Jean Paul Sartre would have culled an existential hero out of him. He was a gypsy by compulsion. Throughout the ten years of his life, he never managed to establish a territory of his own, always driven out by his stronger peers. With a length of 246 cm, he was considerably undersized. He had small genitals. One of his canines was missing, two were broken. His lungs, were dysfunctional—infected to a degree of seventy percent with paragonimus. He could not chase his prey; he could not roar. For the last nine days of his life he was starving; the post mortem found an alimentary canal full of tapeworms. His identity was fiercely debated; some said he was somebody else; some said he was a she. He was a victim of the rumour mill, of an unscientifically carried out census, of a vote bank democracy that bayed for his blood. When the bullet shot that claimed him pierced through his debile body, all he could do was jerk his tail thrice.

NHT-243 had a sense for bad timing. In the second week of November 2012, when he first ventured into the fringes of human habitat, a society that was simmering with paranoia and animosity about the rumoured conversion of their home ground into a tiger reserve found a perfect specimen to shower their ire upon. A tiger census report in February 2012, had reported the presence of 78 tigers—67 adults and 11 cubs—in Kerala’s Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (WSS), spread over 344 sq. km and consisting of four ranges—Sulthan Bathery, Kurichiyat, Tholpetti and Muthanga.

The census was seen in the context of the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP) report submitted by Dr Madhav Gadgil committee which proposed WSS to be made an Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ).

Rumours about the tiger reserve first started doing the rounds when a ban was imposed, in 2010, on the night traffic through the Bandipur National Park on the Kollegal-Kozhikode MH-212, and the Mananthavady-Bavali-Mysore State highway. After the census report people feared that their right to a normal life would be taken away; that they would now have to paint their houses green; that they cannot switch their lights on after eight in the night; that they cannot use the road once the dusk falls. Their fears were aggravated when, in July 2012, the adjacent Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu was closed following a Supreme Court directive.

Wayanad plunged into crisis. Land prices nosedived, commerce and trade were badly hit—a prominent gold and diamond retail jewellery chain that had planned to open a branch in Sulthan Bathery shifted its operations to Kalpetta which lies outside Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.

Wayanad plunged into crisis. Land prices nosedived, commerce and trade were badly hit—a prominent gold and diamond retail jewellery chain that had planned to open a branch in Sulthan Bathery shifted its operations to Kalpetta which lies outside Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. The Syro-Malabar Church’s diocese in Wayanad at Mananthavady organised protests against the “tiger scare”. (Wayanad, which is a tribal area, has a substantial population of Christian farmers who had migrated to the district from central Kerala in the first half of last century, and have now become a major political force. The encroachment of the forest land by these farmers is attributed to be one of the key reasons for the shrinking of the region’s forest area.) CPI (M), whose image had taken a beating following the sensational T P Chandrashekharan murder (leader of a party breakaway), wasted no time in identifying the issue of tiger reserve in Wayanad as a springboard to regain its lost political ground. Flex boards sprang up in Sulthan Bathery with the image of a tiger-man: the body of a tiger to which was fixed the face of M I Shanavas, the Congress Member of Parliament from the constituency of Wayanad. “Are you an MP of human beings or are you an MP of tigers” was the question put forward to this peculiar creature.


The census report which triggered this furious delirium has been questioned by many, including wildlife experts. Tiger density is estimated to be usually around 8-10 tigers per 100 sq. km. If the census report is to be believed, the tiger density in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary is approximately 22 tigers per 100 sq. km. Rubbishing the report as “ridiculously unscientific”, a senior official at Periyar Tiger Reserve who requested anonymity says: “Wayanad is just a part of the home range—the Melanad Mysore Tiger Landscape (MMTL) spanning Nagarhole (643 sq. km) and Bandipur (874 sq. km) tiger reserves in Karnataka, Mudumalai (320 sq. km) tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu and Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary (344 sq.km)—of 78 tigers. For the tiger, the whole stretch is one single forest; it doesn’t understand state borders.” 

