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Two tigers in a boat to say nothing of the 900 km

Rescued cubs come down 5,000 ft,traverse the Brahmaputra and travel across two states to find a home. Samudra Gupta Kashyap on their journey. Photos by Balaji Seshan,Soumya Dasgupta & Subhamoy Bhattacharjee of IFAW/WTI

Written by Samudra Gupta Kashyap | Published: October 13, 2013 12:37:13 am

Arunachal Pradesh has a tiger population of just over 50. Few if any are like ‘Ipra’ and ‘Chipi’. Late last month,the 18-month-old Royal Bengal tiger and tigress (Chipi is the female),rescued in December 2012 from villagers chasing them at Angrim in Dibang Valley,were transported 900 km to a new home in Itanagar’s Biological Park.

Sixteen people escorted them from the Mini Zoo at Roing town — the headquarters of the Lower Dibang Valley district,located at a height of 7,000 ft — on a journey that included road travel through two states (including parts of Assam) and crossing the Brahmaputra twice,once on a ferry and once by a bridge. They started at 11.30 am on September 27,and reached the Itanagar park the next day afternoon.

The journey,admits Kuladeep Roy,who was part of the escort party,was “an experience”. Roy heads the Dibang Valley Conservation Project of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

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It was in December 2012 that the two tigers were first discovered. “On December 3,we at the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation & Conservation (CWRC) at the Kaziranga National Park got news that four tiger cubs were creating trouble in Angrim and adjoining villages and that people were chasing them. We rushed there along with state Forest Department officials,but found no trace of them even after six days of search. I gave up hope and had gone back when I got a call from the village that they had found three of the cubs hiding in an abandoned dry water tank in the village,” Jahan Ahmed,a veterinarian with the IFAW-WTI,recalls.

Ahmed,who had by then reached Roing,drove back the 250 km to finally supervise the rescue of the cubs. “We could not locate the fourth cub people were talking about,” he says. That night of December 13 was particularly cold and it had begun to snow. While Ipra and Chipi were saved,their sibling died within hours of pneumonia.

“They must have been about seven- to eight-month-old then and weighed between 30 and 35 kg each,” says veterinarian Nupur Ranjan Buragohain,who accompanied Ahmed in the rescue. They shifted the cubs the same day to Anini,the headquarters of the Dibang Valley district.

Two days later,Ipra and Chipi were taken to Roing,and put up in the Mini Zoo there. While the male cub was named after Ipra Mekola,a member of the State Wildlife Advisory Board from the area,Chipi got her name from Chipi Mekola,a member of the anchal sabha — a body bigger than the gram sabha but smaller than a zilla parishad — who provided all the logistics,including food and stay for the WTI team,for the two nights of the rescue.

Ahmed says they drove to Roing with the cubs on a Tata Sumo. “Though the cubs kept in the rear remained quiet,heavy rain caused a landslide that left us stranded for six hours on a muddy road,” he recalls.

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Chipra Mekola,an animal keeper at the Mini Zoo,says the cubs took some days settling down. “They probably felt suffocated confined to their small cages,” Chipra says.

They realised they couldn’t keep the cubs there for long,adds Deputy Conservator of Forests (Wildlife),Arunachal Pradesh,Pekyom Ringu. “The Mini Zoo being small,and the number of visitors to see the cubs increasing,we started thinking of either sending them back into the wild,or to another zoo.”

The WTI,in consultation with the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA),initially thought of releasing the two into the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary,but the Forest Department felt they would not be safe there.

Experts with the WTI then suggested sending them to the CWRC at Kaziranga for subsequent release in the wild. “But there were obviously objections from our people as to why two tiger cubs from Arunachal Pradesh were being taken to Kaziranga,” Ringu says.

After consultations lasting over five or six months,the decision was taken to move them to Itanagar. “Initially we thought of air-lifting them to the Biological Park in Itanagar. But for that Pawan Hans would have had to remove the seats of their chopper,which would have meant suspending regular passenger services to remote areas for at least three days. Chief Minister Nabam Tuki then suggested asking for a defence chopper. But finally we decided to take the land route,” Ringu says.

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Around 11.30 am on September 27,preparations began for the trip at the Mini Zoo in Roing. The tigers were tranquilised and put into separate iron cages. The cages were then loaded onto a Tata 407 mini-truck. While Dipok Bania and Jantu Nath drove the vehicle by turns,Abhijit Bhawal,a senior vet with the WTI,along with Buragohain,rode with them. Chipra Mekola and another animal keeper,Rahul Tanti,also took turns to join them for portions of the journey.

“We halted almost every hour to check the animals. They weren’t given any food because they were still under the influence of the sedatives that were injected into them before they were taken out of the Roing Mini Zoo. Thus they remained quiet most of the time,” says Buragohain.

They left in a convoy of four vehicles,including a police van with three policemen provided by the state government,driving down NH-52 to Sadiya on the north banks of the Brahmaputra,taking over two hours. “An advance party had already hired a private double-boat ferry to cross the river,and the mini-truck was driven right onto the boat,” says Ahmed,who was among the 16 who escorted the tigers.

