I had seen a tiger in the wild only once. Deep inside the rainforests of Kalakad – Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in the southern Western Ghats. It was a memorable sighting that I always treasure and proudly tell others about.
Before KMTR, the only memorable tiger sighting I had was at the rescue and rehabilitation center in Vandalur Zoo, Chennai. It was sometime in 1997, and I was there as a part of a study tour during my post-graduate course. The veterinarian at Vandalur said that the tiger had been captured from Valparai, as it was apparently involved in a conflict incident. Never in my dreams in those days had I thought that I would one day be working here in Valparai.
It is the 28th April 2012, and I am at Valparai. Ganesh called in the morning and said that there is a report of a tiger near human habitation and asked me to go and see it. A tiger?! We see leopards here in the Valparai plateau, but tigers are shy of humans and are usually seen only in the surrounding Anamalai Tiger Reserve. Nisarg had seen it there recently, much to our envy. From Ganesh’s description that the tiger was near some houses at Periyar Nagar and unable to move, I figured that it was not going to be a very pleasant sighting.
The story of the tiger went like this. The people of Periyar Nagar had been seeing the tiger near there for about two weeks. The local people said that it had preyed on a calf a couple of days before when I went there to see that tiger. The owner of that calf buried the carcass the next day. The hungry tiger obviously had to go for another one. People said that the next day while it was trying to capture another calf the cow attacked the tiger. The tiger was badly injured and unable to move, and so lay down in a kitchen garden in one of the houses in Periyar Nagar, and it was still lying there.
I went inside the small gate that leads to the kitchen garden. Some ten metres from where I was standing, I saw black stripes in a fading orange pelage. I never thought I would see a tiger that close. I stood there only for two minutes. Unable to bear the sight of the tiger in such a sad state in such a place, I came away immediately. Yet in a brief moment, I saw the tiger slowly raising its head. And I saw its eyes.
Sometimes you can figure out what people think and feel from their eyes, right? I still remember the way the tiger at Vandalur Zoo looked at the person standing outside the cage. It was full of anger.
I could not see the eyes of the tiger in the KMTR rainforest: it was just going away from us. But in the tiger lying in the kitchen garden of Periyar Nagar, I could see its eyes. I didn’t not see any anger, but there was something—something intangible that I was unable to fathom.
It was lying there throughout the day waiting for the veterinarian to come here all the way from Mudumalai to tranquilize it. The plan was to treat the wounds so that the Forest Department officials can translocate it away from the human habitation. The action started as soon as he got reached. After an attempt to catch it with nets that failed because of the obstruction and vegetation, it was decided to tranquilise the animal. The veterinarian darted the tiger on its thigh but the tiger leaned back, bit the syringe and pulled it off from its body. The second dart went in and it worked: the tiger went down. In the meantime, it continued to rain heavily. Despite the rain, local people stayed to see the tiger. The local Forest Department officials and policemen did a commendable job in controlling the crowd. By not letting people near the tiger, the veterinarian and other Forest Department staff could carry out their work without any hassle. The veterinarian disclosed that it was a male tiger and estimated that it was around ten years old. It was around 7:45 p.m., when the tiger was caged and taken to the Manamboly Forest Camp, inside the Anamalai Tiger Reserve. The tiger survived overnight and was given medical attention by the veterinarian who stayed with the animal. Still, the next morning we came to know that he had passed away.
When we reached Manamboly at around 11 a.m., the Nadu Forest Department staff had already laid him on the ground. He was massive. His rasping tongue was out, eyes gone inside the socket. He had pus-covered injuries around the sharp claws, and his huge canines were worn out. He was dead, yet he looked so majestic. The veterinarian, Dr. Kalaivanan, the Manamboly Range Officer Mr. Arokiaraj Xavier and several of his staff were ready to start the post-mortem. We were waiting for the local press reporters to arrive. Once they reached, the photographic session started. The tiger was surrounded by several people who were posing for the photograph.
Just before that photographic session Mr. Bhuto (a famous anti-poaching watcher of Manamboly Range, although sometimes people call him Bhutan as well, and we do not know how he get his name(s)), and Mr. Murali (another anti-poaching watcher) were sitting next to him and touching the tiger. Mr. Bhuto starting counting how many stripes are there in the tigers body, including the tail to tell others triumphantly that he had counted all the stripes. Mr. Murali touched the tiger’s canine and the sharp claws, his eyes wide open in amazement. It was fascinating to watch how they clearly admired the tiger.
Then came the time for the knives and scalpels. First, they rolled the tiger sideways so that the head was up. Two anti-poaching watchers were doing the job, one of whom was Murali. The veterinarian gave instructions on how and where to cut. First the rib cage was cut open and split apart, and the veterinarian examined the internal organs.
There was a surprise in store when the pericardium was opened to examine the heart of the tiger. Pierced into the heart, like little daggers, were two porcupine quills.
The veterinarian said the tiger had preyed on a porcupine and accidentally ingested the quills that had found its way inside the body to pierce into its heart. In the tiger’s stomach there was nothing except a half foot long thin quill. He said the tiger might have preyed on this porcupine a month ago. The lungs had worms. The kidneys were pale and also seemed to be not functioning properly.
I remembered again the look in the eyes of this tiger when I first saw it in Periyar Nagar. It could have been pain. Sheer pain.
The poor old tiger had been suffering from multiple-organ dysfunction. It was the prey that had killed the predator; in fact, they had killed each other. But this was not how the newspapers told the story. The headlines said, ‘Tiger loses fight to cow in Valparai‘ and ‘Tiger attacked by cow dies’. What a disgrace for a tiger! A Tamil newspaper Dinamalar said that this tiger had killed more than ten cattle. With the quills pierced in his heart, how could he hunt? The cattle may have possibly hurt the tiger but definitely were not responsible for killing the tiger. I wish reporters verified the facts before they publish the news. It may be catchy to give such titles but wasn’t that a humiliation for the tiger? Besides the misinformation conveyed by the headline, there is the issue of insensitivity. Do we disgrace people after they die? That tiger must have been a dignified living being when it was alive. I do not think that it deserved such statements after its demise.
Those were the thoughts when I saw the newspapers the next day. But during the post-mortem there were some touching and humane moments. When the veterinarian was instructing the forest watchers about the post-mortem, one of the wildlife experts quipped, “if you learn these techniques it will be useful later. In case if there is another tiger death, you won’t need a Veterinarian”. Murali who was helping in collecting samples said promptly, “We do not want to see another tiger dead in this place. Already, they are dwindling in numbers”.
The post-mortem has been carried out as per the National Tiger Conservation Authority guidelines. The tiger was also required to be burned as per the guidelines. A pile of wood had been stacked, the tiger lifted and placed on the stack. It was overcast and Mr. Xavier was hurrying everyone to finish before the rain. More logs and billets were placed on top. Kerosene was sprinkled. The fire was about to be lit. Then, Bhuto came rushing and removed the logs covering the face of the tiger: there were some rituals to perform he said. He brought salt, a cup of milk, and a pack of turmeric powder. He asked three people to pour milk in the tiger’s mouth. He threw rock salt over the logs and sprinkled turmeric powder. Then he asked Mr. Xavier to light the match. Mr. Xavier said, “We should have got a garland, I forgot to do that, it never struck me”.
I am not a great fan of rituals but I returned home and took bath. Isn’t it a custom to take bath after attending any funeral?