AT FIRST, they thought those people were crying wolf. On Thursday evening, they found the tiger. And with it, an incredible story of survival that began in Haldwani or Pilibhit, wound its way through the tall sugarcane fields of western Uttar Pradesh, paused inside an abandoned rubber factory on the outskirts of Bareilly and ended up inside a narrow tunnel.
Estimated to be 3-4 years old and weighing 172.45 kg on an empty stomach, “Fateh” will now spend the rest of his life in Kanpur zoo.
According to officials and rescuers, the first alarm was raised two months ago near the crumbling factory northwest of the city. As reports of more sightings came in, a team from the UP forest department and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) set up camera traps and “rovers” on the premises.
For Dr P P Singh, chief conservator of forests (Bareilly) and field director of the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, the prime concern was that the rescue “should not endanger lives” — human or feline. “We wanted this tiger to be caught in a very scientific manner, so that it didn’t escape from the factory and enter human habitation, potentially attacking people,” he said.
“We wanted to understand the routine of the tiger, the exits and entrances it uses, its habits, the areas where it would rest and finally where it slept. The camera traps also told us of the abundant prey populations that lived in the area. Finally, we were able to identify a narrow tunnel where it slept,” said Francis Ishamel Soni, biologist, WTI.
Abandoned since the late 1980s following a legal dispute that is still in court, the factory is said to have been Asia’s largest at one point of time. Until it became covered with dense vegetation and became a home to herds of nilgai and blackbuck.
Inside the premises, say officials, are water tanks that now teem with fishes, underground tunnels, warehouses storing acid and buildings with up to 14 exits. This labyrinth, the rescuers say, made it impossible to pinpoint the tiger’s location initially.
The team finally found where it hid — a narrow tunnel, inside a 50×20 ft room, with old power panels on the inside perimeter. “We peeped in once to see if the tiger was visible during the day. When we realised it was, we managed to dart and tranquillise him,” said Mayukh Chatterjee, who heads WTI’s human-wildlife conflict mitigation team.
“Afterwards, the team crawled into the tunnel, with a stretcher and somehow managed to drag it out,” he said.
Expecting the tiger to be released into the forest, a satellite collar had been procured. But then, the rescuers found that the second claw on its right fore leg had been ripped off and was infected, a puncture wound between the second and the third digit was also infected while three claws on its right hind limb virtually worn off.
“It is possible that the puncture wound is from a metal rod or a porcupine quill. The area is littered with rusted metal, broken asbestos, rods and chemicals. All of this could be potential causes for the injuries,” said Chatterjee.
It was then decided that he would be moved to Kanpur. But not before one last twist. They decided to give him a name. “Someone suggested Fateh, after Fatehganj in Bareilly where it was caught. It was a good name, but afterwards we realised how ironic it was. This tiger didn’t emerge victorious in spite of all it did to survive. It would live the rest of its life in a zoo,” said Chatterjee.