The striped mystery of Gujarat
Guest of Gujarat this tiger may be, but the buzz it has started attracting refuses to die down
Slinking away through the meandering riverbeds, deserted forest patches, hills, wetlands and occasional agriculture fields, not knowing where his next meal was coming from, the handsome king in exile must have covered close to 400 kilometers in a completely unchartered territory. What is amazing is that throughout the journey which continued for several weeks, he managed to remain unseen by humans.
And then, as abruptly and not unlike a sheepish school-boy who had exhausted his bag of tricks, he was spotted one morning by a bespectacled Government school teacher. That would have been quite a sight, both for the teacher and the tiger.
Since this chance encounter a few days ago, the tiger which entered Mahisagar district in eastern Gujarat- the first of its species to make this remarkable feat after nearly three decades- has been making head-lines all around. Technically, this makes Gujarat the first Indian state to hold three top cats: lion (its pride), leopard and now the tiger. But the excitement should not hold for long. As the state’s Chief Wildlife Warden Akshay Kumar Saxena chuckled, ``we are treating this tiger merely as our guest.’’
Guest of Gujarat this tiger may be, but the buzz it has started attracting refuses to die down. To top it all, it has arrived with a long trail of unanswered questions, some of which the Gujarat Forest Department has thrown at the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in New Delhi.
The NTCA has been trying to ascertain the tiger’s identity and whether it came from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan- the three states bordering Gujarat- but that may not be of real importance. It’s the whys, the hows and the whats which have the forest department of Gujarat perplexed- and even worried.
The tiger’s possible conflict with the humans which is giving goosebumps to the Gujarat forest department. Chief Wildlife Warden Saxena disclosed that they had started a massive awareness campaign in the region. ``We want no harm done either to the people or the tiger,’’ he stressed. Among the several dos and donts which the forest officials have been telling the residents of Mahisagar are to desist travelling by foot at night and remain extra-alert in case their cattle is attacked by an animal.
"Earlier,"’ explained Saxena, "There were incidents where villagers would successfully shoo away a leopard which attack their cattle. This strategy will not work against a tiger. Secondly, the region also has striped hyenas, and some people may confuse the tiger with it.’’
A dozen odd camera-traps placed in the area are also helping the forest department in tracking the tiger’s movement. But all this may end soon.
The fact remains that this could well be the end of the line for the Gujarat’s lone tiger, and soon it should turn back. Not all forests are a tiger’s ideal habitat- and Mahisagar is certainly not. The biggest problem in this dry-deciduous belt is conspicuous lack of prey base for the big cat. There are simply not enough deer, wild boars and other animals here to make the big cat stick around.
Some unconfirmed reports suggest the tiger started its journey many months ago, and many wonder why it was not spotted all this while. Well, it’s not all that difficult to comprehend. A tiger’s ability to move around unnoticed is common knowledge, and often a subject of many a campfire talks. Legendary conservationist and slayer of man-eating tigers and leopards in the hills of Uttarakhand, Jim Corbett described it several times. Here is a passage from his classic work Man-Eaters of Kumaon, "Minutes passed, each pulling my hopes down a little lower from the heights to which they had soured, and then, when tension on my nerves and the weight of my heavy rifle were becoming unbearable, I heard a stick snap at the upper end of the thicket. Here was an example of how a tiger can move through the jungle. From the sound she had made I knew her exact position, had kept my eyes fixed on the spot, and yet she had come, seen me, stayed some time watching me, and then gone away without my having seen a leaf or a blade of grass move."
That this tiger is a male, between six to eight years old, has been more or less established. But why did it leave its natural, life-sustaining habitat and undertook a journey on unseen and potentially dangerous paths, in a prey-less region dotted with hostile humans? Many among us would be scratching their heads in disbelief.
Now this could be an aberration, but certainly not a rarity. Soon after the turn of the century, Broken Tail- the popular tiger of Ranthambore- left his turf unannounced, walked more than 200 kilometers and reached Darra after crossing several highways and skirting through many dozen villages, only to be knocked down dead by a passing Rajdhani Express train. As recently as 2011, another tiger made a big splash when it arrived on the outskirts of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and started living in the sprawling campus of Central Institute For Sub-Tropical Horticulture at Rehman Kheda. Though tranquilised and shifted to Dudhwa Tiger Reserve a few months later, it goes to this tiger’s credit that it did not injure a single human being during its stay at Rehman Kheda.
Mahisagar area of Gujarat, incidentally, has had an interesting association with tigers. Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) of Gujarat, Chhavinath Pandey, recalls that till 1986-87, this region used to have five to six tigers. ``But since the terrain was not conducive to them in terms of prey base and forest cover, they did not make it their home,’’ he said.
A number of reasons can prompt a tiger to move out of its comfort zone and start looking for fresh hunting grounds. An old tiger often does that after losing a fight for territory with another tiger.
A mother seeking safety of her young is prone to do that. A young tiger seeking new territory would often venture out. Or it could even be a case of simple wanderlust. Who knows for sure? Tigers do not tell their stories; we only interpret theirs, and not always accurately.
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