Forum > Any other > Operation Durga Vahini: The Story of Tigers of Kerwa

Posted by Suhas Kumar on January 04, 2019

 

© Suhas Kumar, 2017

 

 

Over the span of just a year there were numerous reports of frequent intrusion of a female tiger and its two cubs into human habitation and twice into the city of Bhopal. These incidents precipitated a meeting of experts and forest officials in the office of the Chief Wildlife Warden on 26.07.2012. Considering the risks to human life as well as to the tigers themselves, I suggested capturing both animals and relocating them to a safe and suitable area in Satpura tiger reserve. The prime concern for suggesting this was to protect the tigers from poachers because Bhopal still is a city of erstwhile nawabs who consider shikar a favourite pastime. This was agreed. Another decision we took was to train the territorial field staff in the identification of signs and evidences of wild animals, surveillance, crime detection and investigation.

 

As the tigress had a territory extending from Ratapani- Kathotiya and Kerwa we recommended utilising the services of baiga trackers from Kanha to train the territorial filed staff in tracking skills. The  CCF of Bhopal forest circle was assigned the task to  implement these recommendations. We also took a decision that once the tigress is located in Kerwa forest, a team of wildlife vets with adequate experience would assemble at Kerwa to carry out the rescue operation with the help of six trained elephants brought from the tiger reserves.

 

At that time, little did I realize that the tigers were not the intruders but in fact, we (humans) had intruded into their home and therefore it was our duty to protect them, instead of shifting them from their home.

 

Meanwhile, on 19.09.2012 one of the cubs was found trapped in a ditch near Kathotiya village, our team rescued the cub but despite the efforts of the vets from Van Vihar and the Centre for Wildlife Forensic and Health, Jabalpur it succumbed to the injuries after a week.

In the first week of October 2012, I summoned a retired Ranger Shri N.K Bisen, who had considerable experience in tracking wild animals and rescue operations. I  briefed him and instructed him to locate  the tigress and its cub.  In the evening of 10.10.2012, N. K Bisen accompanied by the  SDO, Bhopal Shri Jain, and range officer located a kill in compartment number 219, about 2.5 km from the Kerwa nursery, and saw three tigers there (one male, one female, and its cub). On the 12th morning, he along with conservator Bhopal, L. Krishnamurthy, and SDO Bhopal again saw a cub, a male, and a female. He had photographed the male and taken video shots of the female. On 13.10.2012 CCF Bhopal did also see two tigers in compartment 219.

 

As the field-craft training of the territorial staff was to culminate on 14.10.2012, and the field conditions in October was conducive for such an operation, the chief wildlife warden Shri P.K. Shukla instructed me to commence the operation at once. A detailed strategy was conceived for the operation.

 

On 15.10.2012, we briefed our team  of the strategy. The CCF Bhopal Shri S.S Rajpoot was designated the head of the field operations. From CWLW's office, two APCCFs Dharmendra Shukla and I were deputed as supervisors.



The problem at this moment was that the team of vets and elephants had not yet assembled and therefore it was impossible to commence the operation immediately. Elephants from Pench tiger reserve were not called for this operation as the incidence of Herpes virus had already killed two elephants there.



On 15.10.2012, the Chief Wildlife Warden issued a formal order permitting capture and relocation of the female and its cub to a suitable habitat. S.S. Rajpoot, CCF Bhopal discussed with me the modalities, and at the end, he asked me a question – Sir, What should we call this operation?” and then he suggested a name- “Operation Durga Vahini.” It was certainly an apt name as the operation was to take place during the Durga Puja festival and involved Ma Durga’s Vahan – the tiger.



The team of wildlife vets from Panna, Pench, Satpura tiger reserves and Madhav National Park and six elephants from Kanha and Satpura assembled at Kerwa by the evening of 16.10.2012. A meeting to review the preparations was conducted by the supervising APCCFs at the field camp. By this time the evidence of the presence of only one of the three tigers was found in compartment 219, therefore the search for the female and its cub was intensified. In the evening of 17.10.2012 Chief Wildlife Warden visited the camp to review the progress, as we were briefing the CWLW, we got the news that one of the elephants from Satpura tiger reserve was unwell, the symptoms - swelling of the forehead and cyanosis of the tongue were observed by the wildlife vets, these symptoms were the sign of a deadly disease of the elephants- Herpes. Besides, one of the elephants from Bandhavgarh was showing signs of "Mast' and therefore deploying it for the operation was ruled out. The mood at the camp was desolate, and all the attention was directed to treat and save the elephant. The team of vets tried their best to keep the animal alive. The expert Elephant vet Dr. Sharma of Assam was contacted over phone and treatment of the elephant began, but she succumbed to the infection in the late night. Therefore, the operation was suspended on 18th, but the collection of evidence of tiger presence continued.



