In the nights here, silence is a perceptibly heavy companion. Coffee and areca nut plantations are shrouded in darkness, save for the lights of planters’ homes and low-slung kerosene lights that send out a warm glow from the labour colonies. The rustle of leaves in the slight wind hides the footsteps of a young tiger. Unknowing of the dangers that lie outside its birthplace, the feline has walked out of the lush canopies of Nagarahole Tiger Reserve; furtively moving along low hills and between barbed-wire fences, across shallow rivulets and streams, and eventually found a precarious existence in the shadows of coffee estates and abandoned rice fields.
It is barely three, and its lithe body hungers for rabbits and wild boar that scurry across the landscape. By the second week of January, in the trail of small carcasses and paw prints in the wet mud around the snaking Lakshmana Tirtha river, the tiger had left signs of its presence. Forest officials had informed villagers, who retreated to their homes before dusk. After sunset, the young tiger reigned over the plantations.
On the night of January 17, we can only presume it had sighted prey in an abandoned rice field beside the road at Bekkesudaluru in South Kodagu (barely a few kilometres from the Karnataka-Kerala border). The tiger advances cautiously. Its eyes firm, it creeps slowly forward, slips between the barbed-wire fence and then… the evolutionary instincts of moving in for the kill suddenly give way to stupefaction and panic. It grapples, but the seemingly invisible force holding its forelimb seems to tighten and dig into its skin. It struggles through the night, but cannot extricate itself from the wire that bound it to the spot, and collapses in silence.
The next morning, Bekkesudaluru village has woken up to the sight of the tiger that for the past week had been part of transient mythology. “We know tigers have come through our village. Some claim they have seen them in the past fleetingly, others tell us that their cattle have been attacked. But, this is the first time the entire village has seen a tiger here,” says T.A. Machiah, a planter who lives down the road. “It looked so vulnerable. It was breathing so slightly that we thought it was dead,” he adds.
By evening, under a dose of tranquillisers, it was shifted to the Animal Rescue Centre near Mysuru. Kept under observation, workers said its trauma saw it reject much of the food offered. The wound on its foreleg continued to fester. On the third day, it gave up. A post-mortem revealed that septicaemia (from the wound) led to a collapse of its organ functions. What the report also revealed was that it had well-set cysts in its lungs and intestines — leading to theories that it may have emerged out of the forests in search of easier kills.
The inhuman trap
A fortnight later and a little downstream of Lakshmana Tirtha river, forest watchers Shivakumar and Udesha, and contract worker Shivanna — who is from the Jenu Kuruba tribal community — scour through the confusing array of thickets and bushes. They exhibit a panicky urgency, stopping every now and then to jot down their GPS position. Shivanna, however, knows it is futile to sift through every clump and shrub. Instead, he relies on traditional experience, and looks at small forest paths used by wild boars and rabbits and then glances quickly to see if the fingerprints of human interference can be seen. He suddenly becomes animated. “I’ve found a snare,” he shouts. The object of this exercise — the noose that has seen the death of two of the seven tigers that have died since January — had been found.
Even at close glance, it is difficult to spot the string of wire that the group had spent much of their morning in search for. The copse of bamboo hides the barbed-wire fence of the neighbouring estate. The criss-crossing shade and the dried creepers which have curled all over hides a small loop of string dangling from the lower wire.
Much like zip ties used to seal shopping bags, the snare is a loop of wire — often, clutch cable from bikes or cars, or even telephone wires — in the form of a noose. When an animal enters the noose, any slight weight on the dangling string sees it tighten; the more the animal instinctively struggles, the tighter it gets.
The one found in this was small, perhaps set for rabbits. “But this is the sort that got the Bekkesudaluru tiger. It put its paw in this, and was stuck,” says Shivakumar, who photographs it, notes its GPS location and time of discovery.
Their three-hour, nine-km walk reveals five more snares in their path along the river. In the afternoon, the team found 30 more snares in coffee estates along the river. They point to a large snare, made of sturdy wire. “This is the sort that has killed the Kumatoor tigress. Wild boars are strong, and so the locals use telephone wires. Tigers, however, get stuck and even they can’t escape from this,” says Shivanna.
A death in Kumatoor
Uncertainty veils the story of the six-year-old Kumatoor tigress, believed to have emerged out of the Nagarahole forests and into neighbouring estates. What is sure though is that it was found dead on January 29 at Kumatoor with its waist visibly constricted and crushed by something seemingly out of a medieval torture instrument.
Post-mortem revealed a broken spine. A snare was involved, even though there was none found close to the body. Forest officials speculate it had been caught in a snare set for boars accidentally, and the panicked killers dumped the body — nails, claws and skin were left untouched — ruling out the role of poachers.
Villagers believe the tiger’s death was prolonged painfully over weeks. Coffee planter K. Subramani, in whose cousin’s plantation the tigress was found, says: “A week ago, two heads of cattle were attacked. Even though they were weak, the cattle managed to gore the tigress (blood on the horns) and scare it away. It was then seen briefly on the road, where it had difficulty in walking. The snare mark was already there.”
Visiting the field where it died, there is a patch of burnt wood, bones and skin — the tigress was eventually burnt to dissuade extraction of its body parts. The patch is isolated, and Subramani says the carcass was discovered by chance when a planter formed a small search party to look for his missing dog. “This is too far from the main road and walking path for a group of people to carry and dump the body of a large tiger. Also, look at the bones of dogs strewn in the area. It had clearly lived here for some time,” he says.
The death set alarm bells ringing, and raised memories of a decade ago when snares were commonly used by poachers. With the death at Kumatoor came the forest department’s resolve to weed out these traps.