Sriram Malla,who plies the ferry on that stretch of the river,was taken by surprise. “I have been plying boats across the Brahmaputra for more than 20 years now,and have ferried all kinds of people,including ministers,officers and even militants and criminals. But this was the first time I ferried two tigers. I had never even seen a real tiger in my life!” laughs Malla,adding that he managed to take a peek at Ipra and Chipi under the tarpaulin cover.

The 100-minute boat ride fetched him Rs 5,500,and he rushed home early that evening,he says,to tell his three children about his special passengers.

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Getting off at Saikhowa ghat in Assam’s Tinsukia district,the convoy hit NH-37 for Itanagar,via Kaziranga. “We drove very slowly,sometimes as slow as 30 km per hour,and every one or two hours the vets would conduct a check on the animals,” says Kuladeep Roy. “We had to also look for an isolated dhaba on the highway for food,because it was risky stopping at a crowded one with two tigers with us.”

While the tarpaulin hid the animals from any curious onlookers,as Buragohain says,“What if they had started roaring?”

The convoy passed through several towns — Doomdooma,Makum,Tinsukia,Dibrugarh,Moran,Sivasagar,Jorhat,Bokakhat,Tezpur,Biswanath Chariali and Gohpur — on way to Itanagar.

To the relief of the escort party,Ipra and Chipi remained quiet all through. “We stopped for a few hours at the CWRC in the Kaziranga National Park,reaching there around 3.30 am of September 28,but they remained in the cages without even a growl. They would stare at us when we inspected them,but that was all,” Buragohain says.

“We were very careful to ensure that the cubs had minimal stress,” adds Dr Bhawal,saying that was the reason they drove for a large part of the night.

During the five-hour halt at the CWRC,some of the team members caught some sleep,but others assigned specific tasks kept awake through the night. Still under the influence of the sedatives,Ipra and Chipi,however,slept well.

***

The convoy left Kaziranga around 8 am of September 28. The Brahmaputra again fell in the way,but this time they didn’t have to take a boat,crossing it via the Kaliabhomora bridge linking Kaliabor to Tezpur. From there it was another 190 km to the Arunachal Pradesh capital. The last stretch,from Holongi to Itanagar,where the road is not just suddenly steep but also winding,was another tricky part.

“We drove at about 10 km an hour so that Ipra and Chipi would not be disturbed,” says Dipok Baniya,who drove the mini-truck in this stretch. The man in the hot seat though didn’t break a sweat — he had earlier driven a full-grown tiger from the rescue centre at Kaziranga to Manas National Park western Assam,a distance of about 300 km.

In Itanagar,Raya Flago,curator of the Biological Park,Pekyom Ringu and over a dozen others had been waiting since noon to receive their newest admissions. “We kept in touch with the team every 10 to 15 minutes,until exactly at 3.52 pm,they were there at our gate,” says Flago.

“Waiting for the two tigers to arrive was like waiting for the groom. We would call up the team to find out where they had reached,and then enquire about Ipra and Chipi. Two enclosures that were lying vacant were done up,with minor repairs here and there,” says Flago.

The Biological Park in Itanagar is a sprawling 100-hectare complex,of which 1.5 hectares or about 15,000 sq m are kept exclusively for tigers. “With Ipra and Chipi,we now have seven tigers in all,three of which are females,” says Deputy Conservator Ringu.

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A fornight later,the curator says Ipra and Chipi seem well settled. “They have got much more space to run around here,and we are providing them live chicks so that they can chase them.”

Fed on the stipulated diet of beef and meat,they have also put on weight. Ipra weighs about 110 kg,while Chipi is 93 kg. “They seem to have liked their new home,which is much more wide and open in comparison to the Mini Zoo at Roing. They are running around,catching the live chicken that we give,and appear to have gained some weight. In fact we are conducting a thorough health check-up next week after our senior vet returns from a training programme in Bhubaneswar,” Ringu informs.

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Ipra Mekola,the one after whom Ipra was named,hopes the cubs are released into the wild soon. “These tigers are our pride,” he says. “Earlier people did not even believe that Dibang Valley had tigers.”

That’s what so great about them,says Jahan Ahmed. “Initially we thought they may belong to the South China sub-species,and had probably migrated through the rugged Eastern Himalayas to the Dibang Valley. But genetic tests have confirmed that they are Royal Bengal tigers,proving once again that the species is not going to be wiped out,as people think.”

Ahmed believes there could be anywhere between 50 and 100 Royal Bengal tigers in the Dibang Wildlife Sanctuary,spread over 4,149 sq km across two districts of Arunachal Pradesh. “Tribals very often talk about the presence of tigers in the fringe villages,while we have seen pug marks in several places,” he says.

With a proper survey yet to be carried out,the sanctuary has been waiting to be declared a tiger project for several years now. Ringu calls it a matter of time. “All formalities have been completed.”

Ipra and Chipi’s story may just seal the deal.

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