UPDATE: Rescuer Reports What Happened The Day The Tiger Was Pulled From Well
Wednesday began as a normal day for us at CWRC (IFAW/WTI wildlife rescue center). We went about our daily tasks of feeding and tending to our resident patients. I had been called to nearby Kohora to look at an injured wild elephant in the afternoon and had just returned when the phone rang. It was 4 pm.
Vashishth Sir (Divisional Forest Officer) was on the line. His voice was sombre, and instinctively I knew that this was a rescue call. He told me that a tiger was trapped in an abandoned well in Baruah Chuburi village near Tezpur and that he needed help in rescuing it.
It was a two-hour drive from CWRC in Kaziranga to Tezpur and the first thing that crossed my mind was that we had to move fast. I and my colleagues began our preparation immediately. We assembled the tranquilizing equipment, a cage and a vehicle to trans-locate the tiger back to its natural habitat.
I knew that it would be a difficult task and that I needed experienced people to help me. Via Dr Ashraf, the Director of WTI in Delhi, I located Dr Abhijit Bhawal, a WTI veterinarian. To my relief, he was free and was more than willing to assist.
I left CWRC with two animal keepers and necessary equipment and supplies. Once we arrived in Tezpur, Dr Parag Deka of Pygmy Hog Conservation Program, took us to the site where the tiger was trapped. We reached the surrounding village, Baruah Chuburi, at around 9 pm. It is a small village about 30 km from the busy town of Tezpur.
Hundreds of people had gathered in the area. As I approached the crowd, I realized that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) had been deployed to contain it. The CRPF and the civil administration staff had efficiently cordoned off the well where the tiger was trapped. I was excited and little nervous at the same time.
The unused well was at the edge of the village and its mouth was overgrown with grass, which must have fooled the tiger. There was a slush of water and mud at 12 feet. It had a swamp like feel and the tiger who must have fallen in yesterday night was struggling to keep afloat. It must have made several attempts to claw up the wall but had slipped down and was now lying stretched out and exhausted. It was covered with mud that it had churned while attempting to escape. Seeing this majestic animal looking so helpless was heart-breaking.
We could not sex the tiger at that point, but could see that "it" was big, really big! I just looked at it and thought, we can't let him drown, just can't let him die in a well of all places.
We surveyed the well and had a quick strategy meeting. We all agreed that the animal looked active and healthy. We could simply sedate it and lift it out. However, our problem was the swamp like condition in the well. It would have been criminal if we sedated the tiger and then it proceeded drown in front of our eyes. However, we were also not sure if it would survive another night in those conditions. We therefore decided to take a shot, but missed. We decided to postpone the operation till the next day because it was increasingly getting dark. As the police kept a cordon around the area, a team was left to keep a close watch on the animal.
The following day, we resumed the operation at around 8.30 am. The tiger now looked more exhausted and was stuck in almost the same position as the last night. I had prepared six darts; the tiger was hit by the third and the fourth. We waited for about 15 minutes for the drugs to calm it. To confirm that the tiger was indeed asleep, we gently nudged it with bamboo poles.
We now needed volunteers to enter the well to fix the sling around the tiger. Clearly no one was eager to go in. Suppose the tiger woke up while the sling was being put in place.
Finally, Dr. Abhijit Bhawal WTI veterinarian, agreed to go in first, and I was glad that he was there. It was indeed very brave of him to enter the tiger's den (literally)! CWRC animal keeper, Lakhiram followed Abhijit and together they fixed the sling around the tiger's bulky body.
A crane was then used to slowly pull the tiger out. During this process, to our horror, the tiger seemed to be opening its eyes and waking up. Its instincts were reacting to people. This was a dangerous situation with so many spectators around. I quickly gave it another dose of sedatives and it went back to sleep with a gentle moan like a puppy!
We first hosed it to clean the mud and yes it was a big male weighing over 200 kg. We put it in the cage and did a thorough examination for injuries. It appeared healthy. We then implanted a microchip for future identification.
The authorities involved had discussed the matter with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and had decided to release the tiger in the Nameri National Park from where it was perhaps displaced by the flash flood that submerged Nameri a few days ago.
The journey to Potasali camp in the National Park took us about two hours, and was not without excitement. The tiger was behind us in the cage, and our hearts froze with every movement it made. We stopped the truck periodically to check the condition of the tiger.
We reached Potasali camp around 2 pm and had to wait for the boats to cross the Jia Bhoroli river and reach the forest. This side, where the range office is situated, had human settlements.
The cage was large so two boats had to be joined with wooden planks to create a platform large enough for the cage. The loading began at 4 pm. By this time almost 7 hours had passed and the drug was wearing off. We covered the cage with a black tarpaulin to keep the tiger calm, before pushing off from the river bank.
The tiger could not see us but it could definitely sense our presence. It occasionally loudly growled which did not help our nerves in the least.
The Jia Bhoroli river had experienced flash floods only a few days ago. Although the water level had decreased, the water current was fairly strong. A freak accident could have been disastrous for all of us.
Fortunately, 15 minutes later, we were on the other side of the river… safe. Though, for how long, we couldn't say. Now was the time to open the cage. We were not sure how the tiger would react following its release.
We selected the release site along the bank and tried to open the cage door from a distance using a bamboo pole. But it did not work.
Now, it was my turn to volunteer. I had to open the cage door and let the tiger loose. I climbed on to the cage as quietly as possible so as to not disturb the tiger. After pulling up the door and locking it in that position, I hurried back to the boat half expecting the tiger to pounce on me. As i jumped on it the boatmen rapidly rowed it away from the bank.
Lucky for me, the tiger exited the cage five minutes later when we were 20 meters away from the bank, grateful and confident for the first time that the tiger's ordeal would end on a happy note.
Before departing, the tiger gave us a good long stare. I believe it was a thank you.
It was late and we spent the night at the range office. The next morning, the forest department staff reported sighting the tiger's pugmarks at the bank near its release site. I cannot help but ponder upon the possible reasons for its return. It probably was thirst!
It was the most exciting and satisfying rescue of my life. The success, doubtless, was an outcome of the unified efforts of all team members including the Forest Department with its prompt and effective actions, CWRC with its preparedness for such emergencies, and CRPF and the civil authorities with their effective crowd control capabilities.