At around 1000 hours in the morning the Deputy Field Director of Ranthambhore national park (RS Shekhawat) called me and asked me to reach the Tadla chowki (or Forest Guard House) near Banas river as soon as possible, along with MD Parasher. He told me that the two “Chiroli cubs” were dead, probably poisoned and that he was inside the Ranthambhore national park and heading to the area where this happened. He wanted both of us to be an “independent witness” to the case.
I got in touch with MD Parasher (an artist based in Ranthambhore) and we left for the Tadla in a few minutes. When we reached the chowki there was a guard waiting for us and from there we drove towards a small village called “Tadla ka khet” about a mile ahead of Amli Deh (a deep water pool in the river). This area is across the river Banas and lies in the Baler forest range, at the edge of the Keladevi sanctuary, which is a part of Ranthambhore tiger reserve. We met up with RS Shekhawat, Range Officer Daulat Singh and the Range Officer Baler at the edge of river Banas, just beyond Amli Deh. There were about a dozen forest guards with them. The Deputy Director confirmed that the two cubs (actually sub adult tigers who had separated from their mother slightly over two months ago) were dead.
The “Tadla ka khet” village lies in the midst of ravines between the Banas river basin and the Keladevi plateau. The terrain is typical of the ravines that are found along Chambal river and its tributaries – steep and low sand cliffs that have been cut by monsoon rain fed “nallah” (streams) and there is little level ground in the entire area. There is some level ground near the village, which is used for farming.
- This is view of Tadla ka khet village from a small hillock nest to where the tigers were found dead. The Keladevi plateau can be seen in the background.
There are very few large mammals that can be seen there in the day because of the disturbance by goat herders. One does see a lot of hoof prints and droppings so mammals like Nilgai, Wild boar, Sambar etc must be using the area, more so during the nights, when there are no herders around.
There are about 5 extended families in this small village of farmers and goat herders. Only one of these five families does not rear goats, while the other mainly depend on goat rearing for their living.
Technically this area is in the Baler range of the Keladevi Sanctuary, as it is across the river Banas but for the last two (more or less) years its management comes under the Deputy Director Ranthambhore national park and not under the Deputy Director Karauli, who administers the rest of Keladevi Sanctuary.
Ranthambhore tiger reserve consists of the Ranthambhore national park, keladevi sanctuary, Sawai Mansingh sanctuary, Sawaimadhopur sanctuary, Kuwalji protected area and some smaller protected areas.
- Map of Ranthambhore tiger reserve
The two tigers that died are supposed to be 16 to 17 months old though they appeared to be older than that to me. The forest department informed us that they were first camera trapped about 13-14 months ago in the Chiroli area of the Kundera range of Ranthambhore national park. That is why they are known as the Chiroli cubs. As far as I know, they were never ever seen in any of the tourist zones and there are very few photographs of this family. They must have been regularly picked up in the camera traps in Chiroli and Bheed area of the national park but since these areas are out of bound for us I do not know much about these tigers. These two cubs had separated from their mother somewhere in January 2010 and since then had moved out of the national park to the Baler range of Keladevi sanctuary, which is a part of the tiger reserve. Right now Ranthambhore national park has far too many male tigers so the moment male cubs separate from their mother they have to start looking for a territory in the fringes of the national park. The other more dominant males ensure that they have to do that. In the last few months almost all the tigers that are moving out of the national park are young males that have just separated from their mother.
What happened on 7th March 2010 (Sunday):
Parasher and I reached near Tadla ka khet by 1100 hours. We parked about a 100 meters away from where the tigers were lying dead and where there were three other forest department jeeps. By that time the forest guards and officers had tracked the entire area but I decided to do it again for my information. The Deputy Director and the other officers present informed us that a team of forest officers and guards were searching the village and the area around for the people who could have done this. One of the forest guards (Lakshmi Pandit, who I know well from before), told me that the guards from Tadla ki chowki had seen pugmarks of the tigers on the 4th and 5th March at some distance but did not find any pugmarks on the 6th. On the 7th morning while tracking this area they smelt rotting flesh and that is how they found the dead tigers.
We walked a short distance from there to the place where the one of cubs was lying dead. This tiger (tiger 1) was lying at the edge of a dry streambed (nallah). A few meters ahead along the same nallah we saw a carcass of a goat that had been almost totally consumed. The area around this goat’s carcass was full of tiger pugmarks. Between the goat’s carcass and the dead tiger there were two tiger scats and one patch of dark vomit. Lopped off branches of thorny Acacia tree were placed around the carcass in such a way that there was only one easy way (the one on the steam bed) to get to this carcass. This was obviously done to “lead” the tiger to the goat’s carcass. The Tadla ka khet village was not more than 500 meters (as the crow flies) from this place.
- Tiger 1 – he was found at the edge of a dry streambed (nallah) a short distance away from the poisoned goat.
- The dead goat that was poisoned and placed in the nallah.
- Scat found near Tiger 1.
About 50 feet away from this goat’s carcass, on a low mud hill, there was a lot of goat hair lying on the ground. From this place there were drag marks and human footprints to a Salvadora tree. On top of this tree was a carcass of another goat and some branches were lopped off on this tree. It was clear that some people had dragged this goat’s carcass to the tree and then placed it on a branch of the tree after lopping some small branches off.
- The second dead goat’s carcass that was found on top of a tree.