In the evening of 18.10.2012, we got the news about the presence of a tiger in compartment 219. Next morning, we commenced our search. We wanted to find out whether it was the female or some other tiger. Dharmendra and I participated in the search. As the tiger had killed a buffalo the previous night and  partially eaten it at the rump, the likelihood of its sighting was high. But despite a thorough search, we could not find the animal. That morning, while alighting from the elephant Dharmendra broke his ankle.



Next morning on 20.10.2012 we searched for the tiger again. Bisen saw the tiger in the morning near the kill that it had made the previous night and kept a watch on it. As the tiger was in sight, the team decided to immobilize it and put a radio-collar on it (even if it was not the female) so that in future its movement could be monitored with ease. The team of vets along with CCF and I began to encircle the tiger with four elephants. When the tiger saw the elephants, it gave out a loud roar and then ran into the cover of lantana bushes. It stayed there for about 5 minutes, growling intermittently and then it walked deeper into the cover of thick lantana bushes. After that, the tiger eluded us. The team assembled for debriefing and to discuss the future course of action. The mahouts felt that four elephants were not enough to encircle the tiger or pursue it after darting as the undergrowth was very dense. Vets, therefore, decided to wait for two more elephants that were to arrive the next day from Kanha.



I apprised the CWLW of the developments. The News that was published in Dainik Bhaskar next morning was a figment of reporter's imagination in which she had painted a fairy tale picture of the happenings of yesterday. She wrote- “The vet fired a drug dart at the tiger, which missed it and then the angry tiger jumped into the air and flew over the heads of the mahout and forest staff and landed on the other side”. Annoyed by this irrational report, I called the lady and asked her whether she was present on the day when such an exciting action was going on in the forest of Kerwa. Then I told her I was there and what had actually happened.



There was still much confusion about the sex of the animal hence the field teams were asked to ascertain this at the earliest. On 21.10.2012 two mahouts, who had seen the animals' rear, confirmed that the animal that we were following was a male tiger. There was no sign of the female and her cub.



As our primary target was the female and her cub, we intensified our search to locate her. CCF Bhopal traveled to Kathotiya from where the staff had reported her fresh pug marks on 21.10.2012. In the evening he reported to me that he had seen and traced fresh pugmarks of the female in compartment 214 Bhanpur on the boundary of Sehore and Bhopal Division. He could also see the pugmarks of the cub some 1.5 km away from its mother's pugmark in compartment 212 Samnapura. It was then decided to try and attract the female to a suitable location in any of these two compartments or at a suitable site near it and launch the operation early morning on 23.10.2012.



As this operation couldn't have continued indefinitely, we gave ourselves a deadline – 31st October 2012. As shifting the entire camp was not feasible we suspended the operation till 26.3.2017; only the tracking and monitoring teams remained active hoping that the female would return to Kerwa. On the 26th evening, we got the good news that the female and her cub are back. On 27th October we were in the field again, but the tigers continued to play hide and seek. On 31st October at about 6 AM, we found fresh pug marks of the male as well as the female on the dirt road not very far from the Kerwa dam. We mounted the elephants and soon located the tigers in a forest patch nearby. The vets geared up to take the shots but restrained themselves when they saw the tigers in courtship. We left the tigers alone and assembled for debriefing. We unanimously decided to call off the operation in the present circumstances. We also concluded that the tigers in Kerwa and Kathotiya are not vagrants but residents in this habitat and they should have the right to their home. These tigers obviously were from the nearest natal area –the Ratapani sanctuary, and now they have found a home in these forests. I came back and briefed the CWLW. Of course, he was a bit worried as tigers were living too close to people now and sooner or later he would have to face pressures from the politicians and Mandarins sitting in Ballav Bhawan. But he as a true leader respected our point of view and stood by this decision.

