CATCHING A Royal Bengal tiger is tough. Catching an intelligent tigress “addicted” to livestock is tougher, forest officials and veterinarians in Assam are finding out.
F03, the female tigress that strayed out of the 78.81 sq km Orang National Park in November 2017, has given her potential capturers armed with tranquilliser guns the slip at least a dozen times since. Officials said she could even be out-thinking their moves.
Nothing that the officials have tried – from building an isolated cattle shed with live food inside to using baits in a camouflaged cage – has worked so far. To make things worse, one of the veterinarians on the job fractured his leg on Sunday morning after falling from the back of an elephant startled by the presence of the tigress nearby.
As the patience of people in seven villages covering a 6 sq km area wears thin, wildlife experts fear the tigress could be too smart for her own safety.
“A tiger that took the same route as the tigress to prey on livestock of farmers last year, was poisoned. We need to do something fast for the safety of the tigress as well as the villagers, but she seems to be always a step ahead of us,” Orang’s divisional forest officer Ramesh Gogoi said.
F03 is one of 24 striped cats estimated in Orang National Park after a tiger census in 2017. She followed the Dhansiri River that flows down from Bhutan through Udalguri district before entering Orang on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra.
Park officials said she has made a cluster of villages 3 km upstream of National Highway 52 on the northern edge of Orang her hunting ground.
“Tigers are territorial animals and there is a possibility F03 lost her space in Orang to a stronger tiger or tigress. For a park that has the highest density of tigers in the country, space is hard to come by. This could be a reason why she has ventured out for easier kills,” Mr. Gogoi said.
The tigress made her first kill – a pig – in Udalguri’s Borobazar village on November 11. From the last camera-trap images, wildlife officials suspected it to be female feline number 03.
“We put up cameras along the route the tigress kept using. Image from one of the cameras last Friday night confirmed the tigress to be F03. She was captured from near where a pig was tied as a bait not far from one of three machans (treetop platform to keep a watch on animals below) in her prowling area. But she avoided the pig, travelled 2km to a village beyond the Dhansiri river to eat another pig,” the Assam Forest Department’s Dhansiri division DFO Madhurjya K. Sarma said.
The pig was the tigress’s 42nd kill comprising domesticated pigs, goats, cows and buffaloes belonging to Garo and Bodo tribal people. “We are interacting regularly with the villagers who have shown remarkable restraint so far,” Mr. Sarma said.
Tigers in the wild hunt during the day. But F03, officials said, has taken a nocturnal turn preferring to prey on animals when the villagers are asleep.
A team of about 25 people and two elephants – Chandra Bahadur and Arjun – from Orang have been following F03’s trail. The tigress’s movement has been monitored on the ground and from atop the three machans places strategically.
“F03 is operating from a safe haven in an expansive grassland and oak plantation on the western bank of the Dhansiri river. The grasses are taller than the elephants, and since tigers can leap as high or more than the height of an adult elephant, it is risky to venture too deep into its domain,” Mr. Sarma said.
The two elephants are used to smells of tigers in the wild. But there’s something about F03 that is holding them back during the latest operation to capture her. The operation started on August 28, a day after the arrival of two veterinarians, Bhaskar Choudhury from Wildlife Trust of India and Samsul Ali from Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation at Kaziranga.
Dr. Ali fell from the back of Arjun about 6 am on Sunday. “Arjun, the elephant, got scared by the scent of fresh excreta of the tigress and the screaming of the pig tied as bait nearby. He stood up as Dr. Ali had mounted, and the accident happened,” Mr. Sarma said.
Dr. Ali was taken to the civil hospital at Darrang district headquarters Mangaldoi, where an X-ray was done. But doctors there said his fracture below the knee was beyond them. He was taken to a private hospital near Guwahati.
“Mosquitoes and bugs are making it difficult to keep watch at night. But this is a job that needs to be done. Hopefully, we will be able to tranquillise her soon and take her back to where she belongs,” Mr. Sarma said.
But, Orang officials said, that could be easier said than done. “She has gotten used to easy kills. She does not need much effort for food, unlike in the wild. There is no guarantee that she, after being brought back to the park, won’t venture out again,” Mr. Gogoi said.
That’s a call senior wildlife officials would be taking when they meet at Orang soon.
(A truncated version appeared in The Hindu on September 3, 2018)