Navegaon (Gondia), Jan. 8: When he sighted the big cat resting in the shrubs a few metres from him, 30-year-old Ganesh Sonawane froze in fear.
“I was trembling,” he confessed. Sonawane was cycling back to his village Bhivkhidki, 6km from Navegaon National Park, enjoying a song on his mobile phone, he said, when he heard the tiger’s roar.
Two days earlier, on January 4, the big cat had attacked a 19-year-old girl from his village as her aunt and two other women helplessly watched.
His village was a kilometre away. Sonawane began to shout feverishly, and the tiger retreated into the forest, he said. “It looked healthy.”
The tiger is believed to have killed five women in less than 20 days, bringing back memories of a tiger that had to be put down after it went on a killing spree outside the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur a few years ago.
Within minutes of Sonawane shouting for help, Bhivkhidki villagers — on alert since the January 4 incident — were at the spot, many wielding sticks, some even daring to enter the shrubs.
“If you can’t do it (get the tiger),” a village leader, Dnyaneshwar Gahane, told forest officials, “we know how to.”
It was 11 am, January 6, Sunday. In the beautiful log-hut that oversees the Navegaon reservoir in the national park, senior forest officials were waiting for news about the tiger’s location. Their patrol teams the previous night had drawn a blank.
With local villagers exploding in anger, the state’s political leadership in Mumbai is also tuned in to the developments around Navegaon.
|(left) Buffalo calves being taken to the forest as bait for the tiger near Bhivkhidki village; a forest official checks a tranquilliser gun during patrolling in the Bhivkhidki forests
The news from Bhivkhidki brought hope. Six teams were rushed. By dusk, they had drawn a blank again. They sensed the presence of a tiger in the 14sqkm reserve forest between the village and Navegaon National Park, saw its pugmarks, but did not spot it.
Two dozen commandos of the elite C-60 anti-Maoist force armed with SLRs and AK-47s, 30-odd guards of the newly formed Special Tiger Protection Force, wildlife volunteers and locals who know the reserve forests form 10 teams that are part of the operation to hunt the tiger.
“We lost a golden opportunity on January 4,” said one shooter. “I had it in my line of fire, but we did not have orders.” The orders were to shoot a leopard.
When the killing spree began on December 15 with the death of Chhaya Deshpande near Lakhandur town in Bhandara, forest officials believed the hunter was a leopard. Its second victim — on December 24 — was Muktabai Ganveer of Salebardi village, 15km north. Five days later, Mirabai Bahekar was killed in her fields in Gudri village, further up.
But trained forest staff said the pugmarks were too small for a tiger and Navegaon had leopards, no tigers.
The principal chief conservator of forests (wild life) and chief wildlife warden of Maharashtra, S.W.H. Naqvi, issued orders to kill the “leopard”. For three days, forest officials hunted for a leopard.
On New Year’s Day, they spotted the tiger after it had claimed its fourth victim. Vandana Meshram, of Chikhli village, had entered Navegaon National Park to collect firewood — the only one killed inside a protected forest.
Now there was confusion if it was one animal or two.
“It’s the same animal, a tiger,” said Vidya Athreya, a well-known wildlife researcher, at the site on the request of the state government. “It seems to be a sub-adult that got separated from its mother prematurely and strayed away from its habitat.”
The tiger showed up again on January 4, when BA student Bhagyashree Neware of Bhivkhidki became its fifth victim. For hours, the tiger sat by her body, having dragged it a few metres.
Fresh orders were issued by Naqvi that evening after more than 4,000 people ransacked police and forest vehicles. The orders are to kill the tiger if it can’t be captured.
Late on Monday afternoon the tiger was spotted near Salebardi, 15km from Bhivkhidki. With no time to tranquillise it, three C-60 commandos were asked to shoot. Twenty-seven rounds were fired from AK-47s. The tiger escaped unhurt.
“The tiger seems to be moving back to the area from where it came,” Kishor Mishrikotkar, an ACF leading the operation, suggested.
One of the shooters doesn’t miss the irony: “We are hunting for the animal we must treasure and protect!” The man-tiger conflict is not new to them or to the Chandrapur forests, where over 100 people have been killed in tiger attacks since 2005; it is new to the Navegaon vicinity where, for years, the striped cat had no presence.
This area is part of a tiger corridor, the landscape contiguous to the Tadoba Andhari reserve and other protected forests with a tiger population.
The focus has been on conserving tigers within the confines of a protected area. But the new population often migrates out in search of new territory. As several field volunteers suggest: “The growing population in the territorial areas has no custodians.”
This tiger, experts think, might have either travelled from Bramhapuri in Chandrapur or the newly carved out Umred-Karandly sanctuary in Nagpur. Both are linked to Navegaon by a green corridor.
The tiger is behaving weirdly, Athreya said. It is selectively attacking humans when its natural prey are in abundance all along the 60km stretch of reserve forest interspersed with villages it has traversed since December 15. “It probably can’t hunt,” she said. “Probably,” she stressed.
What’s also strange is all the five victims were killed during the day, forest officials said. It doesn’t settle at one place for a long time.
There are unanswered questions: its age; gender; what happened to its mother; why it is behaving the way it is; why it is selectively killing humans; where it has come from.