The erroneous report is said to be a consequence of conducting the census during summer when tigers from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu come to Wayanad—an evergreen forest—for water. According to a report prepared by Dr. Ullas Karanth, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Centre for Wildlife Studies, Bangalore, such “improbably high tiger densities and numbers reported from Wayanad is an outcome of incompetent technical analysis of photo capture data from some ad hoc camera trapping.”

When several cases of predation on domestic cattle by a tiger were reported from the village of Begur, outside Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, after November 11 speculations were rife that a tiger had been released in Wayanad as part of a larger conspiracy to convert WSS into a tiger reserve. Some even floated outlandish propositions, one of which was that the the tiger was abandoned by a circus company.


On November 14, NHT-243 was box trapped by the Kerala Forest Department in the village of Akkapara in the Periyar territorial forest range of the North Wayanad Division. There was a deep wound on his nose and based on the protruding vertebra and pelvic bones it was concluded that the “rogue” captive was emaciated. At this stage, the forest department had said that the predator was a female and it was confirmed by Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Centre for Wildlife Studies. “Although we had at the time identified it as a female, it was a mistake because we had at the time the picture of only one flank of the animal,” says Karanth in his report.

Upon getting news about the capture of the tiger, people prepared to vent their wrath on the animal. Forest Department Officials were mobbed and told not to release the animal anywhere in Wayanad. The Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth wing of CPI (M), as part of their protests against the tiger reserve, decided to “blockade the tiger” at Sulthan Bathery. Forest department veered away from the highway and took a short cut through the Kurichiyat range, and released the tiger in the Dottakulasi forest area in Kerala-Karnataka border. This region was considered to be a suitable habitat as it has a good prey base and is away from human habitat. But according to some Adivasis, the tiger was released not too far from Golur, a settlement inside the forest. (There are around 110 settlements inside Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, of which around 20 are in the core area. These settlements are home to around 2,600 families.) The forest officials were detained on their way back by the mob. A couple of mediapersons and an environmentalist that had accompanied the officials were assaulted.

On November 15, the day after NHT-243 was captured and released, Wayanad witnessed one of the most ferocious hartals in its history. Old timers say they cannot recall a similar instance when life in the district had reached such a standstill.

Are you an MP of human beings or are you an MP of tigers .

The forest department was disparaged by conservationists and environmental activists for its gross mismanagement of the issue. N Badusha, president of the Wayanad Prakrithi Samrakshana Samithi (Wayanad Nature Conservation Committee) points out that the tiger was not sedated.

The department’s failure to treat the tiger’s injury also came under criticism. According to Karanth, given the tiger’s advanced age, his emaciated condition, and the seriousness of the injuries he had suffered, he should have been held in permanent captivity, or if that was not an option, euthanized professionally.

“Releasing it would pose a risk to itself, to other tigers that it would try to evict, and potentially to humans and livestock. We do not recommend the release of old and injured animals, and even younger dispersal age animals can be released only if there is habitat with sufficient wild prey and tiger numbers below carrying capacity set by prey. Unfortunately, there are practically no such areas available. In all other cases, the released animal will be killed or will evict a resident tiger, thus increasing conflicts and problems.”


Too weak to hunt, or perhaps forced out by another tiger, NHT-243 returned to human habitat two days later. His efforts, early morning, to capture a cow belonging to Kunjan, a resident of the Pambankolli settlement in Naykatti at Noolpuzha panchayat—not far from Golur where the Adivasis say the tiger was released—proved to be futile. The cow, though severely injured, was not killed. The hungry tiger returned in the evening and killed a goat and a cow belonging to Kunchu, a resident of the Plakkavu settlement in the same panchayat. The next day, the people took the carcasses and blockaded the highway, demanding the tiger be killed. During the protests, bamboo groves were set on fire, forest officials were attacked, and the newly built forest department quarters was stoned.

“Neither the forest department nor the district administration took any necessary steps to ensure protection for us. The tiger was attacking the cattle; what would have happened if it started attacking human beings? How could we be sure that the tiger was not a man-eater?” asks Asees, an auto driver staying at Naykatti. “Taking the carcasses and blockading the highway was a desperate step to draw attention to the gravity of the issue”.