 

The best outcome of this field exercise was the training that the territorial staff received from us in field craft – making PIPs, maintaining and monitoring PIPs, setting up camera traps, reading pugmarks, made them confident, and they never looked back. Now, these foot soldiers are adept in tracking tigers and predicting their whereabouts. We also provided sufficient resources to DFO Bhopal to create perennial water sources in the forest, camera traps, deployment of watchers and for surveillance and protection. More vehicles were hired for round the clock patrolling and later WWF-India provided a Bolero for the field teams. In due course of time, we supplemented the on-foot and vehicular patrols with an electronic surveillance system – called the E-Eye. Four towers (now 5 in 2017) fitted with cameras equipped with powerful zoom and night visions were erected at strategic places to cover a large part of the tiger movement area in Bhopal and Sehore forest divisions. A permanent control room was set up at Kerwa to monitor tigers, other animals, and intruders. A system of SMS alert is inbuilt in the software that sends messages to the mobile phones of the field teams and DFOs.

 

The clamour about tigers of Kerwa has resurfaced in recent times- mostly media reports are responsible for terrorizing the public while the resident villagers say they have no problems with the tigers. The problem is that the short-term solution like capturing and shifting tigers from Kerwa is not going to work as the vacant territories will be soon occupied by new tigers dispersing from the Rantapani.

Today, just a thin garland of forest surrounds the city. Though the human habitations and developmental infrastructures have fragmented this habitat at places, the wild animals, especially those who need larger home-range can still move throughout this garland taking advantages of the streams, and riparian vegetation (all along the river banks). But these fragile corridors, too, are threatened by developers and builders have begun to encroach on the water courses - from some places, the Kaliasot river has already vanished under the maze of skyscrapers and duplexes that have popped up like toadstools.

 

Just on the South-South-west fringe of this garland is the Ratapani sanctuary. Ratapani is the only secure habitat left in this tract where tigers still breed. Over the years the habitat has improved, and the tiger population has increased, necessitating young tigresses and tigers to move out from within the sanctuary boundary to the forests outside to find suitable breeding and foraging places. The tigers of Ratapani are traveling far and wide now - Sehore, Choral, Dewas, Sajapur and Kerwa, Kathotiya, Samradha around Bhopal City have tigers from Ratapani. My personal knowledge is that tiger’s movement in Kerwa has been reported every year since 1996, while a recent survey by WWF –India, in which they interviewed some village elders, reveals that the tigers have been using the Kerwa-Kathotiya forest tract from time immemorial. It is another matter that in those times neither the media was so proactive to seek out tigers and nor the Kerwa area was so full of academic institutions, human colonies, and a heavy tourist inflow. The tigers have become more visible today, not because they have suddenly developed a proclivity to occupy the area in the middle of human habitations, but because humans have now intruded into their haven.

 

There had been some hasty decisions about a year ago, when a young male was captured and shifted to a tiger reserve. I don’t think that this strategy would work. When I heard of a second such attempt to capture and transfer a young dispersing tiger from Dewas, I couldn’t restrain myself from writing a letter to the CWLW. I am reproducing that letter below-



"This mail is about the latest attempt by the wildlife wing to capture a dispersing tiger from Dewas division.

As you would recall, we began equipping and training the territorial officers and staff to inculcate in them a sense of responsibility towards wildlife management in their respective jurisdiction. Enthused by this support from the headquarter, in divisions and circles where tiger movement was frequent, some of the CCF’s did excellent work towards monitoring and protecting tigers. As you already know, tiger number is going up in most natal areas, and it is quite natural for the young and the weak ones to get out of PAs to find new homes or vacant territories. And while doing so, they are frequently accosted by the villagers and city dwellers. Tigers by nature are wary of human beings, and they swiftly leave the area frequented by people. These dispersing tigers should be left alone. If such a tiger has taken residence in a habitat near a village, the first thing that territorial forest staff should be doing is to plan a proper monitoring and protection protocol and follow it meticulously (Datia case is an excellent example). One should realize that wherever (in territorial forests) the tigers are dispersing were once tiger bearing areas not far back in time (the population estimation data from 1999 to 2002 clearly reveal this truth).


I believe the dispersing tigers should not, unless they pose an imminent threat to people by becoming a confirmed man-eater, be removed and placed in a zoo or shifted to other habitats. Because if we permit this to happen frequently we would be negating our own hard work and the territorial staff would never become responsible for wildlife in their territory (in every case in which a tiger is seen in a territorial division the CCFs and DFOs will inform the head quarter and persuade the CWLW to remove the tiger).The other noteworthy point is that considering the prey availability, as well as most of our tiger reserves, have enough tigers already and sending more tigers caught from territorial divisions to those tiger reserve will create more problems for both – the tigers as well as the wildlife wing.”

 

Since sending this mail, fortunately I haven’t heard of any fresh attempt to capture a dispersing tiger. I hope it remains that way.

 

 

 

 

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