No Magnum for this tiger, please!

A Nawab with a passion for guns and no love lost for tigers. Why did the forest department even think of seeking this man's help?
Akash Bisht Delhi

In a move that baffled wildlife experts, the Awadh forest department invited the Nawab of Hyderabad to tranquilize a five-year-old tiger that had strayed from Pilibhit forest and was seen prowling dangerously close to Lucknow. The decision aroused the wrath of wildlife authorities and activists who believed that the gun-toting Nawab could eliminate the tiger on the pretext of self-defence. Because of this intense criticism, ten days after the Nawab started his 'hunt' for the tiger, the mortified forest department decided not to let him carry on. Then the Nawab reportedly "rushed back to meet his ailing mother".

The decision caused major embarrassment to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), which even issued a letter to the Chief Wildlife Warden, Uttar Pradesh (UP), and other senior officials, directing them to ensure that "under no circumstances the straying tiger (near Lucknow) should be eliminated". "The strayed animal should be monitored unobtrusively for tranquilizing by qualified and trained personnel involving the Wildlife Institute of India, for subsequent release in the wild after due examination with respect to disabilities," reads the letter.

It all started when 300 villagers of Ulrapur village near Lucknow raised concerns about the tiger's presence in Rehmankheda forests. So that the villagers could cross the forest patch, which lay on their way to the Dugauli polling booth, the forest department invited a licensed hunter, Nawab Shafat Ali Khan of Hyderabad, to locate and tranquilize the tiger. "A shikari (hunter) is not competent to do the job of a veterinarian, and hence there was no need to seek help from one," says Samir Sinha of WWF-India.

It is widely believed that a tiger charges immediately after it is shot with a dose of tranquilizers, and this could possibly give the Nawab a pretext to eliminate the tiger, NTCA officials feared. This Nawab had earlier shot a man-eating tiger in 2009 in Kumarganj forest of Faizabad, UP – a controversial move violating the NTCA guideline that prohibits shooting of man-eaters. Moreover, there was also news that this time the Nawab has decided to boost his arsenal by carrying a .458 Winchester Magnum.

Reportedly, after the Kumarganj kill, locals had told the media that many spotted deer too had fallen victim to the Nawab's passion for hunting. "He treated the Kumarganj tiger as a trophy and even posted pictures of his wife and children atop an elephant armed with guns. He was heard saying how it was fun to shoot the tigress, and extolling the merits of Magnum rifles. He thinks he still lives in the days of the British Raj, when Nawabs and Rajas shot tigers at will," says an NTCA official.

Interestingly, the Nawab told the media this time around that he was carrying the Winchester Magnum as the forest department lacked weapons powerful enough to subdue man-eaters and rogue elephants. "One has to read between the lines to understand this man's real intentions. Why does he need to carry a rifle with enough firepower to silence a charging tiger from a distance of 100 metres? This tiger has not had any conflict with the locals, so why this gun?" asks a wildlife activist.

In fact, it was only after repeated attempts by the forest department and Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) to relocate the tiger had failed that Ashok Mishra, Divisional Forest Officer, Avadh forest range, invited the Nawab to do the job. Earlier, a six-member team had been formed to tranquilize and release the tiger back in its natural habitat. They had also used a bait to lure the tiger, but the animal stayed away, only to charge later when the bait was released.

So that villagers could cross the forest patch, which lay on their way to the Dugauli polling booth, the UP forest department invited a licensed hunter, Nawab Shafat Ali Khan of Hyderabad, to locate and tranquilize a tiger that had strayed there

The tiger has been sighted close to Central Institute for Subtropical Horticulture (CISH) campus, barely 15kms from Lucknow. It is widely believed that the tiger kept following the river Gomti, which has thick vegetation on either side. Unable to take any other path, the tiger finally reached CISH campus, and could not move any further because of the heavy vehicular traffic on Lucknow-Haridwar highway.

"The forest department has realized its mistake and requested the Nawab to head back to Hyderabad. We are yet to capture the tiger, but we have had several deliberations and plan to add one more member to the earlier team," says Ashok Kumar, Vice-Chairman, WTI. Elated that the tiger has access to sufficient water and prey, and not had any conflict with humans yet, Kumar adds, the team needs to explore more innovative options to capture the tiger, and if the need arises, requisition the services of an expert veterinarian from Assam.

"I didn't like the idea of a shikari being roped in, but I believe the forest department had exhausted all traditional options and was just trying to think out of the box. I am sure they had the right intentions as the UP forest department is putting in a lot of effort to secure the tiger and facilitate its return to a safer habitat," says Belinda Wright of Wildlife Protection Society of India.

Belinda believes that for the time being the tiger is safe in its present habitat, but once the sugarcane crop surrounding the area is harvested, this big cat could be in great danger. "I can only hope that the tiger is back soon in its natural habitat," she stresses.

However, a Wildlife Crime Control Bureau official is overtly critical of engaging a shikari for relocating a tiger. "I have used dart guns as the darts travel in a parabolic manner, unlike bullets that travel straight along the line of sight. So where is the need for a shikari with no knowledge of dart guns? Is this shikari a wolf in sheep's clothing?" he asks.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2012