But according to wildlife experts and conservationists, the crisis would not have exacerbated if the carcasses were left to the tiger and not taken to the highway. P M Suresh, retired Assistant Conservator of Forests who now runs a bakery in Sulthan Bathery, indicts the forest department for its failure to put its foot down and prevent the mob from taking away the tiger’s kill.

“You cannot expect the mob to act responsibly. It is the duty of the administrators to ensure that the right steps are taken when a crisis is encountered. You cannot feed a tiger; it will eat only what it has captured. If it could have been ensured that the kill was left to the tiger, the forest department could have easily tranquilized the tiger before the situation deteriorated.”

Though the Forest Department officials do not refute the technical validity of the retired ACF’s argument, they defend themselves by saying that the state of affairs had gone out of their hands. An official at the Sulthan Bathery range, who did not want to be named, says that the situation had become a law and order problem, and as such the department had its hands tied.

“The mob was controlled by goons and it was up to the district administration to help us out by keeping the mob under control.” He also points out that the low guard strength of the department—there are only eight guards when the requirement is 16—is an impediment. According to O P Kaler, the Chief Conservator of Forests (Palakkad Division) who oversees the sanctuary, “there was very little the forest department could have done as the mob had become extremely incensed. They were anti-forest department and anti-tiger. Their interactions with the department had become a case of your-tiger-and-our-life situation.”

The mode and nature of the protests—in some ways it was also like a festival, says Asees—led many wildlife activists to suspect that the powerful land and resort mafia in the region was exploiting the public outrage against the “problem” tiger to pre-empt the setting up of a a tiger reserve in the region. It is estimated that around 100 hotels and resorts have been built in Wayanad in the last five years alone. Denying the allegations, Shobhan Kumar, president of the action council formed by the villagers, says, “You cannot imagine the kind of fear that we were living with. The cattle were lifted by the tiger from thickly populated human habitats. The protests were a spontaneous expression of the public’s anger. In the process, some anti-socials might also have sneaked in. But that happens in every mass protest.”

Taking a dig at the conservationists, he says that it is easy to romanticise as long as you are not bitten, in this case literally, by reality. “N Badusha is a close friend of mine and I respect him a lot for what he has done. But, really, how far can you go? He says that it is wrong to say that the tiger ‘attacked’ the cattle, that we don’t say we ‘attacked’ a hen when we want to eat chicken. I wonder whether he would have said the same if cattle were his only source of livelihood and if a tiger had killed them.”


Meanwhile, frantic to feed its hunger, NHT-243 kept pouncing on more cattle though he could take away his kill on only two occasions despite killing at least 20 in a span of two weeks. Two cows and two goats were killed—from three different houses—on the night of November 20 alone. People of Naykatti panchayat, where the tiger was on the prowl, endured sleepless, fearful nights; from temples and churches, loudspeakers blared out warnings against venturing out. Occasionally, they peeped through their windows, as much with fear as with hope.

In a desperate bid to save its face and to pacify the public, the forest department claimed that the present tiger was different from the one that was earlier released in the Dottakulasi forest area in Kerala-Karnataka border. News reports in The Hindu dated November 23, quote forest officials attributing the kills from November 17 to the presence of a different tiger. On November 24, Malayala Manorama carried a photograph of the alleged “second problem tiger”. The claim, however, fell flat on ground zero when Wildlife Conservation Society-India, Centre for Wildlife Studies identified the second tiger as a male tiger named Brahma that is currently held in Mysore zoo. Brahma, according to Karanth, “was a problem tiger which was trapped in Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary’s fringes as far back as 5-4-2008.”

