One hundred and seven years after a tiger’s presence was last recorded in Jungalmahal, a big cat has strayed into the area. And set off a flurry that these parts last witnessed during the time of Maoist leader Koteswar Rao alias Kishenji, who was killed in an encounter in November 2011.
For a fortnight now, an army of Forest Department and police officials have been scouring the dense forest, armed with tranquiliser guns, cages with live baits, binoculars, search lights and drones.
The officials only woke up to something being amiss when villagers complained of attacks on their animals beginning February end. However, they were not prepared for what they would see when they looked into a camera trap placed in Madhupur forest near Lalgarh on March 1 morning: a Royal Bengal Tiger.
Since then, the tiger has been tracked as moving between the districts of West Midnapore, Jhargram and Bankura, in a 30-35 km range. On March 11, a villager of Kushkathi in West Midnapore claimed he was attacked, while on Tuesday morning, two forest officials in a night vigil vehicle were found dead. While there is a possibility the two died due to carbon monoxide poisoning after sleeping inside a locked vehicle, the deaths have only intensified the panic and stories around the animal.
Chief Wildlife Warden Ravi Kant Sinha doubts that the injuries caused to Jairam Soren of Kushkathi were due to a tiger attack. “The injury on his hand is too faint. Tigers are powerful animals,” he points out.
However, in an attempt to control the panic, Sinha has advised villagers not to venture into the forest. Pointing out that the last government reports of a tiger in the area date back to 1911, he adds, “We have been announcing the dos and dont’s over loudspeakers mounted on vehicles. We are trying to sensitise the villagers.”
R Saha, the Divisional Forest Officer of the Madhupur forest range, says they started receiving complaints from villagers of attacks on domestic animals at night, in the last week of February. “So we put up seven camera traps. Between the wee hours of February 28 and March 1, a picture of the tiger was taken by two cameras. It is a full-grown tiger, aged roughly 12-15 years.”
The tiger’s pug marks have since been spotted as close as 10 km to Midnapore town. Sukumar Hansda, the Trinamool Congress’s Jhargram MLA, says, “We are keeping a watch.”
On March 8, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee directed officials at an administrative meeting in Bankura to capture the tiger at the earliest. “Why are you not using drone cameras?” she said.
Thereafter, drones from the Kolkata police were pressed into service, but have so far failed to pinpoint the location of the tiger. Hapless officials say it moves mostly at night, rendering useless the police drones that have no night vision facility.
Says Sinha, “We are doing our best to capture it… After its capture, we will relocate it. If it needs treatment, we will treat it. The forests in these areas with dense human population are not suitable for tigers.”
In the process, the mystery of how this Royal Bengal Tiger finds itself in Junglemahal, in an area that long stopped being its home, has been largely pushed to the background. Forest officials are exploring the possibility of it being either from Simlipal in Odisha, 200 km away, or Jharkhand’s Palamau forest, which is nearly 430 km away. Sources add that to come from Simlipal, the tiger would have to cross two rivers (Subarnarekha and Kangsabati), apart from the busy National Highway 6, to reach Lalgarh through the Nayagram area.
Says Biswajit Mohanty, conservationist and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife, “It is not uncommon for tigers to cover large distances. There are many instances. Either it is looking for a mate or has been driven away by a rival tiger from its territory. Instinctively it would cover a large distance, cross highways and rivers, and yet not get noticed. It is also not uncommon for tigers to travel 300-400 km in search of mates.”
Ratul Saha, head of the WWF chapter of Sunderbans, whose team helped set up the camera traps, believes the tiger is from Simlipal and came to Junglemahal in search of establishing its territory. Listing two possible migration routes from Simlipal to Lalgarh, he says, “In spite of the forest patches being fragmented, connectivity exists in these forests… This tiger movement emphasises the importance of securing the forests as corridors for wildlife.”
There is another factor adding to the mystery. West Bengal Forest Department officials say the tiger’s unique stripe pattern does not match the patterns of around a dozen tigers whose photos exit in the database of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.
In either case, even Mohanty believes the tiger won’t be able to stay free in these parts for long. “There is dense human population here, men, women and children. A lot of misconception prevails about tigers. It is possible people will take matters in their own hands and try to capture or kill the tiger. They may even form vigilante groups. That will lead to a major problem.” Last year, the same area had seen major protests over attacks by elephant herds, both on people and crops.
Given the tiger’s size, the conservationist believes, it could be relocated to North Bengal, to “some forest where there is ample food”. “The Sunderbans is not a suitable place for this tiger since the vegetation is different and the tigers in Sunderbans are smaller in size,” he says.
Till then, the tiger is having its 15 minutes of fame. Villagers may be angry, but after its photo flashed on local TV channels and newspapers, tourists have been flocking to the Jhargram-Shalboni area.
“Not only from Kolkata but also other parts of Bengal, people are coming hoping for a tiger sighting. This is despite authorities not allowing anyone to enter the forest,” says Sumit Dutta, who works with an agency called Jhargram Tourism.
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