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We know how the ‘Lalgarh tiger’ died. But where did it live?

How did a tiger land up in the forests of Lalgarh after nearly 100 years   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

The last time the Lalgarh forest of West Bengal was in the news was nearly a decade ago. Back then, the sleepy village in West Bengal’s West Midnapore district was ground zero of the ‘siege’. The Lalgarh siege was one of the most well-known Maoist movements in recent history, and the place soon receded into obscurity for the next nine years.

But on March 3 this year the area shot back into the limelight. A large male tiger had been camera-trapped in the degraded forests around Lalgarh, nearly a century after the last resident tigers of the region had been wiped off. The local residents first reported few cattle kills and sightings in January, and pugmarks were also formally traced.

The forest department, convinced that the culprit was a leopard, installed camera traps in the area, and were, of course, shocked to see instead images of a large tiger. Everyone was bewildered: villagers, the forest department, conservationists. How did a tiger land up here after nearly 100 years?

Media frenzy

The news of the tiger’s presence sent the local media into a frenzy. Sensational headlines published alongside images of the tiger in newspapers and alarmist reporting by news channels created an acute sense of panic among residents of surrounding villages.

It also forced the forest department to hastily plan for its capture and relocation. Proposals for its release verged on the ridiculous: one was to release it in the Sundarbans mangroves — never mind that Sunderbans tigers have evolved over thousands of years to negotiate the swamp forests.

The tiger evaded capture for weeks. Then there was a very close shave on March 30, when the tiger was cornered in a net set up by the department, but escaped. The animal had lashed out and roared and set everyone fleeing. As operation tiger-capture was playing out, a month-long Shikar Utsav, or hunting festival, began here. Hunting is outlawed by the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. On March 30, three hunters were injured when they chanced upon the tiger while out on a hunt.

Eventually, the Lalgarh tiger, as it came to be known, was killed by a large hunting party of nearly 500 men, when they came across the animal feeding on a wild boar. Arrows rained on the tiger and a spear through its face eventually did it in.

But that was just the beginning of the story.

Not from here

The Lalgarh tiger’s death sparked a huge debate about its life: where did it come from? How did it reach Lalgarh? Did it come from Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha, around 100 km as the crow flies, or from Palamu Tiger Reserve in Jharkhand 400 km away?

However, the truth might be more complicated. The authorities at Similipal, and later the National Tiger Conservation Authority, declared that the Lalgarh tiger’s stripe-pattern did not match any known tiger in their database of camera-trapped tigers. It’s stripes didn’t match tigers of Palamu either.

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time in recent years that tigers had mysteriously appeared in this larger landscape. There has been a curious pattern of tigers turning up across south Jharkhand and north Odisha, in areas where they hadn’t been reported in many decades, and the Lalgarh episode seems to fit this larger trend.

Is it possible then that this tiger’s appearance from ‘nowhere’ indicates an undetected breeding tiger population in the 12,000 forest straddling north Odisha and south Jharkhand? This area comprises five forest divisions in south Jharkhand (Saranda, Kolhan, Porhat, Chaibasa, Saraikela) and four large divisions (Sundergarh, Rourkela, Bonai and Keonjhar) in north Odisha — and virtually nothing is known of these forests due to the complete absence of any formal wildlife research in this landscape.

Caught on video

In 2016, a tigress was videographed by tourists in Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand, some 80 km west of where the Lalgarh tiger was seen. This was the first confirmed record of a tiger in the sanctuary since 1989. Dalma’s last resident tigers were wiped off in the early 1960s. Up until this fortuitous encounter, the forest department in Dalma had no idea a tigress was roaming the sanctuary. While the tigress eluded photographic capture, the staff kept encountering pug marks and signs of the big cat. Residents in villages around Dalma reported multiple sightings over the next two months. Moreover, the tracks and sightings established that the tigress wasn’t alone, it had cubs. Soon pug marks of a big male tiger were also found.

Then, just as mysteriously as it appeared, this tiger family disappeared. Dalma’s authorities, based on reports by villagers and trackers, claimed the tigers had moved towards the huge Saranda landscape south-west of Dalma. Saranda had reported its last resident tigers in the 1980s, but since it was a Maoist ‘liberated zone’ for more than a decade, nobody knew for sure. Saranda was in the news in 2011 when a tiger suddenly appeared near the Gua iron mines, the first confirmed report of the big cat from the division in nearly 30 years.

Then in 2014, a tiger was seen by the range forest officer and villagers (few of whom were injured) near Mandar, barely 30 km from the State capital Ranchi, again after a gap of 40 years. Over the last decade, tigers have also been intermittently reported from the nearly 9,000 forest of north Odisha. All these forests are connected, parts of a large meta-landscape, with individual units connected to each other through corridors. And this meta-landscape is connected to the tiger strongholds of central India.

The forests of north Odisha merge into Saranda to the north; Saranda is connected to Palamu to its north-west; Palamu is connected to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh through forests of north Chhattisgarh. Forests of north Odisha are also connected to Kanha and Bandhavgarh to the west and north-west respectively, through the forests of Chhattisgarh.

Unfortunately, the ecological security of this region is fraught with multiple challenges including insurgency, mining (which also drives acute human-elephant conflict) and an indifferent scientific community. The Lalgarh tiger is dead, but its story spotlights the need for rigorous scientific surveys of neglected landscapes in this region.

The writer is a Jharkhand-based conservationist and an avid collector of antiquarian books on natural history.

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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 4:08:35 AM |

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