As the panic peaked and the protests took a violent turn—“We will burn the forests. We will poison the lakes”—political parties joined in and started leading the chorus that called for the blood of NHT-243. “People are our primary concern,” said CPI (M) district Secretary C.K. Saseendran. “A tiger reserve is a cause of worry because it would involve relocation of tens of thousands of people”. I. C. Balakrishnan, Congress MLA representing the constituency of Sulthan Bathery lashed out against his own government. Addressing the huge gathering of protestors, M. I. Shanavas, Wayanad MP, proclaimed that the tiger will be killed. “There is no question of a tiger reserve in Wayanad. The propaganda is baseless. I am for the rights of the people than for the rights of animals. People’s lives have to be protected at any cost”

On November 30, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy came down to Wayanad, and after a meeting with officials, representatives of local bodies, and parties, said the government has no plan to set up a tiger reserve in Wayanad. He visited the three villages where NHT-243 had been roaming, and assured the action committee that the search operations for the tiger would continue till the animal was caught. After declaring that the government had decided to withdraw all cases registered against those in connection with the protests, the Chief Minister sensationally announced that he would personally take responsibility to protect the official who kills the tiger. “The policy of the government is to protect the wildlife, but it would not be at the cost of human lives.”


The hunt for NHT-243 was being carried out on war footing. A team of 100, led by O P Kaler furiously combed the jungles. A special task force from Mudumalai tiger reserve and an army of kumki elephants too joined the operation. On November 21, V Gopinath, Chief Wild Life Warden, ordered capturing of the tiger “by any means”. “Tranquilizers, traps and all other means to capture it alive will be tried before the last option—shooting—is attempted,” he said. (According to the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the Chief Wild Life Warden is the only person designated to order the killing of a wild animal.) Throughout its operations, the team was accompanied by a large mob. “It was a complete failure of law and order,” says Adusha. “What would have happened if the tiger turned aggressive to the mob?”

On November 22, the tiger was thrice spotted in Narikkolli, but since he was moving, he could not be tranquilized. The task was made even tougher by the lush undergrowth in the forest.

By the end of November, NHT-243 had moved from Naykatti to the adjacent panchayat Moolankave. On the morning of December 2 he was found in a private coffee estate at Thelampatta. At around 7.30 a.m, the veterinary surgeons of the team fired a ketamine (tranquiliser) shot at the tiger. As television channels started flashing the news, people started flocking to the estate. The tiger had by now disappeared into the estate. Chaos reigned as the search continued. The police could do nothing to prevent the mob from entering the estate. Around an hour later, the tiger was spotted again. When the second ketamine shot was administered, he threatened to pounce, upon which one of the team members, C R Joseph shot him dead. “I had no other option”, he says. “If I had not killed it, he would have killed me. Or else the mob would have killed the tiger anyway.”

According to a senior official of the team, the killing could certainly have been avoided if the police had managed the mob better or if section 144 was declared. “Ketamine shots take a while to have an effect. But the animal can be managed during this time. If not for the mob, we could have certainly tranquilised it.”

For a tiger that had terrorised a region for almost a month, his end was bereft of any theatre. There was no spectacular last-ditch fightback. All it took was one bullet, and the death was instant. According to eye witnesses, he merely wagged his tail thrice.

NHT-243 had his last meal on November 23, 2012, nine days before his death.


Postscript


The investigation done by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) on the killing of NHT-243 has implicated officials. NTCA has recommended to the state government to take punitive action against the officials for ordering the hunting down of an animal enlisted in the Schedule 1 of the National Wildlife Act of 1972.

Congress and the CPI (M) have since reiterated that a tiger reserve would not be welcome in Wayanad. Mar Joseph Porunnedam, bishop of Mananthavady diocese of Syro Malabar Church issued a pastoral letter on December 4 which said that “the people of the Wayanad district, which constitute the majority of the areas under the diocese, are living in fear of the tiger. The noble cause of environment protection is getting diverted and has drifted away from the ultimate aim of protecting human beings, due to the vested interests of certain sections. This will lead to violence and chaos.”

On December 13, a petition was filed in the Kerala High Court seeking a CBI probe into the killing. On December 14, the Kerala High Court sought an explanation from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests on the petition.