Sunday Story | When the hunter becomes the hunted

The hunt for MDT23, a tiger that has reportedly killed two persons and several head of cattle, has so far been a contest of unequals — the tiger in its home territory and the man, struggling to even spot it with camera traps on a tough jungle terrain. In a sense, this chase exemplifies the growing man-animal conflict in the region and its many flashpoints.

Updated - October 11, 2021 10:59 am IST

Published - October 10, 2021 12:39 am IST

Elusive quarry: The tiger, though believed to be injured and incapable of hunting, has been using his intelligence and knowledge of the terrain to evade pursuers.

Elusive quarry: The tiger, though believed to be injured and incapable of hunting, has been using his intelligence and knowledge of the terrain to evade pursuers.

On October 1, a tiger mauled a grazer to death at Masinagudi. It was the tiger’s second confirmed kill. It sparked tension among the locals. With the Opposition party stepping in, the situation reached a flashpoint.

The locals blocked roads, demanding that the tiger be shot dead. For the tiger had eaten parts of the victim’s body for the first time. Soon, most of the media began branding the animal as a man-eater. It was a surcharged atmosphere at Mudumalai.


Soon, Chief Wildlife Warden Shekhar Kumar Niraj issued an order to hunt down the animal. It was immediately construed as an order to shoot the tiger. He had to clarify repeatedly that the hunt order had to be understood in light of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. It meant shooting was the last resort after efforts to tranquillise, restrain and capture the animal failed.

To ensure that the tiger is captured alive, he has been leading the operations, involving nearly 100 personnel. As if sensing the dragnet, the tiger, now known as Mudumalai Division Tiger 23 (MDT23), has gone quiet. It has not made any further human kill, as several teams of forest personnel, assisted by technology, are on the look-out for over a week now, at times in heavy rain. “If three persons are killed and eaten, it should be declared a man-eater. Then it should be removed from the jungle,” says A.J.T. Johnsingh, a conservationist and wildlife biologist. For the record, the tiger has not yet been declared a man-eater.

The backstory

The tiger has killed two persons. It is suspected to have killed two more, and over a dozen head of cattle in the highly conflicting landscape of Gudalur and the Sigur plateau, notorious for illegal resorts. It was in 2010 that MDT23 was first recorded by a camera trap in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve (BTR). Bandipur, along with the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve (MTR), the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary and the Nagarhole National Park, provides one of the largest contiguous habitats for the Bengal Tiger in India. It is considered home to a fifth of India’s tiger population.

The tiger was subsequently recorded by camera traps in the MTR in 2012. Since then, it is believed to have established a territory encompassing the ranges of Masinagudi, Kargudi, and the MTR. A dominant male, the tiger started cattle-lifting in 2018. It is suspected to have killed four persons in the MTR and the surrounding Gudalur over the last two years.

MTR Field Director D. Venkatesh said the tiger could be aged 12-14 and it has marks of injuries, possibly sustained in a territorial fight with another tiger or during a hunt. “A behavioural change has occurred, possibly caused by age or the injuries,” he said. “It is confirmed to have hunted 20 head of cattle in the last two years, all in the areas bordering its territory.”

S. Maaran, a herder from the Irula community, notes that local herdsmen were aware of MDT23’s presence in the area for several months. “It is a known cattle-lifter, and we understand the dangers of venturing into the forests. However, grazing the cattle, collecting cow dung and selling it are our only means of livelihood,” he said.

Though the ban on cattle-grazing in the core area of the tiger reserve is strictly enforced by the Forest Department, regulating grazing in the buffer zone is more difficult because of the presence of a number of Adivasi hamlets and recent settlers, many of whom own farms in the area, cultivate crops and herd cattle.

“This is an important fact,” said N. Sadiq Ali, founder of the Wildlife and Nature Conservation Trust. “Many of cattle head being grazed in the buffer zone do not belong to members of the Adivasi communities, who are paid a small fee by the owners to look after their cattle until they reach maturity, and are taken for slaughter.” He said cattle pens should be built for the herders and feed given for free or at a subsidised rate to prevent the cattle from entering tiger habitats, where there is a high chance of problematic human-tiger interactions.

Conservationists point to many factors, including the burgeoning tiger population in the Sigur plateau and habitat loss, to explain the increase in problematic interactions between tigers, elephants, and other wildlife and humans. They say the rapid increase in the number of tigers in the landscape, which has better protection now, is another factor to consider. As tigers age, a younger male usually supplants the older tiger, who is pushed into ‘sub-optimal’ habitats with a diminished prey-base. “It is not a coincidence that three of the previous man-eaters in the Nilgiris were all in the fragmented habitats in Gudalur and the upper Nilgiris,” one of them points out.

