“Disha, tiger saamne baitha hai!”
Not sure I heard Nikhil correctly, I was still taking a step ahead. Nikhil slowly raised his hand and his volume a notch.
“Disha, the tiger is sitting right in front of us!!!”
This time the urgency was more audible in his calm voice – and, and my eyes met those of the tiger. Crouching low barely 10 meters away its eyes were just about visible amongst the forest undergrowth. We beat a hasty yet calm retreat. Nikhil, our field biologist, had the presence of mind to collect the memory card from the camera trap, which we had installed on the tiger’s kill the previous day. We had to be sure of the identity of the tiger we had come to rescue.
The tiger in question was a young male whose video had gone viral when he invited himself to a wedding in Madhya Pradesh. Unfortunately for the tiger, the hosts and their family and friends weren’t too pleased, and he had to leave without being able to wish the groom and his new bride. He couldn’t even make it as far as the buffet table! He then found his way to a village called Sitasaongi in Bhandara Division of Maharashtra. Here he sauntered along the railway tracks that passed through the village until an enthusiastic mob shooed him away. He then stuck around in a patch of heavy vegetation growth adjoining the village.
We wondered if there may be either physical or physiological changes in the animal that may be resulting in the nonchalance around human presence, and with concerns of human safety being paramount, the tiger needed to be examined from close quarters. The Rapid Response Team (RRT) of Bramhapuri and Gondia responded swiftly on the request of DCF Vivek Hoshing of Bhandara Division.
The first day was well spent in gathering information on the movement of the tiger as well as assessing the terrain, which I could see wasn’t going to work in our favour.
Late in the afternoon, we got information that two women of Sitasaongi had sighted a tiger. We hurried to the spot and cautiously approached the area of the sighting. Fresh pugmarks confirmed that a tiger had indeed been there recently. The teams in the field fanned out to scout for signs of tiger movement. Mr Shahid Khan of Save Environment And Tiger (SEAT) and the Primary Response Team (PRT) they had constituted and trained to handle exactly such situations, also pitched in their support. Mr Khan, along with eight forest guards managed to locate a fresh kill made by a tiger, and despite dusk setting in led Nikhil and me to the spot of the kill so we could install a camera trap to establish the identity of the tiger, should it come back to the kill.
On the morning of 22nd December, we faced the tiger! Which was further confirmed on checking the memory card we were able to steal from the camera trap, literally from under the nose of the tiger!
Having confirmed this was indeed the male we had come to rescue, plans were evaluated and set into place. We had the ground support from the Special Tiger Protection Force (STPF) from Navegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve along with the staff of the Forest Department. Two brave personnel from the STPF had climbed up a tree when we had spotted the tiger, so they could keep an eye on its movements while we came out to gather our plans and tranquillizing paraphernalia.
15 minutes later – “Madam we wish you had been on the tree with us! The tiger just came and walked around our tree! You must come!” came a phone call from the STPF personnel on the tree. Common sense and experience with tranquilising told me it wouldn’t be as simple as climbing up a tree and taking aim. The foliage would swallow or deflect the dart long before it finds its aim. I figured even if I couldn’t take aim, at least I would get a birds-eye view of the terrain and be able to plan the rescue better. Back into the forest and up I went the tree replacing one of the men. Nearly 25ft off the ground, I spotted the stripes. Hidden under thick Lantana, the tiger felt fairly secure. There was no way I could dart from here; this much was confirmed. Thankfully the Forest Department had in the meantime arranged for an excavator we had requested for. Giving us the height and sense of security on the large vehicle we approached the tiger. Standing in the bucket of the excavator’s arm, I had the immediate support of Nikhil, Mr Khan and ACF Khodape of Bhandara Division.
It was my second dart that found the perfect aim. There was roughly a 1x1ft opening in the thicket. Through the scope of the gun, only I could see the many reasons that could still deflect my dart while everyone wondered why I wasn’t taking the shot. And then there was the same calm voice of Nikhil’s in my ear, “ Take the shot only when YOU are ready. Just give me a sign”. That very moment the tiger gave me a sign – sitting up straighter than before, its shoulder clearly showing through the clearing. The dart hit bulls-eye.
Forty minutes later I was hand-in-paw with the tiger – of course now under complete sedation. I took my own sweet time to get acquainted with him; he did after all want to make friends remember?! A beautiful tiger, but the wart-like growth on his snout concerned me as much as his strange lack of fear of humans. Could they somehow be linked?
Once transferred into his large enclosure at the rescue facility, he found a corner to settle into. With metal bars between us, I went to bid adieu to my new friend. I looked right into the eyes of the tiger and silently wished him a long and healthy life with a promise to see him again. He looked right back at me, holding my gaze for what seemed like an eternity to me and then gently blinked as though understanding that I truly meant him well, even though we didn’t speak the same tongue.