Searching for snares
The hustle of activity is perceptible. Elephant camps have been mobilised to aid the search, while over 40 teams have been formed. Over 200 snares were found in the first two days (January 31 and February 1). The primary target is the wild boar, a source of food for locals, while estate owners often furtively encourage it as a way to deal with the crop loss due to boar raids.
“Consumption of wild boar meat has become popular, even creating a lucrative market for their trapping,” says P.M. Muthanna of the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society which is working with tribals in the area. The operations concentrated around Lakshmana Tirtha river. Local knowledge has it that rabbit and boar paths tend to go from the estate (berry and fruit) towards the river (water). Along with the rabbit and boar, comes the chance of tigers — and the snare does not discriminate.
Estate workers say snares are a common feature on the long lines of barbed-wire fences that criss-cross the undulating landscape of southern Kodagu. But who sets them? “There is no way to find out who has placed the traps, and we do not want to antagonise locals — whom we need for conservation — by interrogation or acting on suspicion. We just hope that the practice will die out soon,” says a forest official.
Praveen Bhargav, co-founder, Wildlife First, however believes the trend will continue as long as “unscientific” ways of dealing with crop loss continue. “The recent government order allowing hunting of wild pigs to reduce crop damage may be a prime driver of the spurt in snaring of late,” he says.
A conservation quandary
Snares form a part of the larger narrative of the intersections of the natural world and the one created by man. The Kumatoor tigress was the sixth tiger death since the dawn of the New Year — and the 13th in six months in the Nagarahole-Bandipur Tiger Reserves. The reserves, spread over 1,500 sq km, form an integral part of the Nilgiri biosphere which holds world’s single largest tiger population estimated over at 570 tigers (in the 2014 tiger census). Bandipur and Nagarahole hold more than 221 tigers cumulatively. In terms of tiger mortality, however, the two reserves have taken a huge hit since 2010, with 68 deaths — the most recent being the carcass of a cub found on Friday.
Protection against poachers and habitat manipulation has seen the prey base increase. With it increased the tigers, jostling for space. Now, there are around 10 tigers per 100 sq. km in the reserves — the weak (injured or older tigers and younger males) are pushed to the periphery.
The journey of the tigress, given an abstract name NHTL114 (a numeric based on the camera trap position given by Wildlife Conservation Society), is an indication of this natural, cruel, inevitable cycle within the park. Between 2008 and 2013, camera traps had shown it within the Nagarahole reserve. It had delivered two cubs, and as it aged, it moved eastward towards Kabinidam — where, in November 2016, a popular photo by a tourist had given way to the informal moniker of “Queen of Kabini”.
Three weeks ago, villages beyond the forests saw imprints of the tigress: pug marks, cattle attacks. Fearing more attacks from the tigress or retaliation from villagers, a large manhunt was launched. On January 16, it was spotted at a banana plantation. At 5 p.m., the first round of tranquillisers was given, but the old tigress still had the strength to walk away. Another round in the dark when tracking the tigress was difficult… by midnight, the fourth round had seen it collapse. It was shifted to a cage, but by morning, it was dead. Post-mortem showed that the tigress had lost its canines, while the stomach was empty. Unable to hunt in the wild, the peripheries with its veritable buffet of slow-moving livestock offered a lifeline.
On January 11 — around the same time trouble began with NHTL114 on the eastern side of the park — villagers spotted a tiger on the prowl at Hebbala, some 15 km from Nagarahole’s western boundary. Camera traps installed in the area captured images that showed it was injured. The tiger was estimated at 10 years — close to the average age life expectancy of tigers in the wild. But the elusive feline managed to retreat unseen into the estates. Its imprint surfaced on the morning of January 17, when a cow was attacked in the area. “A tiger failing to kill a cow shows it is severely injured, and needed to be in estates and farms for easy prey,” says Kodagu District Conservator of Forests Manoj Kumar.
The next day, a coffee estate worker standing close to the cattle pen accidentally startled the tiger. The bleeding worker was slashed across the face and body. A massive manhunt was launched: 100 forest personnel, three elephants trained in these tracking operations, and even a drone whizzing above in the sky. But the tiger was not found. On January 22, its body was found in Nittur in an uncultivated private property by the Lakshmana Thirta river. Its canines were broken, right eye gouged out, claws damaged, and porcupine quills all over its mouth. A perfectly-square patch of ash, half-burnt bones, and hollowed-out wood mark the cremation of the tiger that had kept at least four villages and the forest department on its toes.
H.C. Puttaswamy of Haadnuru village, bordering Bandipur, has almost literally seen the jaws of death. A few years ago, he was guarding his crops around 2 a.m. — with elephants and boars on his mind — when a tiger pounced on him. “My friends who were close by saw the attack and created a melee. It was only then that the tiger released me and ran. It took me three years of repeated surgeries to recover,” he says. The wounds are visible, and the pain continues to shoot.
If at the time Puttaswamy was attacked tigers were seen only sporadically at night, in the past two years the felines are being spotted more frequently. In November 2015, the small village, which is set amidst a patchwork of sugar cane and paddy farms, saw a brutal mauling of a cattle-herder. In December 2013, at least five persons were killed in separate attacks due to tiger attacks in the belt.
As animals spill over from reserves, and as farms and grazers inch closer to forests, there is a simmering tension between man and tiger. The feline is now in an environment where anger is building up against wild boars and elephants. Dynamites and pellet guns have been used against elephants, while cases of electrocution have been witnessed. The presence of the tiger, however, is largely tolerated — accepted in this land of sacred groves and mythologies around the big cat as an inevitable part of living close to forests.
Earlier this year, Swamy, who rears livestock at Gundathur village close to Nagarahole, found mangled remains of cattle — and all signs pointed to NHTL114 that was lurking in the area. Swamy bore witness to the operations, and its death. There was no relief for him. “We did not want the tiger killed. All we asked for was protection for us and livestock,” he says.