Yet to pay off:  Several teams of forest personnel, assisted by drones, have been on the look-out for MDT23 for  over a  week now.

Yet to pay off: Several teams of forest personnel, assisted by drones, have been on the look-out for MDT23 for over a week now.

The tiger, though believed to be injured and incapable of hunting, has been using his intelligence and knowledge of the terrain to evade pursuers. On a single night, it entered his home territory at Singara and Masinagudi from Devan Estate at Gudalur — a distance of over 20 kilometres by road — in a few hours. This tiger seems to be highly intelligent as it was not spotted by camera traps for a few days when the intense search began, while other tigers in the region were spotted. “Uncharacteristic of tigers, MDT23 does not seem to be returning to the kills he has made,” said a top Forest Department official, who noted that a buffalo had been killed by a tiger in the territory believed to be currently occupied by MDT23. “After consuming a significant part of the animal, he failed to return to the carcass. Our veterinarians and teams were monitoring the carcass, hoping to tranquillise the tiger, but to no avail.”

Challenging terrain

Mr. Venkatesh said efforts to capture the tiger had become more complicated as it moved back into his home range in the MTR. “In Gudalur, when we first started our attempts to tranquillise him, we could monitor him as the landscape was one of undulating hills planted with tea. However, once he re-entered the MTR, he has taken cover in the thick undergrowth, and it is becoming extremely hard to spot him.”

Further complications include the presence of other tigers in the region. This means Forest Department officials have to compare stripe patterns and known injuries with those of MDT23.

K. Kalidasan, president of OSAI, said it was always sad to remove a tiger from its natural habitat. “However, conservation is about the larger picture and ensuring human-animal co-existence.” he noted. “If people continue to feel threatened by the presence of a large wildlife because of this particular tiger, there could be retaliatory actions like poisoning. This is why we need to ensure that the tiger is removed as quickly and safely as possible.”

Land use in conflict zone

Human-animal co-existence in the Nilgiris has remained tenuous for years. One of the regions with the highest number of problematic interactions between wildlife and humans is Gudalur, where six people have died in elephant attacks this year, besides the killing of a person killed in an attack by MDT23.

Local conservationists have been calling for the re-wilding of Section 17 lands notified under the Gudalur Janmam Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, 1969. Most of the land at Gudalur once belonged to the Nilambur royal family, who leased it to small landholders. This was to be regularised by the Janmam Estates Act, but cases are pending for over half-a-century. Under Sections 8, 9, and 10, all small land-holders and sub-lessees were supposed to be given title, while under Section 17, the leases of large corporations could be decided on a case-to-case basis by the government, according to Tarsh Thekaekara, founder of the Shola Trust. “The most important broader issue in long-term solutions to negative human-wildlife interactions is the problem of unstable land tenure and widespread encroachment into forestland.”

D. Boominathan, Western Ghats (the Nilgiris) landscape co-ordinator for the World Wide Fund for Nature, said drivers of problematic human-animal interactions need to be studied with the use of historical records. “We need to analyse the historical data to detect conflict hotspots to build appropriate mitigation strategies.”

B. Ramakrishnan of the Department of Zoology and Wildlife Biology at Government Arts College in Udhagamandalam, is studying the ‘vayals’ in the Gudalur landscape. He said a three-month study showed 84 of the 86 ‘vayals’ were being used by elephants, while leopards were seen in 79 and the presence of tigers was noticed in 13. Studies also pointed to a correlation between the number of ‘vayals’ in a forest range and the prevalence of problematic human-elephant interactions. Between 2007 and 2019, 79 human deaths were recorded in the Gudalur division, out of which 22 were recorded in the Cherambadi range, which has the most ‘vayals’ in the landscape.

MDT23 remains elusive, lording it over in his home territory, as humans struggle to capture him for weeks in a terrain that seems to favour the animal. Mr. Niraj, the Chief Wildlife Warden, said the strategy to capture the tiger was being evolved on a day-to-day basis, based on the data collected by the Forest Department.

“Once it is captured, the tiger will be studied by our experts, and its condition will be assessed. Its health parameters and behaviour will be taken into account before a decision is made on whether the tiger can be relocated or taken into permanent captivity.”

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