In two photos of the same tiger, encouragement to carry on in India

Two photos, one tiger. Left picture taken Feb. 2011, picture on right – with no collar – taken Dec. 2012 © Field Director/Manas TRI believe in looking beyond the tiger.

Still, I cannot deny, seeing one in the wild can be an overwhelming experience. Seeing the same animal again a year later, can be exhilarating. But what if the tiger was found, not in the forest, but in a town, and was rescued by your team - saved from death or a life in captivity, and released into the wild?

It is one of those rare times, when I find it difficult to put my excitement in words.

The tiger that I speak of is one of those fortunate ones to have survived a stint in human-dominated areas in India. What makes this case particularly special is that it was not declared a man-killer, despite three encounters with people that left two dead.

And even more, because the public did not oppose this.

They would obviously have been relieved that the tiger was not in their midst anymore but did not mind that the tiger would be free again. 

This tiger was found in a town called Geleki in the northeast Indian state of Assam in March 2010. No one was sure where it had come from, but here it remained for more than a week.

The Assam Forest Department assisted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare – Wildlife Trust of India (IFAW-WTI) team from our Wildlife Rescue Centre near Kaziranga National Park, captured the tiger alive.

In cases of human-tiger conflicts in India, ‘capture’ is generally the beginning and not the end of the story.

With tiger population estimated to less than 2000 in the country, we cannot afford to be losing individuals to captivity unnecessarily. But then, we cannot also afford to risk human lives, by hastily releasing a ‘potential-trouble’ individual, losing crucial public support for the entire species.

It’s a predicament that requires careful consideration of possibilities, based on clear understanding of the animal’s behavior.

It may even require taking unpopular decisions for the best solution.

Fate favoured life for this tiger.

The attacks on people were found to be purely accidental, and the authorities took a decision to release it in the wild.

Greater Manas in Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District (Assam), was chosen as the release site. Hosting the UNESCO World Heritage Site (at the time, described as ‘in danger’ of losing this designation) – Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Greater Manas had suffered huge losses in natural heritage during decades of civil conflict before the early 2000s.

It was its fate that this tiger was supposed to contribute to our efforts to ‘Bring Manas Back’ to its former glory.

After orphaned and hand-raised rhinos that were released here kickstarting the species reintroduction in 2006, the hand-raised orphan elephant calves, rare clouded leopard cubs, and numerous animals of myriad other species, we rehabilitated a tiger here.

On April 1, 2010, the tiger was released here and a year later, in June 2011, the ‘in danger’ designation was lifted off Manas.

Wildlife rehabilitation can be considered successful only if the released animal survives in the wild.

Of course, it is not logistically feasible for us to track all 2000-plus individuals that we have rehabilitated so far since 2002, but for these special cases, we put in extra efforts to track them post-release.

This tiger, as the other large mammals that we rehabilitated, was radio-collared. Signals were sporadic at best, considering the terrain of the release site. And soon we lost traces of the animal in this 2500 sq km landscape.

The first celebratory news reached us in February 2011, with the radio-collared tiger photographed live and healthy by a camera-trap installed by a sister NGO monitoring tigers in the region.

It had survived nearly a year in the wild without any trouble!

Proof enough that this was the right move for the tiger…capturing it, releasing it, and releasing it in Manas.

As we went about our business, saving other tigers, rhinos, elephants, gibbons and many others, then...just last week, I was reminded of this tiger again.

I received an excited email from our Regional Head Dr Bhaskar Choudhury: 

“Our tiger was camera-trapped again…the collar has dropped…will be getting the GPS location soon…It has survived almost 1095 days in the wild!”

1095 days…nearly three years. Long enough for it to have established its territory here!

Long enough for it to have fathered cubs and for the cubs to have established their own territories!

In in the larger scheme of things, survival of one individual animal may appear a small victory.

But considering perpetuity, it does matter quite significantly.

Think of the addition of new individuals borne by it.

Think of the avenues it opened for other tigers in similar conditions.

Think of an entire area that it (up to a certain extent) is helping revive.

For me and my team this tiger represents more.

It means a reward to our efforts and further encouragement to carry on.

Thank you to all our supporters for making this happen. 

--VM

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