The body of the other male tiger (Tiger 2) was lying in the open, in a saucer shaped basin, about a 100 meters away from that of the first tiger’s body. This tiger’s body was not as badly decomposed as the first ones. In fact both the bodies were not too badly decomposed. Predators decompose really fast and usually there is nothing left in 3 or 4 days time, particularly in months like March, which are pretty hot. There were broad drag marks leading away from this tiger’s body. I followed these drag marks. The marks led to a small shady Acacia tree. It was obvious that this tiger (Tiger 2) had rested and vomited under this tree for some time and then he dragged himself from this tree to the point where he finally died. This was obvious from the width of the drag marks, which had “stretched out” pugmarks and vomit spots on them. There were hyena and jackals pugmarks all over the place and it was clear that some animal had tried to eat this tiger’s carcass but had given up. A part of this tigers flank was opened up but hardly anything at all was consumed.
- Body of the second tiger (Tiger2) was lying in the open in a saucer shaped basin.
From reading the tracks around (I had a good couple of hours to do so) I concluded the following:
- • These two tigers had killed two goats in the nallah.
- • One of these two goats was dragged of by at least two people to a Salvadora tree and placed on top of the tree so that the tiger could not get to it.
- • The other goat (the one that was eaten by the tigers) was left in the nallah, very close to where they were killed. It was this goat that was poisoned.
- • The tigers had eaten the poisoned goat. Tiger 1 probably had the bulk of the meat and died close to the goat’s carcass. This tiger’s carcass was in a worse shape that the other one’s. The tongue was hanging out and the eyes had almost totally popped out of the socket.
- • The other tiger managed to walk some distance and then rested under a tree, where he had vomited at least once. This tiger had then dragged himself some distance and then died.
- • The goats were attacked in the daytime because around here goats are never left alone and are taken to an enclosure within the village when they are not being grazed in the dark. Goats are too weak and precious to be left alone overnight.
A little after noon, the team of veterinary doctor, forensic expert from Sawai Madhopur mobile Forensic unit, few other government officers and local police had arrived. By then almost all the officers of Ranthambhore tiger reserve, including the Field Director, four Assistant Conservator of Forests, two more Forest Rangers and many forest guards had arrived. Post mortem was conducted on the tigers and the goats and forensic samples were collected. A Field report was written up both Parasher and I signed it as independent witnesses. The carcasses of both the tigers and the goats were then burnt till there was nothing left. One interesting thing that the veterinary doctor told us that there were two cut marks (probably made with an axe) on the body of tiger 1. These were made after the tiger had died.
- Autopsy was conducted on both the tigers on the spot and forensic samples were collected. The doctor and the forensic experts were sure that the tigers had died of poisoning.
Sometimes around noon some members of the team of forest officials who were searching the neighborhood for people came back to inform the DFO that they did not find any one in the Tadla ka khet village, except one young man and one old sick man. All of them had run away when they saw the first Forest Department jeep arrive. They did find a few women form the village in their fields on the Banas riverbed. The forest officers were interrogating this young man and some other people who were working in the fields on the riverbank (about half a kilometer away from this spot). A few of them informed us that the dead goats belonged to a man called Ram Khiladi Gujjar from Tadla ka khet. All through this time we could hear men shouting (to each other) and looking at the proceedings from top of the plateau. They were clearly visible but I could not make out what they were shouting. This went on for a few hours. We could see these people but to get to the top of the plateau would have taken any one of us more than an hour. So there was no chance of catching them.
It was close to sunset by then and most of us (Parasher, the doctors and forensic people etc) left. The entire forest department team stayed behind to conduct raids in the area.
I tried calling up the Deputy Director on Sunday night before I went to sleep but could not get through to him. They had not returned from the area of operation.
The next morning I called the Deputy Director as soon as I got up and what he told me was that they were conducting raids in the area till late in the night. They had managed to apprehend two main accused – Ram Khiladi Gujjar (the owner of the goats that had been killed by the tigers) and one of his friends / relatives Mukesh Gujjar. The Deputy Director also mentioned that these two main accused had told them that on the afternoon of the 4th March the two tigers had attacked the heard of goats and killed two goats. The tigers had injured a third goat that later died in the village. The herders managed to scare the two tigers off the kill. They put one of the goat’s body on top of the tree while they guarded the second goat’s body (to keep the tigers away). Ram Khiladi went to the nearby Khandar town and bought a bottle of strong pesticide (locally known as Aldrin though it is a different brand) and some syringes. He and Mukesh injected one of the goat’s carcass with this pesticide a number of times and poured the rest of the pesticide in the offal’s of the goat. They then left the poisoned goat in the nallah and cordoned a part of the nallah off with thorny branches. By the time they finished doing that it had become dark. That night the tigers did not return to the kill. However, the next night (on the 5th March) both the tigers came back and ate the entire poisoned goat. The two accused found the bodies of the tiger the next morning just after sunrise.
Unfortunately these two tigers died because the three goats that these two tigers killed were more precious for the herders than two living tigers. Rupees 2000 (about 40 US dollars) of financial loss for two people killed two living tigers. This unfortunately is the reality of tiger conservation in wild India and no amount of campaigning can change this. Unless a living tiger has financial value for most of the people who live near tiger habitats, tiger are not going to survive.
- A note about me:
- I have been living full time on the outskirts of Ranthambhore national park for the last 12 years. I know this park and the area around it very well. I have been to the park as a tourist, volunteer, worker, photographer, film crew and so on – more times than I can remember. My field tracking skills are reasonably good for forest guard standards – which in crude terms means that I can read the tracks way better than anyone who can read this. What I “concluded from reading the tracks” is very close to what the other officers and officials present there. We are talking about people who have a lot of experience on the ground.