When a big cat decides to spend the night in the kitchen: Rescuing tigers in Kaziranga by WTI

In the wake of floods, when tigers took shelter in the kitchen or the goat shed, rescuers got into the act

When a big cat decides to spend the night in the kitchen: Rescuing tigers in Kaziranga by WTI
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Rupa Gandhi

Devastating floods in Assam displaced all forms of life. While people evacuated homes, wild animals fled from flooded sanctuaries to seek refuge on higher ground.

The annual floods that turns the mighty Brahmaputra to a marauding devourer of land, are in fact necessary for the unique Kaziranga ecosystem to thrive. The floodwaters carry tonnes of silt, recharge the water bodies (beels), wash away weeds and rejuvenate the grassland. Nature gives and takes and people know what’s coming. But of late, Nature has been sending the most unlikely visitors.

Wildlife Trust of India runs a one-of-its-kind rescue centre for distressed, injured and displaced wildlife that was established almost 20 years ago in response to floods in Kaziranga, Assam. The Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation an
Conservation (CWRC) is partnered by the Assam Forest Department and generously supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. A dedicated team of veterinarians and animal keepers rescue, rehabilitate and release wild animals and birds, such as elephants, rhinos, bears, clouded leopards, gibbons, etc. back to the wild.

The year 2020 has been unique in many ways – on one hand the team is grappling with Covid reality, searching for a new normal after lockdown lifts, the wild denizens continue to roam at will or stray into human dominated areas if their paths are blocked. So, when Kaziranga flooded this week, some of its tigers went roaming.

One exhausted tiger found its way into a goatshed, half submerged in water. When the lady of the house waded to the shed and touched what seemed like a sack under water, she immediately returned to the house and kept shaking in fear. She had touched a tiger!

The forest department was called who in turn called our wildlife rescue team at 8 AM. The tiger was in the goatshed in swirling waters and more people had got wind of it. Such situations can elicit two kinds of responses: either an angry mob turns towards a harassed carnivore or local authorities maintain crowd control so that experts can conduct a rescue in peace.

Fortunately, the communities around Kaziranga are a sensitised lot and the local enforcement agencies did their job well. The rescue team decided to wait until dark and let the tiger rest and regain its energy to give it a safe passage to the forest. Providing safe passage for a wild animal is a priority where possible and rescue or handling the animal is only a second option.

Our veterinarian and biologist kept a close watch on the tiger until people retired to their homes after sunset. By then the tiger had taken shelter in a bamboo thicket. The forest department and the IFAW-WTI rescuers started ‘chasing’ the tiger, drawing it out of the thicket into open waters. They kept guiding the swimming tiger, ‘chasing’ it towards the forest, an operation that took more than an hour until the tiger reached the edge of the waters and disappeared into the safety of the forest. Our team would sleep peacefully that night. But not for long.

The very next day, reports of two tigers around the busy National Highway 715 set the forest department and the IFAW-WTI teams in carnivore rescue mode. The local administration blocked the highway in seven places to allow the tigers free movement and give safe passage across the highway to the forested hills. One of these tigers acquiesced and made its way towards the hills of Karbi Anglong. The third tiger was still at large A close vigil was mounted with various teams deployed, prepared for a capture scenario but there was no sign of the tiger and the operation was called off after dark. At midnight, the big cat slunk into the house of a local resident, Prabin Bora.

Bora had just opened the kitchen door when he saw the big cat and with amazing reflexes and presence of mind, he bolted the door and called the forest department. Bora’s kitchen has two doors and the tiger had entered from the outer door, which was still open. The forest department and the IFAWWTI rescue team moved his family out while a team kept vigil on the open kitchen door, ready for action if the tiger emerged. But this big cat seemed too tired and had decided to avail Bora’s hospitality.

The house was surrounded by several water bodies formed due to floods. The open kitchen door did not affect the tiger (by now confirmed as a two-year-old sub-adult tigress) and she spent the entire night there with teams on vigil outside. Operations to draw her out started at dawn. Firing blanks, making a noise, crackers – everything possible within protocols was tried but the tigress loved this home and its hearth. An uninvited guest who overstays needs to be cajoled out or forcibly removed if necessary. And so, a plan to capture her took shape.

One team in front of the house, one team prepared with capture equipment behind the house and enforcement agencies cordoning off the area - after 28 hours of initiating this operation, the IFAW-WTI veterinarian fired the tranquiliser shot that hit her perfectly. Within moments, the vet was conducting preliminary physical checks on her and moved her to a waiting vehicle that transported her to CWRC, the wildlife rescue centre.

Such a smooth operation was possible because of excellent co-ordination and teamwork of all stakeholders. The presence of mind and attitude of Prabin Bora the tigress’ host, the cooperative public who helped and facilitated the rescues when their own homes were under water, the indefatigable staff of the forest department and our wildlife rescue centre and the administration that stands for conserving our natural heritage, or the tiger who is the ultimate gentleman (or woman) that minds its own business and attacks only if provoked – humanity needs to thank them all.

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