Tamil Nadu: The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) will honour three people – Maadhan, Bomman, and Kaalan – for their extraordinary contribution in capturing a man-eating tiger named ‘Mudumalai Division Tiger 23’, popularly known as T23, alive. The tiger was captured on October 15, 2021, after a gruelling 21-day operation in the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu.
These three anti-poaching watchers from the Kurumba tribal community will be getting the ‘Reward to frontline staff for extraordinary performance in the field’ from the Union Minister for Environment Forest and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav on the upcoming occasion of Global Tiger Day on July 29 at Chandrapur Forest Academy in Maharashtra.
Along with Forest Department officials, Maadhan, Bomman and Kaalan tracked T-23, which had reportedly killed four persons in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and Masinagudi area, for 21 days using its pugmark (footprint), scat, smell, and other clues. “We only did our jobs. We didn’t expect any awards from the department. But now, we are seeing this award as an encouragement for us and our work,” Bomman tells TNM over the phone. Bomman joined the Tamil Nadu Forest Department in 2009 as an anti-poaching watcher and was involved in elephant-tracking initially. Over time, he says he helped the department track nine elephants, three leopards, and four man-eating tigers, including T23.
“It wouldn’t have been tough for us to track T23 in Devar Shola tea estate as it primarily has leopards, unlike the the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, which has many more tigers. But I had seen this tiger since he was two years old. He had a unique pattern and he didn’t kill after sunset. It was not easy like tracking elephants. The risk was high as T23 already hunted human beings, so we tracked him while being on very high alert,” Bomman says.
- Advertisement -
It was the first time in the state that the man-eating tiger was captured alive. More than 200 forest staffers from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka as well as people from tribal communities were deployed for this operation, which took place between the territories of Devar Shola of Gudalur and Masinagudi from September 24 to October 15, 2021. Along with Kumki elephants Udayan and Srinivasan, sniffing dogs were also involved in capturing this old male tiger alive, after it killed four persons and numerous cattle in and around Mudumalai Tiger Reserve last year.
According to the veterinarians who were involved in the capture operation, it was very difficult for the department to find T23 in the tiger reserve, as the landscape is home for other big cats like leopards. Due to the thick foliage, drones were getting stuck. The involvement of sniffer dogs did not help either, as they would run away on sensing the presence of big cats. Eventually, it was these three trackers who trekked into the wild, even as incessant rain poured down. They calculated the size of every pugmark they saw, and used the pungent smell of the tiger’s urine to locate it.
“On October 15 last year, some of us saw the T23 for a moment in Koottarapara, Masinagudi. That was the day when one of the veterinarian doctors, Rajesh, tranquilised the tiger, after we confirmed its location. Then, we could capture him,” says Maadhan.
“Forest Department officials recommended our names for promotion from anti-poaching watchers to forest watchers. This one operation brought many changes in people’s perspectives about tribal people working with the Forest Department. Previous operations involving man-eating tigers led to the death of tigers. We put in all our effort to capture T23 alive,” he adds.
T23 was relocated to the Chamundi Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre at Kooragalli near Mysore Zoo.
T23’s history of attacking humans
According to K Ashokan, a wildlife veterinarian from Satyamangalam Tiger Reserve who was also involved in the operation to capture T23, the tiger did not always attack humans, and only started to do so after it got displaced. T23 was forced to leave its home range after it lost its battle for territory with another tiger, T121, in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. It also lost sight in one eye and its carnassial teeth on the right side. Looking for easy prey, T23 wandered into the buffer zones, where it reportedly killed cattle and humans.
T23 first attacked a human on September 24, 2021 – a man named Chandran in Devar Sholai. He was admitted to the Coimbatore General Hospital for treatment, but succumbed to injuries. Then, the big cat attacked another man called Basavan in Masinagudi while he was herding cattle. People were told that T23 would be hunted down, but wildlife activists were against this and approached the Madras High Court. A PIL was filed by a Chennai-based animal rights group, People for Cattle in India (PCI), against the order to hunt and kill T23 in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The bench comprising then Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice PD Audikesavulu ordered the Forest Department to not kill T23, and noted that it may not be a man-eater. Justice Banerjee also said that the tiger must be caught alive as the tiger population is dwindling.
“T23 attacked humans who were sitting or sleeping on the ground. Tigers usually don’t attack humans who are standing. We were really happy about the orders of the Madras High Court, and engaged in the tracking process after we heard the order,” recalls Kaalan, who was with the Forest Department for 18 years as an anti-poaching watcher. Referring to the upcoming felicitation on July 29, he says, “This award makes our community very proud. We didn’t expect this award and only did our duty. In the future, officials who would be involved in capturing tigers will use this operation to capture T23 as an example.”
Nilgiris’ human-animal conflict turned tigers into man-eaters
Nilgiris is one of the hotspots that witnesses many human-animal interactions, as some of the forest land was converted into tea estates to provide livelihoods to the repatriates from Sri Lanka, back in the 1970s. The forests became fragmented as the number of tea estates mushroomed along forest boundaries. Wild animals could no longer move uninhibited and many, including elephants, tigers and leopards, started getting spotted in the residential areas as their natural habitats were encroached upon.
The animals, especially carnivores that lost territorial fights, that were injured and/or old, started looking for easy prey, such as domestic cattle. This led the big cats to start venturing into the nearest villages and settlements, and eventually, for them to also attack some humans.
Tiger attacks on humans in Nilgiris started in 2014, and so far, four tigers including T23 have been known to repeatedly attack humans. While the latter was captured, the other three tigers were tracked and killed. In T23’s case, it was the involvement of the tribal community that helped the Forest Department capture it alive. This is because tribes like the Kurumbas have passed on the knowledge of tracking wild animals from one generation to the next.
Even though individuals from tribal communities have invaluable indigenous knowledge, and are often the frontline staff in the Forest Department’s operations to track wild animals, their demands for permanent jobs are yet to be met. “Some of us worked in the Forest Department for many years, but only as temporary staff. We know the forests and wild animals better than anyone.
The government should recognise our dedication towards our jobs, be considerate of the risks we face, increase our salaries, and give us permanent jobs. It will help us get all the benefits the permanent staff enjoy,” says an employee from a tribal community, who works with the Tamil Nadu Forest Department, on the condition of anonymity.