In the searing summer of May 2005, in the heart of the central Indian forest of Kanha Tiger Reserve, two female cubs all of 30 days, were orphaned when their mother was killed by a male tiger. The cubs were picked up and hand-reared by the forest department. At 18 months, they were released into a bigger enclosure.
Around the time that these cubs were exploring their limited freedom, about 350 km away, Panna Tiger Reserve’s tiger population was being decimated. By 2009, all but one male tiger were declared dead. Recognising the dire condition, Panna Tiger Reserve’s reintroduction programme was finally implemented. Two female tigers named T1 and T2, from Bandhavgarh and Kanha respectively, were released in Panna in March 2009. However, soon the last remaining male tiger in Panna also disappeared. To correct this a male tiger, christened T3 from Pench was released in Panna in November 2009.
The reintroduction programme faced major challenges. Almost immediately on release, T3 started moving out of the reserve and travelled 442 km over a period of about 41 days in the direction of Pench. He had to be recaptured and re-released. An ingenious technique of spraying tigress urine in his release area to tempt him to stay put met with success. Finally, it all worked out — by October 2010, both T1 and T2 had successfully paired and littered. With this, Panna had achieved a major milestone — the 100 per cent success of breeding among reintroduced tigers in the world.
Afterwards, a project to re-wild the two orphaned female siblings, that were enjoying limited freedom in a large enclosure inside Kanha, was also taken up. In March 2011, one of the two siblings nearing six years of age, christened T4, was released into the wild world of Panna. Using the earlier successful technique, female T4’s urine was used to attract the male T3. This worked, and almost immediately, T4 paired with T3. T4 picked up skills to make wild kills and was soon hunting on her own. She delivered her first litter of two cubs in November 2011, a first in the world, wherein an orphaned tigress, brought up in captivity not only re-wilded but also delivered in the wild. T4 went on to deliver a second litter which she abandoned, and then a third litter in July 2013, giving birth to three cubs.
T4’s sightings with her cubs were quite common. I got to see T4 more than once, lolling away in glory with her then nine-month old babies as she rested in the shade of vegetation by a stream. The cubs couldn’t restrain their curiosity and would peek out from behind their mother. In September 2014, while her cubs were merely 14 months old, the magnificent T4 passed away. The reason was ascribed to natural causes, possibly an illness. A trailblazing life had come to an end. While the fate of her cubs worried conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts, one female cub, P433 (P: Panna born, 4: progeny of T4, 3: 3rd litter of T4, 3: third cub in the litter) was tranquilised and collared and then, left to fend for herself along with her two male siblings. The cubs showed as much enterprise as their mother, and as of today, all three inhabit a territory in and around Panna.
While T4 was the high achiever, her sibling, rechristened T5, was charting her own course. T5 was released in Panna in November 2011 at the age of over six-and-half years. Despite her long years in what was merely a large enclosure, she was quite an agile and powerful animal. Her first kill was a wild pig, which, even for a well-established wild tiger, can be difficult. However, she had to confront territorial pressures from other resident tigers and it would be some time before she could establish herself in Panna. Unlike her sister T4, she did not pair successfully for quite some time. News of her first litter of two cubs came in April 2014, but she almost immediately abandoned them. She gave birth to her second litter of one cub in May 2015.
Though rarely sighted, T5 had a functional collar around her neck which allowed the tiger reserve authorities to monitor the tigress. On June 11, 2016 a brief one line update on a Facebook page shocked the small, dedicated community of Panna lovers — T5 was no more. Initial reports from the forest department suggest that she was badly injured in a territorial fight and retired to her cave, where she succumbed to her injuries. Though it is too early to say whether the cub will survive, news is that her 13-month old is holding out well for now.
In her lifetime, T5 remained discreet and elusive. In my conversations with local guides, few ever saw her and nobody seems to have ever captured her on camera. She remained an enigma, a bit of an under-performer and shy, but every bit as free a spirit as her sister.
Both, T4 and T5 died before their time, but they led rare lives — starting from being orphaned at the age of 30 days, to living a life of captivity for over six years before being part of the most daring re-wilding experiment that many believed was bound to fail, to actually leading a fully wild life; breeding, littering and even successfully raising their young to adulthood. This was unheard of in the annals of tiger conservation and credit has to go to the Panna team.
T4 and T5 demonstrated the fantastic potential of forests like the Panna Tiger Reserve, that recovered from zero tigers in 2009 to over 30 tigers as of today. They offered us the chance to correct our past mistakes and to atone for our sins. Most of all, they indicated the importance of taking care of our wildlife and protected zones. The Panna Tiger Reserve provides important ecosystem services, including water to the perennial Ken river, but is threatened by the proposed Ken-Betwa river-link project which will cause direct and indirect damage to about 200 sq km of the reserve. Equally worrying is the proposed 1,000 hectare Rio Tinto diamond mine.
Today, the progeny of T4 and T5 continue to put up a spirited resistance to this unequal fight. It’s almost as if the wild spirit of their mothers lingers on in the deep gorges, vertical rock faces, gentle streams and dark gullies, watching over us and chiding us to never let Panna slip away again.
Peeyush Sekhsaria is an independent Delhi-based consultant and researcher. He is the co-author of Our Tigers Return – Children’s Story Book – The Story of Panna Tiger Reserve (2009-2015)