The afternoon of May 31st, 2002 was like any other at the Jungle Lodges Resort in Kabini. For us (my wife, sons –Vikram and Sandeep- and myself), it would be our second-last safari before returning home to Bangalore.
Leopard and tiger sightings were very few and far between those days, and on our trips into the jungle over the past four days we had seen plenty of chital, sambar, gaur and elephants, and the usual birdlife for that time of the year, but nothing spectacular. This trip was to change all that, and the whole conservation fraternity would be jolted like never before.
We were in an open Maruti Gypsy, as was the routine those days, and went to all the usual spots – the backwaters, President Road, boating point, Mastigudi watchtower, and Seeguru gate, but there were no signs of any big cats or even wild dogs. Upon being informed that there were alarm calls near Tiger Tank, and so we crossed the main road (there was no Zoning system then) and drove on the S-bend Road to Tiger Tank. The forest was silent. There were no vehicles in the area. Probably everyone had moved off when the alarm calls stopped. Just as we, too, decided to leave, the jungle erupted in a cacophony of chital, sambar and langur calls. They seemed to be coming from the power line road, and our driver steered the jeep to where the calls were the most strident. Guided by the stares of the langurs on the treetops, we came upon a large male tiger lying in a ditch with overhanging bamboo. Our guide identified it as the Mastigudi male.
It was now quite dark. Menacing rain clouds hung overhead, and it soon began to drizzle. I was equipped with my, then, trusty Minolta 7xi film camera and Minolta 100-300 lens. I had a ISO 100 Fujichrome Sensia slide film in the body. This was not the best combo to have under such light conditions, but that was the best I had, and attempted to make as many images as I could. If only the digital era had arrived, the images would have come out much better. However, my son, Vikram, was handling a video camera, which was a blessing, and the video that he made would go on to become an invaluable tool to conservationists in the years to come.
After the initial excitement of seeing a tiger in the wild, we noticed that every time he moved, there was the metallic sound of a chain being pulled. This was puzzling, indeed, but we couldn't make out what the connection was. After about 10 minutes or so, he got up as if to move away, and it was then that it became very clear to everyone. His left front leg was in the grip of a huge jaw trap, and a heavy steel chain hung from this monstrosity. After hobbling only a few steps, he lay down again, and began to lick at his injured foot. We were all shocked into silence, and deeply depressed to see the plight of this magnificent male tiger.
Our immediate task was to inform the forest department staff, but we wanted to tell ‘Papa' Wakefield first. He arrived on the scene in a few minutes, and said he would stay near the tiger while we set off to inform the forest officials. There had never been any reported instance of a jaw trap in any of the jungles in South India, and there had also been no record of any poachers in the area. Consequently, the initial response from the Forest Department was one of strong denial. After a lot of discussions, we finally inferred that the matter might proceed no further and feared that no investigation would be conducted.
The next morning we returned to Bangalore, and I immediately took the video clipping to my friend, Darius Taraporewala, of Star News. Before airing it he wanted it authenticated, and called Dr Ullas Karanth, one of the leading tiger experts in the world to come down to the studio to have a look at the video. Once Dr Karanth verified that the video was indeed genuine, it was then sent off to Star News headquarters in New Delhi to be aired on the national news. The images were repeatedly shown, and the tiger and the jaw trap were clearly visible to one and all.
Goaded by higher ups in the department in New Delhi, a search party was organized, and after eight days, the tiger was finally located near the Kabini backwaters, the jaw trap still stuck to his foot, which had now turned gangrenous. Mighty ‘Masti', as he was now called, was tranquillised and caught, but his foot could not be saved. It had to be amputated, and he was first shifted to Mysore zoo, and later to the Bannerghatta sanctuary. Masti is no more.
The Forest Department's action, albeit delayed, resulted in the capture and subsequent prosecution of a gang of 30 poachers, who had apparently been engaged in their nefarious activities for over two years. How they had escaped detection for so long still remains a mystery. They were all from Katni in Madhya Pradesh and, apparently, part of the infamous Sansar Chand gang.
The whole episode throws up a lot of questions:
1. Could ‘Masti' have been saved if he had been found and tranquilised the same day that we saw him? He would have lived out his life as a wild tiger, roaming freely in his beloved forest.
2. Were there was no intelligence mechanisms in place to find out if any poachers in operating in Nagarahole area?
3. Is the forest department short-staffed, especially the ground staff?
4.Why is that no system is in place to cater to such ‘emergency' situations?
5. Would we have been believed if my photos, or my son's video, were of poor quality? Or, if we did not have a camera at all?
Dr.Ajit Huilgols' crucial documentation as a tourist in Kabini threw open a very dangerous situation wherein organized poaching gangs from N.India were targeting S.Indian forests for Tigers for the first time. This single incident has led to a series of systemic changes with a regular intelligence sharing mechanism through National Tiger Conservation Authority, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau and many other enforcement agencies with Tiger Reserves. It is a classic case where Tiger conservation has benefitted from Tiger tourism.