her agility, her grace, her art of the ambush… and her ageing presence by a lakeside forest post, picking up the occasional bait left tied up for her by the forest department, is a heart rending sight. She has barely half a canine left today, and her growl does not reach very far.
NO FEARS, NO TEARS
It wasn’t always like this. Ask anyone who has seen Machli in the prime of her hunting youth. At the heart of any good kill is an ambush achieved through a series of cunning concealments. And Machli knew the topography of the lakeside area like the marks of her pug. From the moment she lowered herself to a crouch, shoulders hunched, white ear tips pricked to attention, the end of her tail twitching ever so slightly, to the slow tension of the stealthy stalk and sudden ontransformation into a blur of an attack, it was hypnotic to watch. The poor deer or rabbit would be an inevitable fluffy mass with a red trickle.
“This is a remarkable cat,” says Aditya Singh, a noted wildlife photographer who has been on Machli’s trail since she was a cub, “Bear in mind that over the last three years, she has lost most of her canines, and yet not only has she managed to hunt beautifully, she also brought up her last litter without a problem.”
By way of example, Singh narrates the tale of a sambar deer hunt just last spring. It happened in Bhoot Khurra, a glen in the heart of the park. Two days later, T 28, a ‘star’ male tiger, tried to snatch away Machli’s kill—and she fought back with a ferocity that stunned him. “This was the evening of 1 April 2009. We were fortunate to be in the right place when the fight happened. The star male, though just a year ago would not have had a chance against her, is young and at his peak. But Machli held her ground. It is almost impossible for an old female to defend her kill from a young male. Yet, she has done it time and again.”
The tigress’ most spectacular fury, however, has been directed at lakeside crocodiles. “She has killed at least eight crocs,” says Salim Ali, an award-winning forest guide at Ranthambore who has perhaps seen more Machli kills than any man alive, “She attacks the big crocs by getting astride them, and while they too put up a vicious fight, the outcome is always the same—a ripped throat and a dead croc.” In his book, there is no better evidence of her “supreme lack of fear and absolute domination of the forest”.
THE FIRST FAMILY
The tigress’ most amazing show of grace has always been in defence of her cubs. She has had several litters, and almost all have survived to adulthood, thanks to her maternal instincts. Two of her female cubs have recently been transferred to Sariska Tiger Reserve, ensuring a dynastic legacy beyond Ranthambore.
But then, there is little to say that the dynasty’s future is assured. The jungle, alas, is a cruel place. Human tolerance is often scarce even in a wildlife sanctuary. Earlier this year, two male tigers were poisoned by villagers in retaliation for cattle theft, as they saw it. Such capital punishment is a shock to wildlife lovers. But to people in Bodal village on the park’s periphery, it’s economics. “Goat meat sells for Rs 220 per kg,” says village elder Phukrajji, looking splendid in a colourful Rajasthani turban amidst his cattle, “We get only Rs 300 per goat killed by a tiger or leopard, and that too only after we get a forensic examination to prove that a wild animal lifted our cattle.” A good tiger, evaluated thus, is a dead tiger.
The jungle is a cruel place as a natural habitat too. Machli can sense that her days are drawing to an end. Many years ago, it was she who had bared her fangs to oust her mother, the original Machli, from her 40 sq km domain around the fort and lakes. It was she who had had the privilege of a long 11-year reign since; anything that moved—wild boar, sambar, chital deer, crocodiles or even porcupines— was hers and her cubs’ to feast on.
Not long ago, the ageing Machli had to face the inevitable. Her own ouster. Perhaps it’s in the natural order of things, or even an endorsement of the old jungle saying about the tigress who stalks, that she has been dethroned by her very own daughter, Satara.
It started as a territorial skirmish, but an overpowered Machli found herself banished to the far side—a patch that’s barely a fourth of the domain that was once hers. There are no frolicking cubs here for Machli to watch out for. There is not much to hunt. Starvation is not far.
One of these days, Ranthambore will break into a chilling cacophony of langoor shrieks and sambar calls. It would be the sound of fear; Machli would’ve been correctly identified, but this time, it would be a false alarm.